Why the 30% Muslim vote share is crucial in Bengal, explains Robin Roy

According to the 2011 Census, West Bengal had over 24.6 million Bengali Muslims, who formed 27.01 per cent of the population of the state. Bengali Muslims form the majority of the population in three districts -- Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur.

The Bengali Muslim population in the state (West Bengal) soon after the Partition in 1947 was around 12 per cent. After Partition, some Bengali Muslims from West Bengal emigrated to East Pakistan (present-day-Bangladesh). However, the Muslim population of several West Bengal districts did grow between the decade of 1941-1951, despite the migration of two-thirds of a million people, to erstwhile East Pakistan. According to 2011 census, the Muslim population in West Bengal stood over 24,654,825.

According to this same census, there were around 24.6 million Muslims in West Bengal and nearly 19 million were native, Bengali-speaking Muslims, constituting overall 77 per cent of the total Muslim population in the state and were mainly concentrated in rural areas. The legal Muslim migrants, from other states of India, live particularly in the state’s capital Kolkata and other urban areas. Between 2001-2011, the Bangladeshi Muslim population in the region had increased to 5-7 per cent.

Two major vote banks

In today's ballot parlance in Bengal, two communities are usually talked about as major vote banks in elections—the Muslims and the Matuas. Muslims comprise about 30 per cent of voters in the state while Matuas, approximately 15 per cent. Matuas are Hindu refugees. While the BJP is trying hard to woo this community and wean them away from the TMC, Didi's party too, is leaving no stone unturned.

The Muslim vote bank is the bigger and a deciding factor in Bengal polls. For almost three-and-a-half decades, the Muslims were wooed and considered a vote bank by the Left Front, which ruled the state for 34 years running. The Congress woefully failed to break the Left-loyalty of the Muslim vote bank despite displaying a hugely pro-Muslim image in the rest of the nation.

The ‘Poriborton’ came when the TMC got into action and amassed the farmers, workers and Muslims, and especially the poor, during their Singur and Nandigram agitations. Also, the Sachar Commission report of 2010 boosted Mamata's prospects and catapulted the switch of loyalties from the Left to the TMC. The panel further went on to say that Bengal Muslims were in ‘worse’ condition especially on social and economic parameters.

How Mamata wooed the Muslim vote bank

* Giving allowance/stipends to imams

* Providing free bicycles to girls studying in madrasas

* Making scholarships available to Muslim students (Classes I to X)

* Offering reservation to Muslim OBCs

* Banning the telecast of a drama series by the controversial author Taslima Nasrin

* Making Urdu the second official language in districts where the Urdu-speaking population was more than 10 per cent

* Increasing the tickets given to Muslims by 50 per cent, from 38 to 57, in state assembly elections.

Whoever the community went on to support formed governments in consecutive polls

* The Left got 56 per cent of the Muslim votes in 2006 and swept the polls, bagging 233 of the 294 seats.

* In the 2011 and 2016 assembly elections, the TMC got majority Muslim support and won both the elections back-to-back.

* In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC bagged 65 per cent of the minority votes, as the community felt Mamata was in much better shape to challenge Modi.

Fresh scramble

After almost a decade, now a fresh scramble for Muslim votes is being seen in the state. Two prominent leaders vouching for the Muslim identity are in the fray—Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, the preacher from the influential Furfura Darbar Sharif in Hooghly district, and Asaduddin Owaisi, AIMIM boss and Lok Sabha MP from Hyderabad.

Siddiqui, popularly called ‘Bhaijaan’ and Owaisi, were ‘supposed’ to contest the Bengal assembly election for the same cause. In the initial days of bonhomie, Siddiqui had declared himself ‘a fan of Owaisi’ and Owaisi had made Siddiqui the leader of his AIMIM.

However, Bhaijaan said things did not work out and later, went on to join hands with the Left-Congress combine for Bengal election, asking ‘his followers’ to vote for the alliance—the Mahajot. Following Siddiqui’s decision to go with the Mahajot, Owaisi decided to go it alone. However, it is felt in some quarters that the Urdu-speaking Muslims may side with Owaisi.

Siddiqui has already created a stir with his newly floated Indian Secular Front (ISF), with his brother Naushad Siddiqui as its head. He has time and again said, his front stands firmly for the rights of Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits. But in all his speeches, his appeal has mainly been to the Muslims.

Polarisation evident

The polarisation in Bengal is quite obvious. The BJP has rotated its strike against the TMC on issues like the coal scam, the cow smuggling, Durga Puja processions, Saraswati Puja and last, but not the least, the chants of Jai Shri Ram! Its hardcore campaigning paid handsome dividends in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when the deep polarisation was obvious.

The TMC, however, mustered more Muslim votes, pushing its vote share by five per cent, as compared to the previous 2014 polls, despite being down to 22 seats, 12 lesser than in the last Lok Sabha. A deep counter-polarisation of Hindu votes instead helped the BJP win 18 seats, with the saffron party polling 27 per cent more votes than the previous Lok Sabha election.

A more vigorous presence and campaigning by Siddiqui may only spell greater polarisation and hugely focus on the Muslim vote share. He is surely going to be a huge factor in this election. His Furfura Darbar Sharif is a hugely popular Islamic sect in Bengal, especially in the border areas of the state and his popularity with the Muslim voters is growing by the day.

In his recent speeches, he has been scathingly attacking both Mamata and the BJP, and has been directly asking Muslims and minority Dalits to vote for ‘Bhaijaan’.

Influx of illegal migrants

The border areas of the state are also where there has been an influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Illegal migration has been the rallying poll cry of the BJP for years now. With hardly three weeks left, West Bengal goes to the polls against the backdrop of high-octane wooing of Muslim votes.

In case, Siddiqui and Owaisi manage to snatch away Muslim votes from the TMC, the BJP might just have the last laugh. However, in politics, there are no permanent enemies. In fact, strange bedfellows make ‘good’ partners in dire straits and hence, it may be a tight call for the BJP then. But it’s for sure that if Siddiqui has to choose Mamata, this time, it will come at a huge premium and might just change the paradigm of government formation once and for all.

If Siddiqui becomes the key player, he will extract his pound of flesh, as he is already talking of taking ‘his’ hissa on behalf of the community and not being a mere partner in the government. He has categorically stated in every speech of his that ‘they’ have played a key role in forming every government and if it comes to that this time around, ‘they’ will ask for their ‘share’ and Bhaijaan’s favour will come at a premium.

The writer is Senior Associate Editor, Free Press, Indore.

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