By Nantoo Banerjee
The newly-formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) by Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, a radical Islamic cleric of Furfura Sharif, may hold the key to the formation of West Bengal’s next government in May. Siddiqui’s ISF is expected to grab at least 30 seats in the 294-member assembly and help the latest political alliance among the Left, Congress and ISF bag another 50 seats where Muslims account for almost 50 percent of voting population. As in Kerala, Muslims constitute almost 30 percent of West Bengal’s population. They could be a deciding factor in as many as 110 seats.
Kerala’s 140-member state assembly had as many as 29 Muslim MLAs after the 2016 election, a big majority of them representing the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). Interestingly, IUML in Kerala has always gone with the Congress-led United Democratic Alliance and was part of United Progressive Alliance at the national level. Whereas Kerala’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) strictly combined left and only left-leaning secular parties. In the 2016 Kerala Assembly election, LDF won as many as 91 seats. Of the 11-member LDF, two Communist parties — CPM (58) and CPI (19) — alone combined 77 seats. On the contrary, the Left Front and Congress alliance in 2016 West Bengal assembly election, bagged together only 77 seats. The alliance did not last long. During the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the proposed Congress-Left alliance fell apart after the parties could not agree on seat sharing.
The ISF is a binding factor between the Left and Congress in the current poll alliance in Bengal mainly for a higher Muslim vote share. Although no one is sure what will be ISF’s post-election stand if the alliance fail to gain a majority. The Left group in Kerala and IUML did not trust each other. Will the love between the two exist in Bengal after the election if they fail to form a government? However, Siddiqui’s seemingly fundamentalist ISF stand to gain substantially out of the alliance. The same can’t be said about the Left group, which may lose a part of its staunch secular support base on account of the alliance, or Congress. The alliance may weaken both the Left and Congress.
While senior Congress leaders, including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, were conspicuous by their absence at Kolkata’s giant Brigade rally on February 28, senior Congress leader Anand Sharma, known to be close to the Gandhi family, went upto saying in a tweet that “Congress’ alliance with parties like ISF and other such forces militates against the core ideology of the party and Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism, which forms the soul of the party.” Many staunch leftist thinkers too feel the Left has diluted its secularist ideology under political pressure in Bengal just to outmanoeuvre the ruling Trinamool Congress. By allying with a Muslim cleric, the Left has lost its principled stand on religion and politics although they don’t deny that in case of a close contest, the Left-Congress-ISF alliance may become a deciding factor. Neither CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, nor CPM politburo member Mohammed Salim from Bengal accepts such a view. The state’s Left Front and CPM’s central leadership fully support the tie-up with Siddiqui’s party. In fact, the Left was quick to conclude a seat-staring pact with ISF.
However, the biggest beneficiary of the new alliance is set to be ISF. Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, a strong radical Muslim leader of Furfura Sharif, is Bengal’s Asaduddin Owasi. But, Siddiqui appears to be smarter than Owasi. Initially, Siddiqui gave an impression of his nearness to Owaisi, who came to Bengal to hold talks with the Furfura Sharif cleric for the latter’s support for Hyderabad-based All India MajlisIttehad e Muslimeen to make an election foray in Bengal. However, Siddiqui thought it better to go with the Left and Congress, which also reached out to him for an election alliance. Cleverly, Siddiqui named his new party ‘Indian Secular Front’ including some representatives of the Dalit and tribal communities. Abbas Siddiqui’s brother, Naushad, is the chairman of ISF while Simal Soren, a tribal leader, is the president. Siddiqui is highly popular among Muslims in several parts of South and North 24-Parganas districts and others such as Hooghly, Howrah, Nadia, Burdwan, Birbhum, Malda and Murshidabad.
Furfura Sharif is a popular Muslim pilgrimage site in the state. Siddiqui, addressed as ‘Bhaijaan’ by his followers, has always been a plain speaker, expressing in public his emotions and religious sentiments that captured the heart of the believers. He often attracted public criticism against expression of such sentiments. The most frivolous among them was the one against Nusrat Jahan, popular actor-turned Trinamool’s Basirhat MP. After New Delhi riots last year, Siddiqui again courted controversy allegedly saying that Allah should send a virus to India so that crores could die; it did not matter even if he himself died. Siddiqui later said his speech was used out of context but tendered an apology nevertheless.
ISF’s election tie-up with the Left and Congress is causing a new headache for the state’s ruling TMC as also its principal opponent, BJP. Both seem to be rather clueless about the possible impact of the tie-up on the ballot box. A fair division of Muslim vote is all that TMC is hoping for. The party is stepping up campaign in Muslim-dominated constituencies. However, Abbas Siddiqui has already started a strong campaign against TMC, stating the latter did little to improve the lot of the state’s Muslim population in the last 10 years.
For BJP, the party has to depend totally on Hindu votes. Paradoxically, Hindu votes are a myth in Bengal. What will ultimately matter are ‘floating’ votes, which account for almost 60 percent of votes cast in assembly and parliamentary elections. BJP had raised its parliamentary strength from two in 2014 to 18 seats in 2019 Lok Sabha elections mainly due to the change in the pattern of ‘floating votes’. It is to be seen how the pattern gets influenced this time by the new electoral alliance and how the political parties step up the electioneering in the next few weeks. (IPA Service)