The BJP has been making steady inroads into Bengal even though party president Amit Shah’s grand plan seems to be working towards the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The ruling Trinamool Congress is holding on to its ground steadfast and strong, as recorded through successive elections since the 2011 Assembly polls. The Left is trying its luck with combinations, hoping to reopen the door that was slammed shut on its face and the Congress looks out of breath, with hardly any hope for redemption.
This is the background to the great poll jamboree that will be unleashed upon West Bengal in less than a year’s time. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already announced her intentions to walk it alone, without any help from the NDA, as many of her detractors have been telling whoever is willing to listen. The BJP still seems confused about what it wants; while the state party unit would want to go the whole hog for the 2016 Assembly polls, the central leadership wants to bide its time and prefer working towards Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019.
The speculation is that the Left is working on a tacit agreement with the Congress with the latter hoping such an arrangement will be the straw to keep it afloat. Under these circumstances, the promotional activities have begun and the parties are all sharpening whatever weapons available in their arsenal. The state Assembly elections are still more than half a year away, scheduled for April-May next year.
But in Bengal, there’s a mad scramble for soliciting votes, particularly that of Muslims; not that political parties are advertising their intent but it is for all to see. Matters are also being helped by some leading Muslim clerics and community leaders, who have not been able to maintain their proximity to Mamata or failed to cut likeable deals.
During the 2014 general elections, the BJP opened its accounts in Bengal, winning two seats, but Modi’s dream run was halted by Banerjee, who benefited from the around 30 per cent Muslim vote bank that contributed to a Trinamool sweep. The Trinamool won 34 of the 42 seats with a 39.4 per cent vote share, the Congress won four seats with nine per cent vote share and the Left registered its worst performance since independence, winning two seats with 23 per cent vote share. The BJP, which till recently was considered irrelevant in Bengal’s politics, came up with a stellar performance, bagging slightly over 17 per cent vote share from its hitherto seven per cent.
Analysts agree that all political parties in the state realise it was the near-30 per cent Muslim vote share in Bengal that paved Banerjee’s road to power. This insight has made the Left, the Congress and other players stress on this constituency. The Left, which traditionally enjoyed this vote bank, lost out on it when it gave the go-ahead for land acquisition, particularly in Nandigram. While the police firing that killed 14 people at the East Midnapore hamlet in May, 2008 is etched deep, the fear of forcible land acquisition turned Bengal’s Muslims, much of which is an agrarian community, away from the Left.
Keeping this in mind, the Left is now working on redeeming itself by once again appealing to this section. Left leaders are participating in programmes organised by various Muslim organisations and putting forth Muslim leaders such as CPM MP Md Salim. What they also realise is that the Mamata Banerjee administration pursues a policy of appeasing the minority way better than the Left Front has ever done in its 34-year reign. While Trinamool’s policy has appealed to a large percentage of Bengal’s Muslims, there are those who are disenchanted with Mamata and occasional rumours of her underhand deals with Modi. It is this section that all are hoping to bag.
In the run up to the 2016 polls, Bengal is likely to see a number of new players, along with the usual suspects. While shunted Trinamool leader and erstwhile Banerjee deputy Mukul Roy is likely to float an outfit during the autumnal festive season, Abdur Rezzak Mollah, who straddles the fence between being a Communist and a devout Muslim, is all set to have his own party.
Once a popular CPM leader in districts bordering Kolkata, he was expelled from the CPM for speaking out against the party’s land acquisition policy. Add to this heady cocktail two rather volatile elements -- Asaduddin Owaisi’s Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
While Owaisi’s MIM comes all the way from Hyderabad to fish in the turbulent Bengal waters, Ajmal’s Guwahati-based AIUDF has also decided to put up a fight in 2016. In the backdrop of a rapidly rising BJP and a fast-polarising state, the entry of these two will make things slightly more difficult for Banerjee, who heavily banks on and enjoys the support of most Muslims. Added to this is the emerging trend of many Muslims joining the BJP, most of who were Left supporters and are turning to the saffron party to save from being on the wrong end of Trinamool’s stick.
Despite not being said aloud, the intentions of all these players have become clear during the recent Ramzan season when iftar gatherings, organised by some or the other of them, put forth the novelty of the Muslim vote bank. The situation has left the BJP happy; party leaders believe entry of Owaisi and Ajmal will help polarise Hindu votes even more. It will also divide the Muslim vote bank, a key base for Trinamool. Left leaders, who on the surface fear the situation will further erode Bengal’s challenged communal harmony, also seem happy and ready to handle a fractured vote bank.