More than a week ago, Siddiqullah Chowdhury was nursing his fractured left leg when he received a call from Firhad Hakim, cabinet minister and close aide of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. As chief of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind and the All-India United Democratic Front, Chowdhury had played a key role in booting out the Left front from power four years ago. Though he had helped Mamata become chief minister, Chowdhury had not heard from her since she assumed power in 2011. When Chowdhury took Hakim's call, the latter told him, “Didi wants to talk to you.” All Mamata wanted to know, said Chowdhury, was why had he not tried to touch base with her all these years.
With only a year to go for the assembly polls, Mamata and her Trinamool Congress are worried about losing the Muslim vote bank. About 30 per cent of the electorate in the state is Muslim. Muslim leaders have been criticising her political understanding with the BJP—be it her nod to successive bills in Parliament or her party's refusal to join the clamour for resignation of BJP leaders in the Lalit Modi controversy. Outbursts by Muslim leaders have forced the Trinamool Congress chief to rethink her poll strategy, as has the possibility of a new political realignment involving the Left parties, the Congress and a fraction of Trinamool Congress leaders, led by former Union minister Mukul Roy.
Sources said her one-time confidant Roy, who is all set to leave the Trinamool Congress and float a new party, was the brain behind cutting Mamata's contact with Muslim leaders and bringing them closer to the Congress and the Left. Roy has had a series of discussions with Congress leaders in Delhi about the alliance. Even his long-time critic Gautam Deb, who will lead the CPI(M)’s election campaign in Bengal, said: “If Roy wants to make an understanding with us, we will consider it. In politics, nothing is impossible.”
Among the Muslim clerics in Bengal, Roy has already got the support of Mohammed Toha Siddiqui, the influential chief of Furfura Darbar Sharif. Siddiqui, as well as many of his associates, has criticised Mamata for not doing anything for Muslims. “It is all tall talk.... Muslims are as deprived as they used to be,” he said. Mamata found another critic in Maulana Qazi Fazlur Rehman, who said: “The development of minorities is on paper. Nothing is on the ground.” The censure was made when she was attending an Eid prayer meeting on Red Road in Kolkata.
No wonder, Mamata seemed desperate as she met Chowdhury at Nabanna building, which houses the makeshift state secretariat. “Indeed the chief minister was a little scared,” Chowdhury told THE WEEK. “She asked me to think of an alliance between my party and hers. She told me that we always worked together and it would be better for the Muslim community in Bengal if the alliance remained on the ground now.”
During the Nandigram and Singur movements, it was Chowdhury who orchestrated the shift of the Muslim vote bank from the communist parties to the Trinamool Congress and the Congress. In his intense campaign across the state, he painted Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as an anti-farmer chief minister. A majority of farmers in Nandigram are Muslims and their land would have been acquired if their agitation had failed.
Though Chowdhury admitted that Muslims had hardly benefitted during Mamata’s rule, sources said he would not ditch her as he had little rapport with the chief of Furfura Sharif and other Muslim clerics. Also, he doesn't expect the BJP to side with Mamata. He told his associates that if the rest of the opposition joined hands against Mamata, the BJP would directly or indirectly help that effort. Though BJP leaders at the Centre are befriending Mamata for her party's support in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP's state unit is still at loggerheads with the Trinamool Congress. Another Jamiat leader said that the BJP's growth in Bengal had much to do with its role as an opposition force and hence it would not ally with the ruling party.
Recently, BJP president Amit Shah said in Howrah, “Bengal BJP should build the party eyeing the Lok Sabha election in 2019.” However, Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is the party's new in-charge of the Bengal polls, said that the BJP would lose no opportunity to form the next government in Bengal. “We will be a key player in the election and would do everything to ensure our victory. We will raise the issues of lack of governance, goonda-giri [criminalisation] and lack of development before the people,” he told THE WEEK.
Shah chose Vijayvargiya, who helped the BJP win Haryana, to replace Sidharth Nath Singh, a strong critic of Mamata. Vijayvargiya has to walk the tight rope to ensure the party makes a smooth progress in Bengal without hurting Mamata much. That is why there has hardly been any reference to the Saradha scam by the BJP. “We do not want to politicise the Saradha scam. The case is being investigated by the CBI and it would be a great mistake if one has to talk about it constantly during the peak of investigation,” said Vijayvargiya. Though the party is noncommittal about making the scam a poll plank, Vijayvargiya ruled out any possibility of an alliance with Mamata. “Never. At no point will we have any alliance with the Trinamool Congress,” he said.
Mamata, too, seems to be keeping her distance from the BJP. Despite her good relations with the Modi government, she has cautioned party leaders against projecting the Trinamool Congress as a party close to the saffron brigade. “Criticise them when it would be inevitable for us,” she reportedly told them.
The Congress, meanwhile, dreams of the grand alliance. “There is no way the present government could be removed unless there is a greater alliance between the Congress and the Left,” said Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who had moved the Supreme Court for a CBI probe into the Saradha scam. Mannan said that they would need Mukul Roy's help to oust Mamata, despite his alleged involvement in the scam.
Poribartan, as they say, is in the air, again.