One of the reasons Mamata Banerjee won big in West Bengal in 2011 was the shift in the Muslim vote from the Left Front to her Trinamool Congress. When the Left laid siege to Nandigram in 2007 and then “recaptured” the village – which had a significant Muslim population - from those protesting against land acquisition, Muslim opinion started moving towards Banerjee.
But it seems Banerjee is proceeding along the same path of buying the Muslim vote with symbolic gestures rather than substance. The same tokenism that has marked “secular politics” in the rest of India is now visible in West Bengal, so much so that many in the majority community are concerned and even the minority community is accusing her of “vote bank politics.
An Indian Express report today (14 March 2014) quotes an unnamed government official as saying: “Steps like allowances for Muslims clerics, the images of Didi wearing a burqa and offering namaaz, and a slew of projects and schemes targeted at the minority Muslims have only enhanced the polarisation.” When Banerjee went to Delhi to address a rally with Anna Hazare, a Muslim cleric warned her not to share the platform with the RSS-backed Anna, and Anna anyway failed to turn up.
Worse, as the Express report shows, there has been a sudden spike – a near quadrupling – in communal clashes in the state. Statistics show that between 2008 and 2012, communal incidents averaged around 25 a year. In 2013, the number soared to 106 – a more than four-fold jump from the average over the preceding five years. Mamata’s Bengal is looking like Mulayam Singh’s Uttar Pradesh, with a rising trend in communal tensions. In 2013, UP topped the list of states with the highest number of communal incidents. Some 95 out of the 143 deaths resulting from communal incidents were in UP, thanks to the Muzaffarnagar and other riots.
To be sure, one cannot lay all the blame on Mamata-didi for the deterioration in Bengal. Thanks to continuing migration from Bangladesh, many constituencies near the porous border now have either Muslim majorities or near-majorities, or have a Muslim voter share of 25-30 percent. They will thus decide the winner. This demographic shift is creating both social tension and a new assertiveness among Muslims who don’t see the need for the “secular” parties to mediate between them and the “majority”.
In fact, Muslim netas even within secular parties are “revolting” against the existing orthodoxy. The CPI(M), which has arrogated to itself the role of issuing certificates of secularism to others, recently expelled Abdur Rezzak Mollah from the party for his outspoken attacks on its leadership. Among the nicer things he said about the party’s politburo is that they are “dalals” not grassroots people.
Mollah, who hasn’t lost an assembly election since 1972, has now floated a Social Justice Manch for Muslims, Dalits and the scheduled tribes – a grouping he calls the majority, an Indian Express report in February noted. He believes the present CPI(M) leadership is too Brahminical in its approach.
This could be an effort to ultimately form a political party, but other fledgling Muslim political parties are already flexing their muscles and abandoning the umbrella of the regional or national parties.
In Bengal, at least two Muslim parties made their presence felt in the 2012 parliamentary byelection to the Jangipur constituency, which was vacated by Pranab Mukherjee and allotted to his son Abhijit. The Welfare Party of India and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) polled 41,620 and 24,691 votes, almost robbing Abhijit of victory.
He squeaked through with a wafer thin margin of just around 2,500 votes. The next time, he may not be so lucky – as there could be a withering of the Muslim vote bank, even as a new Hindu minority vote develops in this Muslim majority constituency. In the 2012 contest, the BJP got 85,000 votes – more than the two Muslim parties put together.
More Muslim competition is on the way in Bengal. Apart from the Welfare Party and the SDPI, Badruddin Azmal’s All India United Democratic Front, which has a solid base amongst Muslims in Assam, is planning a foray into West Bengal by fielding at least 10 Lok Sabha candidates.
The Welfare Party will field 18 candidates, and the Express quotes party president Raisuddin Baidya as saying: “We are a new party. But our party did well in the Jangipur byelection in Murshidabad in 2012. We are fielding candidates in 18 seats and believe that the time has come for Muslims to be a part of the parliamentary system.”
With so many Muslim parties flexing their muscles in Bengal separately, it is possible that the Muslim vote in elections 2014 will get split – enabling Didi to get a lot more seats.
But the writing on the wall is clear. It is only a matter of time before Muslims will abandon tokenism from the main regional and national parties and demand a real share of power.
This could be one reason why Bengal is seeing so many communal incidents. Muslims are not looking for Didis in burqas and Mulayams in a fez. They want a share of the spoils – of both power and development.
Either the secular parties will have to become truly secular and not just symbolically so, or they will end up communalising the state. Mamata Banerjee is presiding over a Bengal which may be inching towards increasing polarisation.
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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2014 23:11:09 IST