While dusting the jars full of local Milkcuit lozenges inside his small wooden gumti (stall) in Rajarhat in North 24 Parganas district, a call from someone called Habib drew Kaushar Ali Mollah’s attention.
He quickly removed the pair of glasses swinging around his neck with a lanyard and hung it on a peg at one corner of his stall, adorned with chains of tobacco pouches and sachets of Navratna oil besides other daily items.
“Yes, yes, I know,” he said on the phone. “Not only Adhir (Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury)…Abdul da (Abdul Mannan) also went along with him to meet Peer saheb (Abbas Siddiqui).”
For decades, Kaushar Ali Mollah was a diehard supporter of CPI (M), but with the Left fading, the popularity of Abbas Siddiqui not only attracted people like Kaushar but also managed to secure the confidence of a large number of Muslims in Bengal, mainly in areas bordering Bangladesh.
Siddiqui is an influential cleric of Furfura Darbar Sharif located in Jangipara in Hooghly district and presently he has a long list of followers in the state.
Being immensely popular among Muslims with substantial mass support in some border areas of Bengal, he once termed himself as a “great fan” of Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
It was Siddiqui’s ploy to gain entry in Bengal’s politics, as his statement became a concern for the ruling Trinamool Congress that came to power in 2011 with the support of Muslims.
Siddiqui’s praise for Owaisi has not only changed the political equations in Bengal but has also created a huge opportunity for AIMIM to flex its muscles in the 2021 assembly polls.
Back at Kaushar Ali Mollah’s stall in Rajarhat, while dusting the jars after a quick conversation with Habib, he said, “I voted for the CPI (M) for years but nothing has happened as far as the welfare of the Muslims is concerned. The same politics is now being played by the TMC, and the BJP is more dangerous than both of them. So we became the followers of Abbas Siddiqui and we will vote for those parties which will have Abbas Bhai’s support. Today, politicians from all the parties are trying to rope in Abbas Bhai. Do you think these politicians are fools and are doing a favour to Abbas Siddiqui? Actually, they want to use him to divide the Muslim votes.”
When contacted, AIMIM’s West Bengal president Jamirul Hassan said, “After a good show in Bihar, we are certainly going to contest the assembly polls in West Bengal. Our main target is the BJP and we are ready to go for an alliance with the ruling TMC. Last night, I had a word with Owaisi Sahab and he asked me to meet him in Hyderabad next week to chalk out plans for Bengal.”
When asked about AIMIM being called ‘vote cutters’ and ‘B-team’ of BJP, as this will help the saffron brigade in Bengal and will create problems for the ruling TMC, he said, “These are baseless allegations to mislead the voters. That is why we have kept our alliance card open for the TMC. Our target is BJP. Now it is up to Didi (Mamata Banerjee) to decide. Besides Abbas Siddiqui, there are several other strong leaders (sidelined) from other national parties who are willing to join us. Once we will formally announce our plan for West Bengal, then they will join us. Our online membership has crossed 30 lakhs in Bengal and except Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri we have a good presence in North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly, Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Nadia and Cooch Behar.”
While elaborating more about their support base in Bengal, he said, “There are good leaders from Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), Welfare Party of India (WPI), State Muslim League, Indian National League and other Dalit organisations (which contested the 2016 assembly polls) who extended their support to us. We are going to play a crucial role in the assembly polls in Bengal. We will try to bring the minorities and Dalits under one umbrella and our slogan will be ‘Jai Meem, Jai Bhim’.”
It was learnt that the Bengal unit of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) was dissolved by the central committee four years ago but its members are still active in Bengal’s politics. Similarly, smaller parties like the Indian Unity Centre (IUC), Bahujan Mukti Party and Party for Democratic Socialism contested the 2016 assembly polls.
Though leaders of these parties failed to make any significant mark in Bengal’s politics, jointly they can be a good team which AIMIM is certainly eyeing, besides having the support of cleric Abbas Siddiqui.
AIMIM leaders are also in touch with a mainstream national party for possible alliance, if it fails to get the TMC on board.
With a more than 31 per cent vote share, Muslims are undeniably a crucial electoral factor in West Bengal.
They proved this during the more than three-decade-long Left rule in the state till TMC chief Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011.
Mamata knows it well that any significant division in the Muslim vote share, a crucial factor in nearly 90 assembly segments out of the 294 in the state, could jeopardise her Mission 2021.
Owaisi sees a huge political opportunity in Bengal and since 2011 his party has slowly started working in the border areas of the state where the Muslim population is high.
In 2019, the TMC got 43 per cent votes (despite losing 12 seats) which is 5 per cent more (because of Muslim support) as compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In 2014, TMC got 34 seats, while in 2019 it managed to secure only 22 seats.
On the other hand, in the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP’s vote share was 12 per cent and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls it went up to 39 per cent. There was an increase of 27 per cent mainly because of Hindus drifting towards the BJP.
This shows how a minor swing in the Muslim vote share towards AIMIM or Abbas Siddqui could be a big problem for Mamata.