The West Bengal political scenario took a new turn over the past week when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi trained guns at each other for the first time ever.
It started when Mamata, in a veiled attack, accused Owaisi of spreading extremism among Muslims in India. Owaisi swiftly retaliated by pointing out the pitiable state of Muslims in Bengal and later accused Mamata of pleasing the majorities.
Mamata’s jibe at Owaisi came after an AIMIM spokesperson made a comment that Muslims in her state were languishing. The comment doesn’t come out of thin air. The Sachar committee report revealed the condition of Muslims living in Bengal is way worse than that of their counterparts elsewhere.
AIMIM, the 19th-largest party in the Lok Sabha with only two MPs, has till recently been largely restricted to Hyderabad but it is now trying to expand its base. After winning the Kishanganj seat in the Bihar bypolls, the AIMIM is now confident that it can be successful in the 2021 Assembly elections in Bengal, a state that has the second-highest Muslim population in the country.
The party’s decision to enter the charged poll waters of Bengal has rattled the Trinamool supremo.
Mamata, who is already fighting a buoyant BJP, is suddenly staring at double trouble with AIMIM trying to make its way into Muslim households.
The Muslims have a vote share of 31 per cent in Bengal and dominate almost 100 out of the 294 Assembly seats, largely in the districts of Kolkata, Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur. Although Owaisi is yet to officially announce the party’s entry into Bengal, his party members have been working for years to expand their base in the state.
“Our entry will be announced very soon during Owaisi’s Bengal visit after the Jharkhand elections. We will concentrate on the Muslim dominated seats and then 81 SC/ST dominated seats. We were ready to contest the last Lok Sabha elections as well. But our chief then barred us from contesting elections because that would have split the votes giving Modi an edge in Bengal," said AIMIM leader Zameerul Hasan.
With voters getting polarised along communal lines, Mamata has been repeatedly accused of minority appeasement by her opponents in the state. Riding on the Hindutva sentiment, the BJP, in a first, during the 2019 Lok Sabha poll soared from two to 18 seats while the tally of the ruling Trinamool plummeted from 34 to 22.
Due to the almost non-existent Left and Congress presence, Mamata had the privilege of receiving the consolidated Muslim votes. However, given that AIMIM is the only Muslim party that has managed to make its presence felt since Independence, Mamata stands the chance to lose a major chunk of the minority vote bank.
“The Muslims have been used as vote banks for the past 70 years. In Bengal, the minority budget for 4.4 crore Muslims is only Rs 300 crore. In Telangana Rs 1200 crore is allocated for a population of 1.5 crore Muslims. There is barely any development done in the Muslim dominated seats. It’s not just 2-3 years, Muslims have been wronged since Independence,” Hasan said.
The Muslim voters have stayed loyal to Mamata ever since she overthrew the Left government in 2011. In the 2016 Assembly elections, the Mamata-led Trinamool came back to power with a majority of 204 seats.
Now with BJP holding a 40.7 per cent vote share in Lok Sabha elections if the AIMIM becomes successful in polarising the Muslim voters, Mamata’s dream of a third term will fall flat on its face.
“We didn’t want to come to the spotlight but thanks to Mamata Banerjee, the party members are charged up now,” Hasan said.