With the nail-biting 2020 Bihar election coming to an end, political contenders are awaiting the West Bengal assembly elections.
Scheduled for April-May 2021, the media stocks are skyrocketing with the analysis from political theorists, intellectuals, and common folk, with many surmising that the Bihar election might impact the 2021 Bengal election. Since the 2019 Lok Sabha election, West Bengal has been of much interest to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – they are keen to win the state due to several key factors connected to national politics.
After land sliding the Congress through an outstanding success of 40 percent vote share and 18 MP seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP stands as the main challenger to Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the 2021 assembly elections.
The political move to enact the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) by the BJP-ruled central government in December 2018 had infuriated the masses and led to the nationwide anti-NRC and anti-CAA movement.
West Bengal was one of the epicentres for this movement, which rattled the BJP and put them on the back foot. Then the coronavirus outbreak acted as a positive catalyst for the ruling party at the Centre, easing the rat race for them.
A Neck And Neck Fight For BJP & TMC In Bengal 2021
After the NDA’s victory in Bihar, it will be a neck and neck fight for BJP and TMC in Bengal. Meanwhile, the emergence of the AIMIM party led by Asaduddin Owaisi – as an underdog in the election and surprisingly winning five seats – has caused much hype. It created a different kind of tension with AIMIM winning the Muslim-majority districts; Uttar Dinajpur and Murshidabad of West Bengal are crucial seats in the election.
The AIMIM’s capture of minority regions will seemingly unleash new political turns in the upcoming Bengal assembly election. The Bihar elections results had boosted confidence in Asaduddin Owaisi’s party; he has managed to stake claim to a fair share of Bengal’s Muslim-dominated assembly that is significant to the Bengal election.
Apart from AIMIM’s appearance and prominence in the Bengal election, there are several exigent factors related to Muslims in Bengal – as a minority community – that are likely to play a major role in the 2021 election.
What are these crucial factors?
Why Muslim-Dominated Assemblies Are Significant In Bengal Election
Statistically, West Bengal has been home to the highest percentage of Muslims in India after Kashmir and Assam. The 2011 Census says that the state has 27.1 percent Muslims, and districts like Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur have more than 50 percent Muslim population.
Apart from these three districts like Birbhum (37.06 percent), South 24 Parganas (35.57 percent), Nadia (26.76 percent), and North 24 Parganas (25.82 percent), minority-concentrated districts, a few blocks of Howrah, Hooghly and Purba- Bardhaman are also on this list.
Geographies with populous minorities have always played a determining role in the electoral demography in Bengal’s elections. So, Muslim-dominated assemblies have much significance in the 2021 state elections.
Exploiting the Muslim sentiment and minority card, in an atmosphere of fear with a saffron regime at the top, the AIMIM can play an important role in the West Bengal election like it did in Bihar.
But a political twist exists by way of language; Bengali culture is not as monolithic as Bihari. It’s possible to emerge victorious in West Bengal, but only an average amount of Muslim votes can be secured from Malda, Dinajpur and Murshidabad districts. To understand this political composition, we need to focus on the historical background of the Muslim choice in Bengal politics.
Sachar Committee Report & Minority’s Sway Over State Elections
For decades, the Congress benefited from Muslim votes in the Bengal Assembly elections – specifically in districts like Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur, while the CPIM had the maximum hold in the southern districts. Apart from 294 assembly seats, almost 90-100 seats were dependent on the Muslim vote, where the Muslim population is more than 30 percent.
In the 63 assembly seats, the Muslim vote is more than 40 percent, and without a huge amount of Muslim votes, winning in these assembly elections is going to be very difficult.
Since the last five assembly elections, the dependency on these seats has become an important game changer for government-formation in Bengal. However, in the pre-Mamata era, some of the minority-dominated assembly seats were ruled by regional parties like AIBF (All India Forward Bloc), RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal), RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party), CPI (Communist Party of India) and other regional parties – due to the prevalence of regional leadership. Before the Sachar Committee Report of 2006, Muslims were not aware of their situation being entirely manipulated by decisions of the largest national parties like Congress or CPIM. They were not very conscious of identity-based political participation. That’s why in the pre-Sachar period, the minority voters could not sway the state elections. Polarisation and minority sentiments were fanned during the post-Sachar era.
How Mamata Banerjee Won The Trust Of Muslims
After the Sachar Committee Report was published in November 2006 – shortly after the Bengal assembly election of that year – disagreement, disappointment, and resentment spread among the Muslim community in Bengal like wildfire. Columnist, intellectuals, journalists, political theorists, and diverse professionals blamed the Communist rule of Bengal not just across the nation but even in various international articles. After the Sachar Report, Muslim regional politics in Bengal became divided into two main wings – one was led by Siddiqullah Chowdhury, the president of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind's West Bengal branch, while the Sunni Muslim group was shaped under the dominance of Furfura Sharif.
Siddiqullah Chowdhury formed the People’s Democratic Conference of India (PDCI), which is contesting under the United Social Democratic Front (USDF). A significant amount of popularity in Muslim-dominated areas like Murshidabad, Birbhum and Bardhaman has been earned by Chowdhury, while Toha Siddiqui has ruled over some places in North and South 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly.
Mamata Banerjee grabbed this opportunity, collaborated with Siddiqullah Chowdhury and Toha Siddiqui, and earned significant popularity among Bengal’s Muslims.
Moreover, Chowdhury and Siddiqui helped Mamata Banerjee succeed in the Nandigram movement also, which led to the TMC’s victory in the 2011 assembly elections.
Disappointment Among Bengal’s Muslims
In the 2011 Bengal assembly elections, TMC won 184 seats in the state – where 25 Muslims and more than 10 non-Muslim candidates won from the minority dominated assembly. In the 2016 elections, they were able to win almost 50 seats, of which 32 were Muslim MLAs from the minority-dominated assembly enabling them to conquer all 211 out of 294 seats in 2016.
The Mamata Banerjee-led party heavily benefited from the minority vote in the last two assembly elections.
It garnered the maximum minority-dominated seats by increasing the number of Muslim MLAs, and making promises like ‘Imam bhata’, ‘new madrasas’ and ‘jobs for Muslims’. This strategy enhanced Mamata’s political game over the last two elections.
No doubt, in the last two elections, Muslims fully supported the Mamata Banerjee government, but slowly, disappointment has crept in and is escalating among Muslim groups – who are now seeking an alternative.
(Mehebub Sahana, Research Associate, School of Environment, Education & Development, University of Manchester, United Kingdom. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)