With 30% voters, Muslims crucial to decide winner

West Bengal will see something during the forthcoming general elections it has not seen in any poll since Independence — a four-pronged fight involving Trinamool Congress, Left, Congress and BJP.

This would be also be one of those rare times in Bengal that the Muslim vote, often considered the quintessential passage to victory in many parts of India, would emerge more important than political parties would admit to.

With these two rather unique positions working as opposing undercurrents, Bengal goes to polls for the five phases, between April 17 and May 12. Analysts point out that besides the ruling Trinamool Congress, which is somewhat like the defending champion, the Congress and the Left have thrown in their lot, hoping to make a dent in the vote bank. Hitherto absent in the Bengal electoral scenario, the BJP has also emerged a significant player riding high on the Narendra Modi wave.

While this four-pronged fight would prove a tough time for everybody, the Trinamool understands the ride will not be as easy as it was in 2009, more so because the ruling party suffers from an anti-incumbency factor, much like the Congress, after being in power in Bengal for the last three years. While the Congress, fighting its own demons, does not seem to hold much of a hope, even the Left, despite its public bravado, seems rather subdued and hoping for a miracle.

The BJP, which believes it is the dark horse, has enough faith in the magic of its prime ministerial candidate. Moreover, it is also the BJP which does not have to bank on a Muslim vote bank because it knows there is none coming its way. Analysts believe that BJP’s only apprehension could be that because of its presence, the chunk of Muslim votes will go to one particular side and the hope it has been nurturing of snatching a couple of seats in Bengal will be dashed.

Cold statistics reveal that in Bengal, Muslims make the second largest group after the Dalit-OBC-SC-ST combine. The number is sizeable and might even form from 27 to 30 per cent of the total electorate, depending on which census figure one goes by or rather the lack of latest figures. Analysts point out that the Muslim influence is spread over eight districts and slightly over 150 Assembly segments across Bengal, with stress on districts like Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, Nadia and Howrah, besides parts of Hooghly, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas.

Key in 28 seats

Studies have identified that out of 42 seats in Bengal, Muslims can influence 28 seats, which is much more than the BJP could hope for. Surveys have also revealed that until now, the Muslim vote has been most effective where it is around 10 per cent of the electorate and big enough to sway the result in a multi-cornered contest. However, where the Muslim presence is more than 20 per cent, the votes have been mostly ineffective because of a multiplicity of Muslim candidates that divide their votes. In such constituencies, there is often counter-polarisation of non-Muslim votes, which ensures victory for a non-Muslim candidate.

Analysts have pointed out time and again that this would be the first time that Muslims in Bengal would take to what their brethren in Uttar Pradesh has been doing for years — take to tactical voting by casting in favour of the strongest non-BJP candidate. If that is to be held true, then the Muslim vote will not be homogenous as most parties are hoping it would be. Moreover, it would not even be as effective against the Hindu vote, which, inspired by Modi magic and tired of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s ‘pro-Muslim’ minority policy, would go only to the BJP.

Keeping in mind the importance of the Muslim vote, all non-BJP parties are giving a free rein to their anti-Modi diatribe, particularly the Trinamool candidates, led by Mamata. The Trinamool supremo, who was rather contained in her criticism of the BJP poster boy till last week, let it loose after Noorur Rehman Barkati, the Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata, asked her to make her feelings about Modi clearer.
Similar words of advice also came from Twaha Siddiqui, head of the Furfura Sharif mosque in Hooghly, another influential Muslim cleric.

Realising the importance of taking a stand, Banerjee gave in to her usual fiery rhetoric and launched a scathing attack against Modi and his ilk, not just calling him the “face of riots” but also issuing a warning that once in power in Delhi, he would re-run the 2002 Gujarat riots.

While Mamata is leading the bandwagon, attacking Modi with the sharpest rhetoric in public rallies, she is reported to have asked all party candidates to hold special sessions for Muslim workers and supporters across the state, particularly in constituencies where the Muslim vote is going to be the key and turnaround factor. In keeping with this, a number of senior Trinamool leaders have already organised such sessions, where they could not stop stressing on the importance of the Muslim vote.

While once strategy in point is to hold meetings with influential Muslim clerics to seek their blessings and ask them to intervene to ensure the votes are channelised in the right direction, the other approach would be to harp on the measures taken by the Mamata Banerjee administration for Muslims, particularly in terms of ensuring their socio-economic security. A senior Trinamool leader pointed out that while the BJP is likely to get between 10 to 12 per cent vote in select constituencies, the Trinamool plan is to counter that with the Muslim vote, which would hopefully come as a solid chunk and not as a fractured mandate.

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