By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO
NEW DELHI/KOLKATA: The ongoing multiphase elections to West Bengal Assembly are marked by a new importance being given to the stateâ€™s Muslim vote-bank. Will the Muslim-vote play a crucial part in deciding the fate of the Left Front government, led by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)? The state has been headed by left bloc since 1977. The Muslims constitute around 28 percent of the stateâ€™s vote-bank. Of late, a lot of hype has been raised about possible chances of Trinamool Congress, headed by Mamata Bannerjee, in alliance with the Congress Party ousting the Left bloc from power in West Bengal. Interestingly, Bannerjee, popularly known as Didi, is not contesting from any constituency in West Bengal. This naturally has raised questions about whether she is sure of her party winning substantial number of seats in the assembly.
The polls to 294-seats, spread over six phases began on April 18. Voting in the last phase will be held on May 10. The counting will take place on May 13. Within less than a fortnight, the political picture in West Bengal will be clearly laid out. At present, the possible impact of Muslim-vote in these elections shall be elaborated on. Out of the 42 members from West Bengal in Lower House (Lok Sabha) of the National Parliament, six are Muslims, with three from Congress, two-Trinamool Congress and one from CPI-M. The state has 15 members in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha), three of whom are Muslims with two from CPI-M and one an Independent.
The Muslim members constitute around 15 percent of the strength of outgoing state assembly. Of these, more than 50 percent belong to CPI-M and less than 30 percent to both the Congress and Trinamool Congress. The Speaker of the outgoing assembly is a Muslim from CPI-M, Hashim Abdul Halim. He has held this office since May 6, 1982.
Though Muslim-legislatorsâ€™ strength in the assembly falls below their population-percentage in West Bengal, it would be wrong to assume that their concerns and grievances have been ignored or sidelined. A major reflection of this trend is that the state, under the Left-bloc government, has not been witness to any communal riot targeting the Muslims. In fact, Muslims have confided about their feeling secure in West Bengal. Here, one may draw attention to West Bengal governmentâ€™s reaction, when Muslims were targeted in Gujarat-carnage (2002). A considerable number of the survivors, who decided to leave Gujarat, selected West Bengal as their home. Among these was Qutubuddin Ansari of Ahmadabad, whose picture with folded hands and tears streaming down his cheeks, pleading to rioters for sparing him, was then splashed across the world. He first rushed to Maharashtra, from where he was not spared by riot-mongers and some media persons. Eventually, he found a safe shelter in Kolkata, with initiative taken by some CPI-M leaders, including Mohammed Salim, who was then a minister in charge of secretariat dealing with development of minority communities. Ansari arrived in Kolkata with his wife and children in August 2003.
Electorally, apart from image presented by politicians appealing to Muslims for their votes, it is important to reflect on the picture that certain statistics suggest. More than 1700 hundred candidates are in the fray for contesting the West Bengal assembly polls. Less than 300 of these are Muslims. The Muslim candidates from CPI-M are more than 40, from Trinamool Congress- 38 and the Congress- 23. Interestingly, Muslim candidates trying their political luck are the maximum from small parties (116) followed by Independent candidates (61). Several major parties with minimal influence in West Bengal are also testing their political fate here, with Bharatiya Janata Party having fielded six candidates and Bahujan Samaj Party â€“ 10.
These statistics clearly indicate that only 16 percent of the contesting candidates are Muslims. Interestingly, had Muslims decided not to enter the political fray as Independents and from smaller parties, statistically their participation as candidates would have fallen by more than 50 percent. When only the numbers of Muslim candidates fielded by major political parties, including CPI-M, Trinamool and Congress are added together, they constitute less than seven percent of the total candidates.
Now, the crucial question is whether the Muslims contesting polls as Independent and from smaller parties, will play a crucial part in deciding the fate of major parties in the fray? There is a possibility that a split or even too many divisions in Muslims votes may not prove helpful in helping Muslim candidates win. At the same time, considering that West Bengal is known for its secular harmony, the religious identity of candidates in the fray may not influence the voters in taking their decision. Their vote is likely to be more strongly influenced by their political preferences than religious identity of the candidates. There is a possibility that several Independent candidates may have been deliberately fielded by political players keen to cut into vote-base of rival parties, primarily on ground of religion.
Irrespective of the degree to which the religious card is being exercised by political parties in West Bengal elections, the crucial card is likely to be played by political speculation, apprehension and the trust that the voter displays through his/her vote. And the votersâ€™ decision shall be known only when the results are declared later this month!