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Owaisi's Bengal Game Plan and What AIMIM’s Poll Foray Means for Other Parties

Asaduddin Owaisi's party is in a wait-and-watch mode when it comes to the Bengal polls. (PTI FILE PHOTO)

Asaduddin Owaisi's party is in a wait-and-watch mode when it comes to the Bengal polls. (PTI FILE PHOTO)

The AIMIM could contest 20 of the 294 assembly seats in West Bengal. Party president Asaduddin Owaisi says he will speak on Bengal when the time comes.

Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) appears to be in no hurry. At a time when all major sides contesting this summer’s assembly election in West Bengal have come out with their candidate lists – at least for some seats, if not all – the AIMIM headquarters in Hyderabad is closely tracking the equations unfolding in the eastern state.

Asim Waqar, the AIMIM’s national spokesperson and coordinator for Bengal, says the leadership has received positive feedback from the ground and that it will soon announce its candidates handpicked by party president Owaisi himself. Insiders hint that the party could contest some 20 of the 294 seats in the state.

“We will talk about Bengal when the time comes,” Owaisi said on Monday, keeping political watchers guessing.

There are indications that he could be waiting for cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) to come up with its list of candidates. The ISF, which was formed on January 21, is part of an alliance that also comprises the Left bloc and the Congress. While the Left and the Congress have named some of their candidates separately, the ISF is yet to make a move.

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But it was Owaisi’s AIMIM that had initiated talks with the ISF first, before the fledgling party joined the Left-Congress alliance. Subsequently, the move triggered questions within the Congress and also sparked a debate over a possible three-way division of the Muslim vote among the coalition it represents, the AIMIM and the ruling Trinamool Congress.

Insiders cited above say Owaisi had sent a list of 25 candidates to the ISF when they were in talks. Now, that same list could be fine-tuned and finalised.

BIHAR SUCCESS, BENGAL GAME PLAN

The AIMIM will go to the Bengal polls on the back of its success in Bihar last year. In the state bordering Bengal, Owaisi’s party won five of the 20 seats in the politically crucial Seemanchal region and bagged a significant chunk of Muslim votes in the 2020 elections. In the process, it hurt the chances of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance in several other seats as well. As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Janata Dal (United) combine returned to power, a debate ensued on the AIMIM’s sway on Muslim votes and how its presence in the poll fray could impact fortunes of other political players.

In Bengal, the party insiders indicate, the AIMIM has set its sight on districts such as Murshidabad, Birbhum, Nadia, North and South Dinajpur, Cooch Behar, Alipurduar and Malda, among others, where it has been laying the groundwork for quite some time. From bolstering online and offline membership drives to carrying out door-to-door campaigns, the party has been pulling out all the stops to draw support in Bengal, where, according to the 2011 census, around 27% residents are Muslims.

“The Indian Secular Front wields strong influence over Bengali-speaking Muslims in South Bengal, but it doesn’t have enough prominence in areas such as Malda, Murshidabad (both share borders with Bangladesh), and North Bengal. We have been working on expanding our base in these regions and are confident of winning several seats because people want change,” a senior AIMIM leader, who did not want to be named, said.

Owaisi has deputed his five Bihar legislators in Bengal to establish connect on the ground and carry out crucial internal surveys. All of them have been assigned districts close to Bihar’s Seemanchal.

AIMIM Bihar unit president Akhtarul Imam, who is also the Amour MLA, and youth president Adil Hasan have been the given charge of Murshidabad, Birbhum and Nadia districts. Jokihat MLA Mohd Shahnawaz and Kochadaman MLA Izhar Asfi are looking after the party’s election campaign in North and South Dinajpur, Cooch Behar and Alipurduar — all in North Bengal. Bahadurganj MLA Anjar Naeemi and Biasi MLA Syed Ahmed have been appointed observers for Malda district.

Owaisi himself will hold back-to-back rallies at the later stage of the canvassing process. Starting Round 4 of the eight-phase elections — from March 27 to April 29 — most of the constituencies that the AIMIM has been targeting will go to polls. Owaisi’s first mega rally in Kolkata’s Metiaburuz, a Muslim-dominated area, had to be scrapped as he was denied permission.

WHAT IT MEANS

In Bengal, Muslim voters could play a key role in deciding the fate of the candidates on several seats. The entry of Owaisi and the ISF’s Siddiqui in the poll arena adds an interesting dynamic to the elections, with political observers watching out for if there is a direct showdown between the AIMIM and the ISF on some seats.

A debate has been raging that a three-way division of the Muslim vote among the Left-Congress-ISF (all three constituents have a support base among Muslims), the Trinamool (which dented the Left bastion in 2011 to end its 34-year rule), and the AIMIM could prove to be an advantage for the BJP, which aims to win over 200 seats and is upbeat after winning 18 of the state’s 42 constituencies in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Senior journalist and political Analyst Rasheed Kidwai believes the Malda region could throw opportunities for the AIMIM, though it still has a lot of ground to cover. “…as a political entity in Bengal, the AIMIM has to further its cause and expand its base as it is pitted against Furfura Sharif (cleric Abbas Siddiqui) and (chief minister) Mamata Banerjee, who enjoys an unwavering support of Muslim women voters,” he adds.

Owaisi has time and again countered the argument against division of votes, saying he belongs to the public and has the right to contest from anywhere he wants.

“We have been called the B-team of the BJP and the Congress as per people’s convenience. But the fact is we are working for the development of the poorest of poor. Pseudo liberals can call us names, but we are fighting elections to create equal opportunities for everyone. In Bengal, the AIMIM will contest in places where division of minority votes won’t support the BJP at all,” a senior AIMIM leader said, requesting anonymity.