AIMIM & the Indian Secular Front

New front threatens to divide Muslim votes in Bengal

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Abbas Siddiqui (right) at the launch of his Indian Secular Front on January 21. His entering the electoral fray along with the AIMIM raises the spectre of the division of Muslim votes for the Trinamool Congress. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The AIMIM and the influential Bengali Islamist leader Abbas Siddiqui’s new party, the Indian Secular Front, together may become a deciding factor in the 2021 Assembly election.

The Muslim vote has always been a crucial factor for winning elections in West Bengal. One of the main reasons for the victory of Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress over the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in the 2011 Assembly election was that the State’s Muslim voters had largely turned away from the Left after the publication of the Sachar Committee Report. The report had shown that Muslims in West Bengal (who constitute around 27 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 Census) were worse off than their counterparts in other States. After coming to power in 2011, the Trinamool has enjoyed the support of the Muslim population, which has seen it through successive elections. But the coming election will be a different ball game.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise precipitating a polarisation of votes on communal lines and the party also chipping away at the Trinamool’s organisational strength by welcoming Trinamool dissidents into its own ranks, Mamata Banerjee more than ever needs her Muslim support base intact if she is to return to power for a third consecutive term. The entry of a Muslim front—comprising the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the influential Islamist leader Abbas Siddiqui’s new party, the Indian Secular Front—into the electoral fray can spell trouble for the Trinamool.

Also read: AIMIM’s Owaisi makes his move in West Bengal, joins forces with the influential Islamic leader Abbas Siddiqui for the Assembly election

Traditionally, Muslims of West Bengal are known to cast their vote on the basis of political choice, rather than en bloc. Religion has never been a major issue in the State’s politics until recently. Socio-political developments over the last few years, however, have changed the nature of politics in West Bengal. There are several factors that may determine which way the majority of the Muslims will vote in the 2021 Assembly election. Politics of religion and identity are often seen to be taking precedence over development and livelihood issues, and polarisation on ethno-cultural and religious lines is increasingly becoming the determining factor in politics.

The 2019 parliamentary election result in West Bengal was a rude wake-up call for the ruling party: the Trinamool was reduced to 22 seats out of 42, against the 34 that it won in 2014. A comment that Mamata Banerjee made following that electoral upset shows how much Muslim votes matter to her politics. She made a rather tactless comment likening Muslims to milch cows. Confronted with the theory that her alleged politics of minority appeasement had led to her losing 14 seats to the BJP, she said defiantly: “I will continue to appease Muslims a hundred times as there is no harm in taking kicks from the cow that gives milk.”

Yet her attempts to win back Hindu votes by generous donations to clubs across the State to fund community Durga Puja events and extending a stipend to Hindu priests, and efforts to fight the BJP’s overt Hindutva with her own brand of “soft Hindutva” alienated a section of her party’s Muslim supporters. Communal clashes were no longer a rare phenomenon, and Muslims made it clear that their support could not be taken for granted and that they were open to other alternatives.

When Mamata Banerjee announced a whopping Rs.185-crore package to be distributed among 35,000 Durga Puja committees across the State in 2020, even Muslim leaders who were known to be close to her expressed unhappiness. The influential Muslim leader Mohammad Quamaruzzaman, chairman of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation (ABMYF), once an ardent supporter of Mamata Banerjee, said: “The Chief Minister, instead of addressing the problem of lakhs of migrant workers living without money or food, is giving money to construct pandals for puja festivals…. The situation for Muslims in Bengal is like being caught between the tiger on land and the crocodile in water… but we can tell you, any illusion we may have had about the Trinamool is now broken.” But while leaders like Quamaruzzaman may feel disillusioned with Mamata Banerjee and be drawn to Owaisi and Siddiqui’s new platform, they are also aware that a division of Muslim votes will benefit the BJP. In spite of their reservations, therefore, many of them may ultimately side with the Trinamool just to keep the BJP out of power.

Also read: COVER STORY | It's do or die for Trinamool ahead of 2021 Assembly election

The 2019 Lok Sabha election, while exposing the chinks in the Trinamool’s armour, nevertheless showed that Muslim votes were still largely behind Mamata. Muslims account for over 27 per cent of the population in 130 of the State’s 294 Assembly constituencies. In these 130 Assembly segments, the Trinamool had a lead in 98, and it was clearly ahead in 81 per cent of the segments in which the Muslim population numbered between 40 and 90 per cent (around 74). However, certain events in the next one and half years may have brought in new dimensions to the prevailing situation. Mamata Banerjee’s high-pitched and sustained resistance to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) certainly served to consolidate her support base among the minorities. Yet, the fact that many of her MPs were not present during voting on controversial pieces of legislation in Parliament sowed seeds of doubt in a section of the minorities. Moreover, corruption at the grassroots, mismanagement in the disbursal of relief to the victims of Cyclone Amphan, and the alleged apathy of the State government to the plight of migrant workers from the State stranded far from home during the lockdown further alienated a section of Muslim voters.

Out of the 30 lakh migrant workers from Bengal, a large number happen to be Muslims. During the lockdown many complained that while other States were arranging for the return of their workers, the Bengal government was dragging its feet on the matter. Their anger was fuelled by comments from the Railway Ministry alleging that the Bengal government was reluctant to allow trains carrying migrants to enter the State for fear of the COVID-19 infection spreading. Mamata Banerjee made things worse by referring to migrant trains as “Corona Express” in one of her speeches; it led to social ostracism of returning migrants in many villages.

A new political threat

The chance of Muslim votes getting divided first surfaced when in 2019 AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi announced that his party would contest the 2021 Assembly election in Bengal. A wary Trinamool immediately went on the offensive, calling Owaisi an “agent of the BJP” and warning the State’s Muslim voters against a “party from Hyderabad” trying to buy their votes. Mamata Banerjee’s increasing frustration over Owaisi’s imminent entry into Bengal politics is often revealed in her outbursts at election rallies. “The BJP is going to take the Hindu votes, and he will take the Muslim votes, and will I be left eating kanchkola?” she said on one occasion. (Kanchkola, literally meaning green plantain, is a Bengali metaphor denoting “nothing”.) An additional worry for the Trinamool is that the five Assembly seats that the AIMIM won in the recently concluded Bihar Assembly election are adjacent to several Muslim-majority constituencies in north Bengal, including those in Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur districts. “They take money from the BJP and work for them, as we saw in the Bihar elections and other elections,” Mamata Banerjee said, taking a dig at Owaisi’s wins in Bihar.

Reacting to the allegation, the AIMIM chief said at a recent press conference: “No person rich enough has been born to buy Asaduddin Owaisi. Her allegations are baseless and these are signs of desperation. She should be concerned about her own house. So many of her leaders are leaving her party to join the BJP… Mamata Banerjee is insulting the people of Bihar who voted for us.” He has countered the Trinamool leader’s attacks by pointing to the socio-economic condition of Bengal’s Muslims. “Why are the social, educational, economic indicators for Muslims in Bengal so bad?” he asked.

Also read: COVER STORY | No holds barred in Bengal as parties gear up for Assembly election

Still, the AIMIM was a threat that the Trinamool felt it could handle. The Hyderabad-based party may have a following among Bengal’s Urdu-speaking Muslims, but this section accounts for less than 10 per cent of the State’s Muslim population. The cause for concern came when Owaisi announced that he was going to enter into a political understanding with Abbas Siddiqui, the influential Islamist leader from Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district. Siddiqui not only has a large following among Bengali Muslims, but of late his rallies have been drawing huge crowds. On January 3, Owaisi announced: “We will do whatever Abbas Siddiqui decides.” On January 21, Siddiqui formed his own party, the Indian Secular Front, and said it would uphold the cause of Muslims, Dalits, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and other “socially and economically backward Hindus”.

According to well-known psephologist and political observer Biswanath Chakraborty, this is a “revisit” of Muslim politics in West Bengal after seven decades. “Identity politics in West Bengal began from the time Mamata came to power in 2011 and embarked upon a politics of minority appeasement. This sparked off a Hindu majoritarian political reaction. In the meanwhile, the educated middle-class Muslim community began searching for their own political platform. Today the Indian Secular Front is the outcome of their search… A section of the Muslim community here is seriously thinking that only a Muslim political party can address their issues. Time and again they have felt that secular parties used them as a vote bank without ensuring any real socio-economic development,” he told Frontline. He pointed out that there was an increasing feeling among Muslims in Bengal that if Hindutva-based parties like the Shiv Sena and the BJP could run governments in different States, so could an Indian Islamist party in Bengal.

Resistance from Muslim community

Siddiqui had made it clear that he was politically opposed to Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, though he was open to political talks with all other secular forces. “You [the Trinamool] are a traitor. I was sleeping peacefully after putting my trust in you, but you betrayed us by allowing the BJP to win 18 seats in Bengal. We will not trust you anymore,” he said at a recent rally. He pointed out that before 2011 “not a single flag of the BJP” could be seen in Bengal. “How is it that the BJP has suddenly become so powerful in the State?” Siddiqui asked, hinting that the Trinamool government’s lack of political will facilitated the growth of the saffron party. He accused Mamata Banerjee of taking Muslim support for granted and alleged that she had not kept any of the promises she had made to the Muslims of Bengal. “She said she would regularise 10,000 madrasas. Where are they?” asked Siddiqui.

The Muslim community itself is divided over the recent development. The Bengal Imam Association has accused Owaisi of trying to fish in troubled waters. “Owaisi’s party wants to come and fight elections in Bengal, but when Bengalis were being targeted in Assam and other places, did he do anything about it?” the association said. Countering the opposition from clerics and other Muslim detractors, Abbas Siddiqui said, “There are those who receive paltry sums of money as alms from the Trinamool, so they do not want that party to go out of power, and so they are having problems with what I am doing. I tell them, why accept ill-gotten money when I can provide you with employment?”

Also read: Asaduddin Owaisi: ‘It is not Muslims’ responsibility to keep these parties afloat’

His own cousin, Toha Siddiqui, another influential Islamist religious leader, said, “Abbas Siddiqui is young, but we will not allow any development that will malign the image of the place and help communal forces.” According to reports, he even sent a veiled threat to Abbas, saying that now that Abbas had entered the field of politics, he must not cry foul should someone commit a foul on him.

The Bengal outfit of the AIMIM has been facing problems with several prominent leaders leaving the party to join the Trinamool. In November 2020, Anwar Pasha Murshid Ahmed, a prominent AIMIM member, left to join the Trinamool along with several of his followers. He had appealed to Owaisi not to contest in Bengal as it would benefit the BJP. “Bengal has no need of you at present. But still if you come, then we are ready to stop you,” he said. He said India had never seen a secular leader like Mamata Banerjee. Bengal AIMIM received another setback when acting president Sk Abdul Kalam also joined the Trinamool on January 9. “I have travelled to districts like Bankura, Murshidabad, Cooch Behar and Malda and the people there have said that this poisonous air must be kept at bay. There is a need to join the Trinamool,” said Kalam.

Long-term plan

But Abbas Siddiqui seems to have a long-term plan. Political observers speculate about a scenario where post-poll understandings may become crucial in government formation. Siddiqui made it clear that he was in talks not just with Owaisi but also with the Left, the Congress and leaders from the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes to forge a strong anti-BJP alliance. The Left Front may have reservations about Owaisi but appears rather ambivalent about Siddiqui’s moves. Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front has indeed welcomed all secular Indians into its fold. But his perceived Islamist stance, it is feared, may serve to polarise Hindus further towards the BJP.

While this new political phenomenon is making both the Trinamool and the Left-Congress a little nervous, the BJP has been nonchalant. State party president and Lok Sabha member Dilip Ghosh said, “The BJP has no worries… Those who indulge in politics of appeasement, who thought the Muslim vote was their own private property, they are the ones who are feeling threatened today. Anybody can contest elections anywhere.”