Abbas Siddiqui's home in the Furfura village of West Bengal is barely distinguishable from the other houses in that specific row of houses. But ask for Abbas bhai's home, and everyone in the village will will point you to the "house with the Scorpio in the parking lot".
In the parking lot, wrapped in blankets, sat six young men, in their early-twenties.
"Have you also come to meet bhaijaan?", they asked when they learnt that this reporter had come from Kolkata. "We have come to call bhaijaan to our village", one of the boys continued. "It's election season and we are looking at him for direction", he said.
On 21 January, Siddiqui, an influential cleric at Furfura Sharif Dargah, a holy place for Bengali Muslims, launched his own political party ahead of the West Bengal elections scheduled in April-May 2021. The party is called the Indian Secular Front and Siddiqui called it a "truly secular party" working for "Muslims and Dalits".
Earlier in January, Siddiqui had a string of political visitors, starting with All Indian Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi who has expressed his party's desire to contest in Bengal. Subsequently leaders of the Congress and the Left Front visited him too.
Political visitations, however, are not new to Siddiqui or any cleric of Furfura Sharif, which for decades, has been seen an important seat of Muslim politics in Bengal.
However, this will be the first time that a pirzada has contested elections under his own banner, institutionalising the mazar's political connections.
Bhaijaan In Furfura
Furfura, is a village of approximately 7,000 people, in the Jangipara constituency of Bengal's Hooghly district.
The village is one of the few Muslim-majority pockets in the district which has a Muslim population of a little over 15 percent.
The shrine of former peer Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiqui forms the epicentre of the village's activities.
While most of the locals are involved in agricultural work, the younger generation workers have migrated to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country. Most of them, say the villagers, work as goldsmiths.
At Siddiqui's home, as both this reporter and the six men, waited for Siddiqui to arrive in the early hours of a Sunday morning, the latter introduced themselves as students from Sujapur in Bengal's Malda district.
As all conversations in Bengal go these days, this one too, turned to politics.
“It is mostly Trinamool Congress (TMC) in our area”, said 21-year-old Osman Ghani. “But in our village, and the adjoining ones, people are waiting to hear what bhaijaan says. We will do what he says”, he added.
Ghani also said that there "no hawa" for the BJP where he came from.
"It'll either be TMC or bhaijaan", he says.
Ghani and his other five friends had reached Siddiqui's home at 5 in the morning and had been waiting since. They had been tasked by their village to get him there for a sabha before the elections.
"Why Aren't Parties Fronted By Muslims Considered Secular?"
After a while, Siddiqui emerges in a white kurta-pajama, with a brown shawl, his hair disheveled. He wakes up his staff, sleeping in a room in the garage, slightly reprimanding them for "waking up so late".
This reporter was then seated in a room where Siddiqui came in a little later, more put-together this time - skull cap covering his previously uncombed hair.
"We are putting together a secular front for all marginalised sections of society", says Siddiqui to The Quint, when asked which party he will be siding with this election. "I have spoken to AIMIM, the Congress and the Left. As of now we've spoken about 70-80 seats. I will field candidates where I can, and support candidates of parties that join us in other seats", he says, refusing to disclose which parties he's confirmed support to.
In the past, Siddiqui has been a staunch TMC critic. Recently he hit out at TMC MP Nusrat Jahan for being "shameless" and visiting Hindu temples. He issued a similar statement against TMC leader and Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim for celebrating Shivratri.
"All parties, including TMC and Mamata Didi, have come to us during the elections and pleaded with us to speak for them with the assurance that they will work for the downtrodden", says Siddiqui.
"But this time I want to front my own party. Those who want my fan followers to support them can come support me", he says.
When asked who his main opposition is - the BJP or the TMC, he decides to shoot his barbs at the Mamata Banerjee-run dispensation.
"They say they are a party for Muslims. But what have they done for Muslims? The community is still as poor, still without education. For 10 years, there has been nothing but corruption", he says.
Siddiqui and the AIMIM's foray into Bengal politics has also raised "concerns" of the "Muslim vote getting divided."
In the 2011 and 2016 state elections, as well as the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Bengal's nearly 30 percent Muslim vote has sided overwhelmingly with Mamata.
While speaking to The Quint, Siddiqui asks why Muslims are expected to vote for parties that consider them a vote-bank and nothing else. He also asks why only parties fronted by Muslim leaders are considered to be "divisive and communal".
"Can't I, as a Muslim leader, front a secular party? When Trinamool says they stand for Muslims, no one calls them a Muslim party. When Congress calls out to Muslims, no one calls them a Muslim party. Then why me? Why AIMIM? I am in talks with Dalits, Adivasis, Matuas, and Christians as well. This is a front for all the downtrodden", says Siddiqui
Like the BJP, which has all but forgotten about the CAA-NRC in the context of the Bengal elections, Siddiqui has also evened out his criticism for the same.
"I wouldn't call it anti-Muslim. I believe it is great that those who are living in our country for years are finally being given residence. But I feel that there should be a cut-off date. And everyone should be allowed till that cut-off date", he said.
Throughout the conversation, Siddiqui seemed to launch a more scathing attack on the TMC than the BJP.
'A Pirzada Who Has Forgotten His Duties To The Shrine'
A few metres away from Siddiqui's house, a morning adda had convened at 62-year-old Sheikh Anis' tea shop, as the village slowly began to bustle with activity.
Around 4 men, sat together, discussing the agenda for the day.
"It is going to be Trinamool all the way here", says Sheikh Shah Jahan, 42.
"My father was a Congressi and I've been with the Trinamool since Mamata started the party", he explains.
Next to him, Sheikh Shukur Ali, the oldest in the group, says that the Hindus and Muslims of Furfura have always lived in harmony.
“I believe it is the markaz that has kept this harmony. In Furfura, the Hindus revere this shrine as much as the Muslims. It is, therefore, unacceptable to me that a pirzada would forget his duties towards the shrine and join mainstream politics”, he says.
Listening into this conversation, as he fixed his bike, was 32-year-old Sheikh Zairul Karim. Karim works at a gold factory in Mumbai. During the months of the coronavirus-caused lockdown, he was at home for about three months, with a family of five, including two toddlers, to feed.
"During the lockdown, life was very difficult. But because of Didi at least I was able to feed my family", he says.
"We got rice, daal and potatoes. Had the rations not come, I don't know how I would have fed my kids", he added.
"Times have changed, Madam. We will vote for whoever looks after us. We are aware of what is going on behind closed doors. Who is with the riot-mongering BJP, and who is not".
When asked to explain what that meant, Karim refused to elaborate.
As Karim left, a visiting card, with a phone number, was handed to this reporter by a passer-by.
"Someone wanted me to give this to you. Everything cannot be said in the open. Please call on this number when you can", said the man delivering the card.
In a shop opposite Anis' tea stall, Sheikh Selim found the situation in Furfura quite comical.
"You mark my words, Abbas bhai might win all of Hooghly and West Bengal, but he won't win in Fufura or Jangipara", he laughs.
In Selim's assessment, the rift between Abbas and his uncle, cleric Toha Siddiqui, a Trinamool backer, will affect the chances of the new front. "Basically they will keep fighting which will divide our people. In the meanwhile, those doing full-fledged party work will take the cake", he says.
Jiaduddin, who'd come to buy chocolates from Selim's shop, however, disagreed.
"Abbas bhaijaan is a powerful speaker. He listens to everyone. You should see his house every Friday. It is brimming with people. He might not be a Didi, but for us he's been our saviour in bad times", said the 32 year old who works at a gold factory in Uttar Pradesh.
"You must see the land that he's bought for the Knowledge City", he added. "It will solve all our problems".
The "Pir Abu Bakr Siddiqui Knowledge City" is a welfare project, announced in 2019, based on 100 bighas of land that was piloted by the Furfura Sharif Ahale Sunnatul Jamat under Siddiqui.
The project land would house subsidised schools, hospitals, maternity care centres and more for the downtrodden, "irrespective of religion", Siddiqui had said.
The Furfura Sharif Dargah also controls a large number of educational institutions, charitable establishments, orphanages and health facilities, giving it a great deal of influence among Muslims and poorer Hindus in districts like Hooghly, North and South 24 Parganas, Burdwan and beyond.
In Manikpittala, about 5 kilometres from Siddiqui's house, the entrance to the Knowledge City, BJP flags hung from a line of shops.
"There was a BJP michhil (rally) here yesterday. They hung those so we didn't take them off. But there's no BJP presence here", shrugged the shopkeeper.
"It will be as Abbas bhai says", quipped 42-year-old farmer Hasan Khan, who was at the shop.
"He is not a Muslim leader", added Abdul Kabir, who claimed to be a Abbas anugami (follower).
"All the Hindu families in the village also follow him", he said directing us to one of the few Hindu neighbourhoods in the village.
The biggest issue for the 40-odd residents of the neighbourhood seemed to be the destruction caused by cyclone Amphan in May 2020 and the administrative corruption during the relief work.
"The block officers came and took our names, but when it came to compensation, the Trinamool workers, who suffered absolutely no damage, got the funds", claimed Sagari Duley, as she showed the cracks in her mud hut, now temporarily held together with tarpaulin.
"Many have come and taken photos like you", said Maya Duley who lived in the hut next door. "But nothing has come of it".
When asked if Siddiqui helped them during Amphan, both said that they "didn't know him then".
"We heard of him a few months ago when we were employed to clear the land at Knowledge City", said Sagari.
Almost all men and women of working age in the neighbourhood had been employed at some point while clearing the land bought for the project.
Who Teaches Muslims How To Vote?
On our way out of Furfura, this reporter dialled back on the number on the card that was handed by the passer-by.
A gentleman, who introduced himself as Anwar*, a farmer, said that he'd call back when he's alone.
"Madam, we know that he (Siddiqui) has been talking to the multiple parties, including the BJP" said Anwar, on a call the day after.
"But tell me this, many journalists like you come to ask us if we will vote according to what a cleric says, or what a Muslim minister says. Usually I vote for whoever is winning. As do most people in my neighbourhood", he laughed.
“The days are gone when a religious leader would say something and everyone would blindly follow. During my father’s time that would be the case. But nowadays kids have seen the world. We have seen the world. No one can teach us how to vote”, he added, before hanging up.
The next message that popped up on the screen was from Osama Ghani.
"Abbas bhai is coming to our village on 26 January. Will you come to cover?"
(*name changed to protect identity)