The phrase ‘Friends with benefits’ best describes the growing bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. On May 9, when the two leaders shared the stage in Kolkata for the launch of three social sector schemes, it was clear that the days of name-calling were over.
Last year, Mamata had called Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate at that time, a donkey and ‘Danga babu (Mr Riot)’. The war of words continued even after Modi became prime minister. However, the fear that she might have to face the music in the Saradha scam case made Mamata reach out to an unlikely ally. The BJP, on the other hand, is wooing the regional parties for their support in the Rajya Sabha.
It may seem like a win-win situation for both parties. However, cosying up to the BJP may prove costly for the chief minister. Protests over the death of a former deputy mayor of Kolkata, Farzana Alam, and the events that followed are a precursor of things to come. On May 11, Alam was rushed to hospital following a cardiac arrest. She died on the same day. Her family members, however, alleged that Alam was killed by a section of Trinamool Congress workers.
Alam had contested and lost the civic body polls held in April. On the day the election results were announced, Alam blamed senior Trinamool Congress leaders, including ministers Subrata Mukherjee and Subrata Bakshi, and Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee, for her defeat.
Alam was among the few Trinamool Congress candidates who lost in an election that the TMC won with a huge margin. Alam said she felt isolated in the party and accused the senior leaders of “hatching a plot” to defeat her.
Her outburst, however, did not go down well with the party. On April 30, when Alam went to the party office near her house in Park Circus, she was allegedly assaulted by the party workers. A heart patient, Alam was taken to the government hospital and later discharged. She went to the police station to file a complaint, but the police initially refused to file an FIR.
The incident left Alam shattered. Her family says she could not understand why the party allowed the men, whom she described as new entrants, to humiliate her in this way. “I am a woman but even then I was thrashed by the hooligans in our party. The leaders were mute spectators,” she said in a statement issued shortly after the assault.
The defeat coupled with the assault put Alam under stress, which may have led to the cardiac arrest. Her death, however, gave the Muslim leaders an opportunity to attack Mamata. Already miffed at her for warming up to Modi, several Muslim leaders criticised the government.
“Yes, some people still criticise me for joining hands with the Central government,” said Mamata on the sidelines of a function organised by the party’s youth wing. “What can I do? If I don’t join, then the other section will criticise me. But I am where I am. Neither am I too close, nor am I too far.”
Alam’s brother Khurshid accused Mamata of “using Farzana to gain Muslim votes” and then deserting her. Mamata didn’t visit Alam’s house after her death. “She has not even placed a wreath on my sister’s body despite the fact she used to often come to our house in the past,” Khurshid told THE WEEK. “Yes, her party has killed my sister. She will pay a heavy price for this. She cannot use the Muslims to fulfil her political needs.”
Khurshid pointed out that Alam had won the Kolkata corporation elections more than once even before Mamata had come to power. In fact, it is Mamata who depended on the goodwill and support of leaders like Alam to come closer to the Muslim community, he said. “Now when the job is done, she allowed her party to kill Farzana,” said Khurshid, who now has to take care of Alam’s 11-year-old son. The boy’s father died two years ago in an accident. “Would the party do something for the little boy?” asked a family member.
After Alam's death, a case of molestation was filed. “They should be booked for murder. But where is the law in Kolkata today? It’s one of the most lawless cities in India,” said Shamim Iqbal, Alam’s neighbour.
Even prominent Muslim clerics have raised apprehensions over Mamata’s intentions. “The chief minister perhaps forgot that we were watching the events closely. What important business did she have that she could not visit Farzana’s house?” asked Taha Siddiqui, chief cleric of Furfura Sharif in Hooghly. Once a strong supporter of Mamata, Siddiqui is now having second thoughts. “The government took no action against the killers. Not even a case was registered,” he said. “Should we believe that this government is committed to the uplift of Muslims? An injustice took place and she [Mamata] is keeping quiet.”
However, Mayor Sovan Chatterjee refused to take the blame for the turn of events. “I am really perturbed by what has happened. But she was not killed by anyone. I can say this for sure,” he said. Alam could not come to terms with her defeat, which triggered the health complication and led to her death, said Chatterjee.
Alam and Chatterjee were not on good terms. In fact, he tried hard not to give her a ticket this time. However, Alam got the ticket because she had the support of a faction of leaders in the party.
Following the controversy over Alam’s death, Mamata called the leaders who allegedly mismanaged the issue and gave them an earful. Mamata is worried that the Muslim clerics, whom she wooed with a special stipend paid from the Wakf fund, would turn against her. “Why should she misuse the Wakf fund? She is giving a section of the clerics this money while the fund is meant for the entire community. The leaders will not take it lightly,” said Muslim League leader Shahanshah Jehangir.
The polarisation of Muslim votes was a deciding factor in the last assembly elections. More than 30 per cent of the Muslim population in West Bengal still favours Mamata and she cannot afford to lose their support.
Though Mamata has justified her pro-Modi stand by saying that it is for the welfare of the state, the Muslim community is not convinced. “She should not cross the limit,” said Noor-u-Jaman Ilahi, a Muslim cleric in Kolkata. “We don’t want the RSS to gain ground in Bengal.”
Plan gone awry
* A lawyer by profession, Farzana Alam started her political career with the Congress in the 1990s. She joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) shortly after the party was formed. Was close to Mamata Banerjee once.
* She was elected as councillor of Kolkata Municipal Corporation four consecutive times. Was made deputy mayor in 2010, when the TMC swept the corporation elections.
* This time, Sovan Chatterjee allegedly wanted to give the deputy mayor’s post to a leader who recently joined from the Congress. Alam accused Chatterjee and other senior leaders of “hatching a plot” to defeat her.
* On April 30, Alam was allegedly assaulted by party workers. She was taken to hospital and later discharged. Though Alam went with a complaint, the police initially refused to file an FIR.
* A heart patient, Alam was reportedly unwell following the incident. On May 11, she was taken to the hospital after complaining of chest pain. She suffered cardiac arrest and died.
The M factor
* Mamata’s share of votes during the last assembly elections was little more than 40 per cent. She got more than half of the total Muslim votes, which is 30 per cent of the total votes.
* In Lok Sabha elections, too, her Muslim vote share increased manifold, thanks to her efforts to woo the community.
* However, a section of the Muslims is not happy as no strong development projects have come up, which could help the community.
* Eyebrows are being raised at Mamata’s growing friendliness with Modi.