Owaisi party entry into Bengal likely to unsettle TMC's sway over minorities

     By Pradipta Tapadar
    Kolkata, Nov 13 (PTI) With Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM
announcing that it would contest Bengal polls, having
bagged five seats in neighbouring Bihar, political arithmetic,
in all likelihood, is set to witness a major change as TMC's
sway over minority votes seems to be up for a stiff challenge.
    The Mamata Banerjee-led party, which had been the sole
beneficiary of minority votes since the defeat of the Left
Front in 2011, however, tried to put up a brave face, arguing
that Owaisi's influence on Muslims is limited to Hindi- and
Urdu-speaking communities that make for just six per cent of
Muslim electorate in the state.
    Muslims comprise 30 per cent of West Bengal's
voters. The state has the highest number of Muslim
electorate in the country after Kashmir.
    A deciding factor in nearly 100-110 seats in the 294-
member Assembly, minorities especially the Muslims, till 2019,
have acted as a bulwark of the TMC against its rivals, with
most of them voting in favour of the party, considering it to
be a "credible" force that can resist saffron surge.
    With the entry of the AIMIM, equations are likely to
change, prominent Muslim leaders said.
    Buoyed by the results of Bihar polls, Owaisi had
announced that the AIMIM would contest elections in West
Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and other states.
    Talking about the Telangana-based party's detailed
plan for Mission West Bengal, its national spokesperson Asim
Waqar told PTI on Wednesday that the outfit has already set up
units in 22 out of the 23 districts of the state.
    "We will fight assembly polls in Bengal. We are
preparing our strategy. We have registered our presence in 22
out of the 23 districts of the state. We think, as a political
party, we can make deep inroads into the state," Waqar said.
    The AIMIM's plan to enter Bengal was frowned upon by
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at an anti-NRC rally in north
Bengal in November last year, when she, without taking a name,
launched a frontal assault on the party by asking Muslims to
be wary of "minority extremists" from Hyderabad.
    Owaisi -- who is fast emerging as the leading Muslim
voice in the country -- was quick to hit back, stating that
West Bengals minorities have one of the worst human
development indicators.
    According to the AIMIM, Owaisi has found Bengal to be
a fertile ground for his expansion plans. The party has built
a "good support base" in minority-dominated districts of
Malda, Murshidabad, South Dinajpur, North Dinajpur, South 24
    All five districts comprise more than sixty assembly
seats. Incidentally, barring South 24 Parganas, the remaining
four districts border Bihar, where the party won five seats,
eating into the Muslim vote share of the RJD-led
    According to AIMIM state leadership, the party first
evinced interest in Bengal after the 2019 parliamentary polls.
    A rally was duly organised in Kolkata, which witnessed
a huge attendance of Muslim youths.
    "We sensed that Muslims are looking for an alternative
and decided to build our base in the state. When we visited
the districts, we received a favourable response. Now we have
a strong base in several places," a state AIMIM leader said.
    According to AIMIM sources, the war of words between
Banerjee and Owaisi provided the party a much-needed
propellant to make a foray into the state's political scene.
    That followed by violent agitation over Citizenship
Amendment Act gave the party a perfect opportunity to expand
its footprint in the state.
    "Also, the recent migrant labour crisis has helped us,
as a large section of Muslims realised who is its true
friend," the AIMIM leader said.
    Mohammed Kamruzzaman, the general secretary of All
Bengal Minority Youth Federation, told PTI that Muslims who
had voted for the TMC are not happy with the way the party
has fared on many fronts.
    Several developments such as TMC leaders joining the
BJP have propped up "questions about the credibility of the
the Mamata Banerjee party in its fight against the BJP".
    "The Muslims, for the last ten years, have voted for
the TMC, and they have hopes and aspirations from the party.
Although some of them have been fulfilled, there are a many
grievances, too. A section of Muslims feels that the leaders
they have voted for are either joining hands with the BJP or
jumping the ship. So they are wary..." Kamruzzaman said.
    He refuted claims that Owaisi's influence is limited
to just Hindi- and Urdu-speaking voters.
    "Owaisi is held in high regard among Bengali Muslims
too. And his anti-BJP credentials are impeccable. He has never
compromised with the BJP," Kamruzzaman, who during 2019 had
appealed to the Muslim community to vote for the TMC, said.
    The Imams of the city, who also exert a major
influence on the Muslim population in the state, however, has
maintained a stoic silence over the matter so far.
    The TMC, which is yet to fully recover from the 2019
Lok Sabha poll setback, when the BJP's tally soared from two
to 18, is apprehensive that the AIMIM may act as "spoiler" in
several assembly segments.
    "In minority-dominated pockets, where we are still the
most-preferred party, the AIMIM may not win the seats but will
hamper our prospects. Although West Bengal has 24 per cent
Bengali-speaking Muslims and six per cent Hindi-speaking
Muslims, we need to ensure that entire minority vote share
remains intact, as the BJP is making all efforts to polarise
the majority population," a TMC leader said.
    The TMC further termed the Owaisi-led party as a
"communal force deputed by BJP" to act as "vote cutter".
    "Just like the BJP, the AIMIM is also a communal
force. Both the political parties survive on divisive
politics. The AIMIM is planning to fight elections in Bengal
to help the BJP in the state," senior TMC leader and state
minister Firhad Hakim said.
    His cabinet colleague and state Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind
president Siddiqullah Chowdhury exuded confidence that
Muslims won't go with the AIMIM in the assembly polls, likely
to be held in April-May next year.
    "The Muslims in Bengal are politically conscious; they
won't support a party which is an outsider in state politics
and a B-team of the BJP. The Muslims would vote for the TMC to
stop the saffron party from coming to power," he said.
    The BJP, for which the division of Muslims votes is
vital to winning the elections, however, denied the claim that
the AIMIM might prove to be its B-team.
    "We don't need a B-team or a C-team to win Bengal
elections. We will win the state assembly polls on our
strength and merit, bagging more than 200 seats," BJP national
vice-president Mukul Roy said. PTI PNT

(This story has not been edited by THE WEEK and is auto-generated from PTI)