The Owaisi factor – Frontline
A NEW worry is darkening the brow of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose party is already under tremendous pressure from the way the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been gaining strength in the State. Her recent thinly veiled attack on the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), which is poised to contest the Assembly elections in West Bengal in 2021, betrays a serious concern over the change in political dynamics and equations that Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM is certain to bring once it gets into the electoral fray in the State. Owaisi has said that his party has been preparing to contest elections in West Bengal for the past one and a half years.
With the BJP successfully polarising Hindu votes in its favour to challenge the Trinamool Congress’ supremacy in the State, Mamata Banerjee can ill afford a division of the minority votes that have remained largely with her. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 18 of the State’s 42 seats, wresting 14 seats from the Trinamool and one seat each from the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). With its vote share reaching 40.25 per cent—just 3 per cent less than the Trinamool’s 43.29 per cent—it is now practically breathing down the ruling party’s neck. In this situation, a party like the AIMIM making its entry in West Bengal politics, where the Muslim population stands at around 30 per cent, can mean trouble for the Trinamool. The AIMIM’s recent victory in the Kishanganj byelection in Bihar has made this threat all the more real, as parts of northern Bengal, close to Kishanganj, specifically Uttar Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad districts, have a similar demography. The battle of words between the two party chiefs has begun, heralding a new twist in Bengal politics.
Mamata Banerjee herself practically announced the arrival of a new political force in the State when on November 18, addressing party workers in Cooch Behar, she, without mentioning names, referred to the AIMIM as “religious extremists”. “I am watching that there are extremists among the minorities. They have their base in Hyderabad. Don’t listen to them,” she said. Two days later, at a public rally in Murshidabad, a Muslim-majority district, she called the AIMIM an agent of the BJP. “There are some who come from Hyderabad with bundles of money, hold meetings and say that they will fight for you. But how will they fight for you? They are the BJP’s biggest dalaals [agents]. If there is anybody who will be able to fight for you, it is us who are still alive, who are still with the struggle,” she said.
Reacting to the attack, Owaisi said: “Our struggle is one for political, social and educational empowerment. Our fight is for justice. If this appears like extremism to the Bengal Chief Minister, then I have nothing to say. Extremism is allowing the BJP to win 18 seats in her State. Extremism is insulting the Muslims of Bengal by abusing me—those Muslims had wholeheartedly supported you…. Why are the social, educational, economic indicators for Muslims in Bengal so bad?” Owaisi also attacked Mamata Banerjee on social media. “By making allegations against me you are giving the message to Muslims of Bengal that Owaisi’s party has become a formidable force in the State. Mamata Banerjee is showcasing her fear & frustration by making such comments,” he said.
Winning over Muslim voters was a key factor behind Mamata Banerjee’s victory over the CPI(M)-led Left Front that had ruled the State for 34 years. The Sachar Committee report, released in 2006, stating that the Muslims in West Bengal were worse off than Muslims in other States, and the Left Front government’s land acquisition drive to set up industries precipitated a shift of support of the Muslim population in favour of Mamata Banerjee. It paved the way for her victory in 2011. In her attempt to hold on to Muslim support, Mamata Banerjee was often perceived to be following a policy of appeasement, which, in turn, began to alienate her Hindu supporters. Slowly, and at first imperceptibly, this prepared the ground for the rise of Hindutva forces in the State.
Playing the religious card
Right from the start, she had no qualms in playing the religious card. Soon after assuming power, she announced a monthly honorarium to imams and a stipend to the muezzins in the State. The decision was later struck down by the Calcutta High Court as “unconstitutional”. Muslim religious leaders, who were often on the dais with the Chief Minister, were seen to be dictating terms to her and intervening in political matters. She even imposed restrictions on the immersion of the idol during Durga Puja, the biggest festival in Bengal, when the immersion date coincided with Muharram. The Calcutta High Court, hearing a public interest litigation petition on the matter, stated: “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the State government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification.”
With the BJP rapidly gaining political ground, Mamata Banerjee tried to do a balancing act by countering the BJP’s line of aggressive Hindutva with her own brand of “soft” Hindutva. The two parties were seen taking to the streets on occasions like Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, trying to outdo each other. She even started extending financial support to community Durga Pujas in the State. In 2019, the State government spent over Rs.70 crore in funding them.
Mamata Banerjee’s change of tactic and blatant attempts to win back Hindu votes began to make a section of her Muslim supporters apprehensive. Many of them started looking at alternative options for taking on the forces of Hindutva in the State. This growing disenchantment was made apparent when on October 3, 2018, Muslim clerics and influential Muslim organisations took to the streets in Kolkata in a massive display of protest.
According to Mohammed Quamaruzzaman, general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation and a long-standing supporter of the Trinamool, Mamata Banerjee has understood that Muslims are losing the faith they had placed in her. “On the other hand, the way in which Asaduddin Owaisi has been fighting for Muslim rights in Parliament is drawing more and more Muslims on his side. That is scaring Mamata Banerjee, and so she is making false allegations against him…. It little behoves a person to accuse Owaisi of taking BJP money when her own party is still being investigated for its role in the Sarada scam and the Narada sting [in which top Trinamool leaders, including Ministers and MPs, were seen accepting cash on camera]. The Muslims of Bengal can very well question her on why her party never took on the BJP on issues like triple talaq or the removal of Article 370,” Quamaruzzaman told Frontline.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election exposed the precariousness of Mamata Banerjee’s position. It was Muslim votes that saw her through the onslaught of the BJP. According to calculations made by the psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, Muslims on an average account for 27 per cent of the population in 130 of the State’s 294 Assembly constituencies. The Trinamool had a lead in 98 of these Assembly segments in the 2019 parliamentary election and around 47 per cent of the vote. In 74 of these 130 segments, Muslims constitute 40 to 90 per cent of the population. The Trinamool had a lead in 60 of these 74 segments and secured an average vote percentage of 48. “If Mamata Banerjee can hold on to these seats and even improve upon her score, and snatch away from the BJP a few seats in the Hindu-dominated regions, then she will be successful in coming back to power in 2021. In this situation, if the AIMIM splits the Muslim vote, then the task becomes difficult. That is why we can see the fear she has developed for Owaisi’s party,” Chakraborty told Frontline.
Mamata Banerjee is hard put to counter the points made by Owaisi and Muslim leaders like Quamaruzzaman. “You have 44.4 per cent Muslims who are illiterate in West Bengal. What has she [Mamata Banerjee] done to uplift them apart from hosting iftar parties? These are relevant questions we are raising, and that is why all these allegations are being made against us. The fact of the matter is that she has nothing to show,” said Owaisi.
This latest development certainly places the BJP in an even more advantageous position with respect to the 2021 Assembly election. “Something like this was bound to happen. For so long Mamata Banerjee has been using Muslim voters simply for her own political ends and has actually not done anything for them. It was just a matter of time before this strategy backfired and someone came up to challenge her. If it was not Owaisi, it would have been somebody else,” said senior BJP leader Abhijit Roy Choudhury.
While it remains to be seen whether the AIMIM will indeed emerge as a political force in the State, many political and social observers feel that this may well be a new chapter in West Bengal’s political history. “A young Muslim middle class has come up in West Bengal who are looking for an alternative party to protect their identity. In that sense, the AIMIM may not just act as a split-factor against Mamata but ultimately end up as an important power in Bengal politics,” said Chakraborty.