Asaduddin Owaisi, the rising star of Indian politics, has expressed his intent to fight the next assembly election in West Bengal. This has come as a rude shock to many people who thought that the next election in the state is going to be a grand finale between the incumbent Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee and the resurgent BJP that will be trying to give a final push to dislodge Mamata.
Many believe that Asaduddin Owaisi, being a Muslim face, will eat into the Muslim votes, that was solidly behind Didi, as Mamata is affectionately called by her admirers. His party, All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) that was confined till very recently to only Old Hyderabad area, has expanded in recent years and won two seats in assembly election in Maharashtra and an assembly seat in the recently concluded by-elections in Bihar.
Many people claim that he is being used by the BJP to divide Muslim votes in different parts of the country. The allegations have gained further currency as he expands his base from Telangana to Maharasthra, Bihar and now West Bengal.
What Owaisi said
Owaisi, a fiery orator who sways the audience effortlessly, while talking about his plans to contest elections from Maharashtra says "I have to contest election if I believe in democracy. I have to contest election if I have to realise my constitutional rights.... to stop these opportunistic parties who have used Muslims to be in power".
He went on to add that it was due to the arrogance of the Trinamul Congress leaders, including Mamata Banerjee, that he has decided to enter electoral fray in the state. "When arrogance gets to your head you make nonsensical, baseless statements. She is making these statements because she is frustrated... because she is losing ground... and she has demeaned all the Muslims who have voted for her" he went on to add. Apparently Owaisi was talking about Mamata Banerjee claiming that moneybags from Hyderabad were flying to Kolkata to buy voters. While directly indicting Owaisi, Mamata Banerjee had said that this was to influence and mislead the minority community in the state.
Why Mamata is worried?
There is no denying that Mamata Banerjee is worried by Owaisi’s announcement. Even a small change in voting pattern and nominal voting by Muslims for Owaisi’s party can affect her and her party’s chances in the state.
BJP has been extremely aggressive in its efforts in penetrating in the state. This is the most aggressive pitch by the right wing party in the state that has resisted the rise of the BJP and Jana Sangh there thus far. There is no denying that the Sangh’s sister organization, the BJP has dramatically increased its vote share close to 40 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections conducted in May earlier this year. It is the sole challenge to Mamata’s Trinamool Congress now, thus virtually making the CPI-M into a mere marginalised political party. The elections in the state are slated to be held in 2021 and for Trinamool Congress, that was already under stress due to the phoenix like rise of the BJP in the state, the thought of having someone divide its core vote bank is rather very worrisome.
The BJP was a bit player in the state politics in West Bengal till merely a few years ago. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, while Trinamool Congress had garnered as much as 39 percent of the total votes polled in the state, the second spot had gone to the CPIM that got close to 30 percent votes. BJP got just about 17 percent of votes while the Congress got around 10 percent votes.
But the scenario changed radically in the 2019 Lok Sabha election when the BJP came very close to matching the Trinamool Congress numbers. The Saffron party rose at the cost of CPIM that got completely decimated in the process. Congress also lost its vote base, but not on the same scale. Trinamool Congress held its own when it comes to vote share. Its vote share saw marginal increase from 39 percent to 43 percent. However it suffered badly in terms of seats won as its tally came down to 22 from 34 seats. BJP on the other hand registered 23 percent rise in terms of votes polled. Its tally also went up from 2 to 18. Congress could get merely 5.6 percent votes and win 2 seats while CPIM saw complete washout as it failed to win even a single seat and could get merely 6.2 percent votes. This shows that the CPIM votes completely got transferred to the BJP, while Congress loss seems to be the net gain of Trinamool Congress, at least in terms of vote share.
Who will benefit from Owaisi move?
There is no denying that any split in the Muslim votes will benefit no one except the Saffron party. This is the reason that Mamata seems to be worried about the entry of Hyderabad based party in the state politics. A close analysis of election results in Maharashtra where elections were held merely a month ago shows that while Owaisi's party could win merely two seats and just about 1.3 percent of the total votes polled in the state, it cost Congress-NCP alliance at least nine seats. MIM also caused the defeat of a Congress heavyweight Arif naseem Khan from Chandivali constituency that he lost by merely 409 votes. MIM got 1167 votes from the same seat. The beneficiaries in almost all the nine seats were BJP and Shiv Sena.
What Muslims think?
While there has been a substantial increase in the Owaisi fan club among Muslims in different parts of the country, many of even his hardcore supporters are unable to fathom his announcement to fight elections in West Bengal. One of his old Hyderabadi fan, told me that “If he contests in west Bengal and Jharkhand, all or most seats, it will vindicate all doubts people have about him being a BJP friend from backdoor”. A female student pursuing PhD from IIT Kharagpur says she is very worried over the turn of events in her state. “It is certain if Owaisi fights forthcoming assembly election in the state, it will split Muslim votes affecting the chances of Trinamool Congress. It will worsen Bengal’s political situation when it comes to Muslims”.
However his admirers are quick to counter. One of his supporters in a Whatsapp group was quick to come to Owaisi’s rescue by saying, “Secular forces should also think that Muslims are not ‘bonded voters’ of them. When Dalits can do their political experiments, why not Muslims? And please don’t forget, our very dear Mamata, whom I have great respect, started creating prisons for alleged foreigners.”
Nevertheless, MIM is not the lone Muslim political party vying for Muslim votes. There are several smaller parties including SDPI and Jamat-e-Islami’s Welfare Party of India (WPI) that have been fighting elections in the state, but without much luck till now.
In the meantime, AIMIM that doesn’t seem to have any organizational set up in the state is gung ho about its chances. Syed Asim Waqar, the incharge of the Owaisi led party in West Bengal says “We have our workers in almost all the 23 districts of Bengal. We have organisational capabilities in almost all the blocks of West Bengal…The AIMIM has seen significant growth in the state. We have a huge support base amongst the Muslim population in the state as they have realised the falsehood of Mamata Banerjee. She only indulges in appeasement politics and does nothing for the benefit of Muslims in the state.” Nonetheless, this assertion should be taken with a pinch of salt.
(Syed Ubaidur Rahman is a New Delhi based author and commentator. His latest book 'Ulema's Role in India's Freedom Movements with Focus on Silk Letter Movement (Reshmi Rumal Tehrik)' has just been released
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a New Delhi based author and commentator. His forthcoming book 'Ulema's Role in India's Freedom Movements with Focus on Reshmi Rumal Tehrik will be out in October