Tuesday 3 May 2016

Muslim vote- key to Mamata returning to power in West Bengal

The Muslim voter is expected to play a key role in determining who wins the West Bengal Assembly elections. The state accounts for the second highest population of Muslims in India (2.47 crore) and third highest, in terms of proportion of the population (27 per cent).

The Muslim vote could determine winners in 102 constituencies (35 per cent of Assembly strength). The Left-Congress alliance has made the elections, which would have otherwise been a walk over for chief minister Mamata Banerjee an interestingly close affair.

The Muslim population is more than 25 per cent in the districts of Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Nadia and Birbhum. In three districts of West Bengal - Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur - the population of Muslims is higher than that of the Hindus.

The Muslim vote is all the more important this time around because of the saffron surge, the state witnessed in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 in which the BJP recorded twice the vote share of the Congress (17 per cent versus nine per cent) and got as many seats as the Left Front (two).

The landscape of Bengal also provides an opportunity to the BJP to experiment and shed the inhibition that it is a party representing Hindus. After all, it had nothing to lose. The BJP is always criticized of issuing very few tickets to Muslim candidates. It was announced in December 2015 that the party would field Muslim candidates in areas where they are dominant, totaling some 44 seats. However, the list has Muslim candidates numbering in single digits. Frustrated, the state minority cell chief has left the party.

In the five years she has been in power, she has sought to consolidate the Muslim vote: there have been the controversial stipends to imams, the setting up of Haj houses, a new campus for Aliah University, sanction for 400 madrasa hostels, and scholarships for Muslim students.

The Mamata government has taken a lot of measures for the welfare of Muslims with allowance/stipends for imams, free cycles to girls studying in madrasas, scholarships to Muslims students (class one to ten), reservation for Muslim OBCs (Left had initiated it), ban on the telecast of a drama series by controversial author Taslima Nasrin and making Urdu the second official language in districts where Muslim population is more than ten per cent. Mamata made a strong anti-Modi pitch in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and secured maximum votes from the Muslims.

Ms. Banerjee, however, has got many factions of the Muslims, including the most powerful one led by Siddiqullah Chowdhury, the State chief of JamiatUlema-I-Hind, to back her. Similarly, the TMC has closely coordinated with another powerful community leader PirzadaToha Siddiqui in south Bengal to ensure that the Muslim votes of at least south Bengal, where 75 per cent of the seats are located, remain undivided.
Muslims, who had traditionally largely voted for the LF, had abandoned it in 2011 because they felt betrayed. One, the Sachar Report made clear that the community had lagged behind in socio-economic terms; two, the events in Nandigram, that has a 50 per cent Muslim population made the community feel they were being deliberately targeted to separate them from their land.

Today, rural Muslims in many parts of Bengal, largely secular, are rethinking their 2011 decision.

Mayank Verma
PG MEDIA (2015-2017)

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