It is unlikely that too many people outside the charmed circle of political buffs in West Bengal had even heard of Abbas Siddiqui a year ago. Although the Furfura Sharif mazar in Hooghly district run by the Siddiqui family plays a prominent role in the religious life of Bengali Muslims, its political involvement has hitherto been tenuous and very discreet. In forming the Indian Secular Front and almost hijacking the CPM-managed monster rally at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Grounds on February 28, Abbas — or Bhaijan as he is popularly called — has catapulted himself to the front bench of state politics.
In electoral terms, the ISF is contesting only 37 of the 294 Assembly seats and that too mainly in south Bengal. However, a great deal of importance is being attached to Abbas’ potential ability to sway Muslim voters away from Mamata Banerjee’s AITC and in favour of its Congress and Left allies. If that indeed happens, the contest in West Bengal could well become triangular and to the detriment of Mamata whose over-dependence on Muslim support was established in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. At the same time, there is speculation that the fiery assertion of Muslim identity politics by the ISF could accelerate the process of Hindu consolidation behind the BJP.
The extent to which the ISF and its leader shape the outcome in West Bengal will be known on May 2. For the moment, however, a few trends are apparent.
First, it was clear from the chemistry of last Sunday’s Brigade rally that the ISF’s commitment to the Third Front is tenuous. Abbas made it clear that he believed the Muslim minority in Bengal were through with being regarded as a vote bank. They sought a bhagidari (partnership) role in a future dispensation. Read between the lines this meant that the ISF was willing to prop up any dispensation — apart from one led by the BJP— that would ensure such a power-sharing arrangement.
In other speeches — all available on YouTube — Abbas has compared his role to the fourth leg of a chair: he could either stabilise it or, if necessary, pull it out and cause the whole chair to collapse. In short, while being in a minority, the ISF would exercise the ultimate veto. Secondly, the entry of the ISF into electoral politics has the potential of breaking the mould of Bengal politics. According to the Census of 2011, Muslims comprise 27% of Bengal’s population, with a majority in the three border districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur. In electoral terms, the Muslim weightage may be even greater and anecdotal evidence from the districts speak of a significant influx of Muslim Rohingyas in the past five years, most of whom have managed to secure Aadhar cards and enrol as voters.
Despite the numerical strength, Muslims haven’t forged a separate party since the Muslim League shut shop after successfully securing its goal of Pakistan in 1947. However, the community has played an important role in tilting the balance in favour of one party or another. Till 1972, the Congress was the principal beneficiary, subsequently it was the Left Front and then Mamata. Although the Congress retains its foothold in the Muslim-majority districts, exit poll data indicates that the 22 Lok Sabha seats Mamata’s AITC won in 2019 would have been impossible without overwhelming Muslim support. In this election, Abbas is attempting to demonstrate that ‘secular’ parties must pay a price for this support.
Finally, it would seem that Muslim politics in India is following a definite trajectory. Apart from the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, there are three states where Muslims comprise over a quarter of the population: Assam (34.2%), Kerala (26.6%) and West Bengal (27%). In Kerala, the Muslim League has been a partner of the Congress for long; in Assam, Badruddin Ajmal’s AIDUF has teamed up with the Congress for the Assembly election; and in West Bengal, a new Muslim party is being legitimised by the Congress and Left. In Muslim-dominated zones of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Bihar, Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM has bared its muscle.
Hitherto, Muslim politicians had tried to make their mark within parties that claimed to rise above religion. The new trend suggests that with a rising share of the population, the thrust is towards putting the Muslim religious identity in the forefront, with both the Left and Congress also succumbing to the assertiveness of Abbas’ show of Muslim strength. In Bengal, the entire basis of ‘secular’ politics is being rejigged. The national implications are ominous.
X FACTOR? Abbas Siddiqui’s alliance with the Congress and Left could eat into TMC’s Muslim support base and make it a triangular contest
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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