Where will West Bengal's Muslim votes go?
West Bengal's Muslims, once a loyal vote bank of the ruling Marxists, appear noncommittal.
Kolkata: West Bengal's Muslims, once a loyal vote bank of the ruling Marxists, appear noncommittal in the ongoing assembly polls even as the Left Front and rival Trinamool Congress try to woo the community that makes up 28 percent of the state's population. Land reforms and land distribution among landless farmers not only earned nationwide accolades for the Left Front, which came to power in 1977, but also cemented the base of its three-decade rule in the state. The Muslim community also benefited a lot from the land reforms, with rural Muslim households having access to 25.6 percent of the total cultivated land.
"Two things that swayed the community towards the Left Front are land reforms and land pattas which empowered landless Muslims, and also communal harmony and a sense of security," Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri, a political analyst, told IANS. "But this time Muslim votes are undecided," he said.
After 34 years of Left Front rule, the sense of security and the dividends of lands reforms are no more the blank cheques with which Muslim votes can be pocketed, especially after the report of the Rajinder Sachar committee highlighted the poor condition of the state's Muslims.
"It is true that we are more secure in Bengal than perhaps our counterparts in Gujarat. But also need jobs and development. Communists have shown the carrot of security for the last three decades but have done more or less nothing for our development," said Arshad Ahmed, who works at a meat shop.
The anti-land acquisition campaign in Singur and Nandigram, where allegations surfaced that the Left was trying to take land from Muslims, proved damaging. Leaders of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), which leads the Left Front, refuse to concede that they may have lost ground among Muslims.
Mohammed Salim, a CPM Central Committee member, said: "It is not true that we have lost minority votes. We have lost votes in general. The percentage of votes we lost consists of all kinds of voters, including Hindus and Muslims."
The northern districts of Malda and south Bengal's Murshidabad, 90 percent of the constituencies have a considerable Muslim population. In North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and East Midnapore - which includes Nandigram - the figure is 40 percent.
Rattled by its poor performance in Muslim dominated areas over the past three years, the Left Front has implemented the Ranganath Mishra Commission's recommendations and introduced 10 percent reservation in government jobs for the 53 backward classes among Muslims.
As a result of the expansion of the other backward classes (OBC) list, currently, out of 2.02 crore Muslims in Bengal, 1.72 crore are OBCs, amounting to over 85 percent of the total Muslims in the state.
"After the Sachar committee report and our rigorous campaign, Muslims know the real face of the CPI-M," said Sultan Ahmed, union minister of state for tourism and Trinamool leader.
Trinamool president and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee has also used her portfolio to announce various railway projects in Muslim-dominated areas and promised to take the advice of Sachar for the community's development.
"The Left Front claim of providing security is vague. Muslims were secure in the state since the days of the Congress as communal harmony is the culture of Bengal," said senior Congress leader Abdul Mannan.
The Left has also lost a series of elections in the districts of Kolkata, Birbhum and Hooghly - where Singur is situated - which have 35 percent of their constituencies heavily populated by Muslims.
The anger of the Muslim community against the Left seems prominent, with religious leaders also asking for the ouster of the Left Front.
"The quota system is of no use. It is too late. Two generations of the community have lost all the opportunities," said Maulana Barkati, Shahi Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque.
Muslim political parties criticise both the Left and the opposition.
"The CPI-M has misused its powers and done nothing for Muslims. The Trinamool can also do no good, as it is interested only in votes," Siddiqullah Chowdhury, leader of People's Democratic Conference of India (PDCI), told IANS.
Political analysts, however, feel Muslim votes could be split between the two political camps.
"The Muslim vote bank is now a floating one. But the Left will be more alert this time and the Trinamool will have a slight advantage," said Samir Kumar Das, a political analyst.
The assembly polls are on from April 18-May 10. The third phase will be held on Wednesday.
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