How Owaisi could spoil Didi’s Bengal game plan

How Asaduddin Owaisi could spoil Didi’s West Bengal game plan

If the AIMIM manages to get even 2.5 per cent vote in Bengal, it may badly damage the TMC’s prospects

AIMIM President Asaduddin Owaisi. Credit: PTI Photo

After winning five assembly constituencies in Bihar, Assadudin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has emerged into the national spotlight. And not for no reason. The Muslim party can be next expected to make its presence felt in the West Bengal Assembly polls, scheduled for the summer of 2021, where, if current trends persist, it could even impair the chances of Mamata Banerjee’s return to power.

In fact, AIMIM's performance in Bihar could have a direct bearing on the way the Bengal contest plays out. AIMIM claims to have large membership base in Muslim-dominated Murshidabad, a district which falls in Bengal’s Muslim belt and is contiguous with parts of Bihar where the AIMIM won. More on that later, but first let us see how the AIMIM is going about wooing voters.

A pitch for securing Muslim interests

In its attempt to consolidate Muslim voters behind it, the party is fashioning itself as the sole saviour of the community’s interests. The AIMIM's main argument is that the secular parties will not fight for Muslims when it comes to the crunch. The party’s campaigners tell their listeners that although the AIMIM is ready for an alliance with the secular parties, like the Trinamool Congress (TMC), these outfits do not respond to them. Their message is that parties led by Hindus are inclined to use the minorities as vote banks, and will not join hands with AIMIM out of fear of losing out heavily on Hindu votes.

Whether or not this is an insidious attempt to communalise Muslims is a separate issue. It could be argued both ways, depending on the prism through which one chooses to look at it. After all, it is a fact that like India’s Dalit population, a vast majority of Muslims too are still languishing in backwardness. The scenario is no different in Bengal, which was ruled by the Left for 34 years and is now being governed by TMC for the last next-nine-and-half-years. A customary look at the figures of per capita income for Bengal’s districts makes it clear that it is the Muslim-dominated Murshidabad that has the lowest figures.

AIMIM, for its part, has been trying to exploit this situation for the last couple of years. The anti-CAA movement gave it a boost, and it is believed that in Bengal, Owaisi’s men are quite popular among Hindi-speaking Muslims and illegal Bangladeshi migrants, a large section of whom have voter cards. That makes up a sizeable chunk of the nearly 30 per cent minority voters of Bengal.

Owaisi at the doorstep of North Bengal

To return to where the AIMIM's chances are best in Bengal, let’s look at the Bihar results. All the five constituencies where AIMIM won in Bihar are adjacent to North Bengal’s Muslim-dominated districts of Uttar Dinjpur and Malda. Next to these two districts of Bengal is Murshidabad. These three districts make up the Muslim belt of Bengal and have 43 (of 294) Assembly constituencies. Here Mamata Banerjee’s TMC has finally emerged a dominant force, though the Left-Congress combination is not far behind.

BJP’s best chances in these 43 constituencies lie in a tough three-cornered contest – for only in a division of Muslim votes can can the BJP hope to win. Even until a few months ago the BJP could not dream of winning more than 10 seats here. But with distinct possibility of AIMIM emerging as a strong third contender for Muslim votes, political watchers say the BJP could even win half of the seats from these areas now.

AIMIM could also damage the TMC in another 80-90 seats in South Bengal, where the Muslim vote is more than 30 per cent. If AIMIM can spread its tentacles to South Bengal (where too its campaigners have been active for quite some time), it could turn into a political nightmare for the TMC.

How a fringe force like AIMIM can play a spoiler

AIMIM may not win many seats or an impressive vote share, but could still spoil Didi's electoral strategy by securing as less as three per cent of the votes.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when for the first time the BJP emerged as the challenger to the ruling party in Bengal, it secured 40.64 per cent votes. This translates to nearly 58 per cent of Hindus (who totally make up 70.54 per cent of the voters of Bengal). Now, desperate to make an impact in South Bengal, where it failed to take off in 2019, the BJP believes that its vote percentage can be increased by a few more notches. No doubt, the additional percentage will come from the Hindus.

Mamata Banerjee could perhaps see the shape of things to come when she put up a spirited opposition to the NRC-CAA. Her aim was to make the Muslims accept her as the messiah of the community. TMC can rival the BJP in the upcoming elections only by retaining the 43.69 percent vote it had secured in 2019, at least half of which came from Muslims. That means Mamata Banerjee and her party have to get at least three-fourth of the Muslim vote.

In this situation, if the AIMIM manages to get even 2.5 per cent vote, it may badly damage TMC’s prospects in an election that even the TMC’s strategist, Prashant Kishor, had pegged at 50:50 for TMC and BJP.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of several books, including the recently published detective novel Mirchi Memsaab’s House of Faith)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.