The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi grabbed headlines across the nation when he first announced his party's entry into the West Bengal Assembly election fray after a surprisingly successful campaign in neighbouring Bihar.
Owaisi, who had trained guns on the state's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for 'neglecting' the Muslims in the state, has already been accused of being the B-team of BJP employed solely to cut into the minority vote bank.
Citing Bihar's example, where the AIMIM won five out of the nine seats it contested, the Chief Minister alleged the Telangana-based party is being paid in crores by the BJP to split Muslim votes. Owaisi thundered back saying 'never was a man born who can buy Asaduddin Owaisi with money'.
The Hyderabad MP will kick off his party's election campaign in Bengal on February 25 with a rally in the minority-dominated Metiabruz area of Kolkata. However, ahead of the visit, his party is struggling to make headway in an already polarised and volatile election.
Bengal's 30 per cent Muslim population plays a decisive role in at least 100 out of the 294 Assembly seats. With the Bharatiya Janata Party riding high on the Jai Shri Ram pitch, these are votes Mamata desperately needs to win another term in office.
Eyeing the same vote bank in four minority-dominated districts -- Malda, Murshidabad, North and South Dinajpur -- Owaisi had said his party will follow whatever decision the Furfura Sharif Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, leader of the Indian Secular Front, takes. Following that initial announcement, Owaisi also paid the influential cleric, who retains a hold over voters in South 24 Paraganas, a visit.
Siddiqui went at Mamata hammer and tongs after launching his party earlier this year and accused her of further polarising the state by introducing a dole for Muslim clerics. Interestingly, Siddiqui had previously supported the CM in the 2011 and 2016 elections.
A week ago, the Pirzada joined the alliance with the Left and Congress, where they are still to decide on seat-sharing. This move might leave Owaisi without any official allies since the AIMIM's political stance nationally can make it difficult for him to join Siddiqui in forming a 'grand alliance' with the Congress and CPM.
AIMIM sources though continue to insist there is still hope and point out the fact that Owaisi and Siddiqui have been in touch over the phone ever since Owaisi's visit to the latter's residence. "The Pirzada is just weighing options. He will get back to us and form an alliance with us. We are sure of it. They are in touch with each other," a highly-placed AIMIM leader said.
Siddiqui himself on Wednesday confirmed that the talks are ongoing and said it is important to support "Asad Sahab", even stating that "we should not field candidates" against Owaisi's party. Will he forge an alliance with the AIMIM if the Congress and CPM fail to meet his demands? The possibility cannot be ruled out.
For now, all the AIMIM has before them is the ground reality.
Owaisi's influence in Bengal remains limited to the Urdu-speaking upper-caste Muslims. When it comes to the rest of Bengal, language will be his first barrier.
The party has been working to expand its base in North Dinajpur, a district with close to 50 per cent Muslim population bordering Bihar's Kishanganj, where the party sealed a thumping victory. There are murmurs of Owaisi's growing popularity among young voters in the neighbourhood, but little else at the moment, say seasoned observers.
The party is keen on contesting at least 40-50 seats, which will be finalised on Thursday after their first core-committee meeting.