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Muslims and the West Bengal electoral scenario
By Mohammad Ashfaque, Kolkata
|The political scenario in West Bengal is warming up even before the dates for the forthcoming Assembly elections are announced. The Sangh Parivar and its front organizations are taking keen interest in the state which had so far remained a strong bastion of the Marxists. Apart from senior leaders of RSS and VHP who have visited West Bengal recently, the BJP Vice President Jana Krishnamurty and General Secretary Narendra Modi have visited Kolkata to assess the political scenario in the State. The party has decided to organize training camps for the party workers in West bengal. A target has been fixed for formation of committees for all Assembly segments and booth level committees of BJPs. At a rally organized in Kolkata on 30 November by the BJP Jana Krishnamurty announced that the Party will offer full weight of its election machinery behind Mamata Banerjee' Trinamool Congress to fight the CPI (M). Md. Rafiq of Trinamool Congress who attended the rally alongwith some leaders of TMC was given a warm welcome and prominence in the BJP rally. Krishnamurty announced that the BJP's next national executive meeting would be held in Kolkata in mid January. The meeting would be followed by a rally at Brigade Parade Ground to be addressed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, L.K.Advani and the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. The organizational machinery of the Party is being geared up for the forthcoming polls. Muzaffar Khan the vice president of BJP in West Bengal had been meeting prominent Muslims to persuade them to support BJP and to respond favorably to the appeal of the BJP President Bangaru Laxman. BJP leaders appear to be confident that they would perform well in the next elections in West Bengal.
The votes polled by BJP candidates in Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal had alarmingly increased from 1.7 percent in 1989 to 11.14 percent in 1999. There are possibilities that continuance of BJP's alliance with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) may help it in further increasing its base in West Bengal The only time, in the past, when the BJP votes in West Bengal had reached double figures was in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections held in 1991 when the BJP had benefited from the Ramjanambhoomi movement launched by LK Advani. In the elections held in West Bengal in 1996 there was a substantial fall in BJP Votes from 11.37 percent in 1991 to 6.45 percent in 1996. In 1998 Mamata Banerjee left Congress and formed Trinamool Congress. She joined hands with the BJP and her party the TMC became an important constituent of the BJP-led alliance at the centre.
In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections this alliance between TMC and BJP secured 37.19 percent (TMC 26.05 percent + BJP 11.14 percent) of the valid Votes in West Bengal replacing Congress as the principal opposition to the CPI(M) dominated Left Front. Congress managed to secure only 13.29 percent of the votes (mainly in areas having substantial Muslim population ). In 1996 Lok Sabha elections Congress had secured 40.1 percent votes, The Left Front, however, managed to retain its position and secured 48.59 percent Votes compared to 37.19 percent secured by the National Democratic Alliance (TMC and BJP). It meant a lead of 11.40 percent for the Left Front over NDA in the last Lok Sabha elections.
During the past two years the state has seen a fast growth of RSS and its front outfits in West Bengal. The two BJP Ministers from West Bengal, Tapan Sikdar and Satyabrata Mukhopadhyay, are working hard to justify their induction in the central ministry by trying to ensure that the party gains further in West Bengal so that BJP could play an important role in dislodging the Left Front from power and become indispensable in formation of an alternative Government in the state with TMC. To achieve her goal of defeating the Left Font and forming an alternative government in the state Mamata Banerjee desperately needs Muslims votes, which has so far eluded her because of her Party's alliance with the BJP. Under the above political scenario the votes of Muslim community (about a quarter of the total votes in West Bengal) have gained importance and may play a decisive role in the next elections in the state. In order to appease Muslim voters both CPI(M) and TMC have been making tall promises and blaming each other for the socio economic backwardness of the Muslim Community. Both CPI(M) and TMC are playing the minority cards with finesse.
Mamata Banerjee has promised that if her party, TMC, comes to power in West Bengal it will provide reservations for Muslims in admissions to educational institutions and appointments in services under the state government. Subrata Mukherjee, leader of TMC and Mayor of Kolkata Municipal Corporation had in the convention organized recently by the West Bengal Qaumi Tanzeem, on 14 November 2000, announced that his party would provide 50 percent reservation for Muslims in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. But as he faced criticism of making an illusionary promise, which cannot be fulfilled, he had to beat a hasty retreat and say that only 15 percent of the jobs in CMC would be reserved for Muslims. It is not clear as to how even this would be done.
Budhadeb Bhattacharya, the new chief minister of West Bengal, who has replaced Jyoti Basu recently, while blaming the Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee of making false promises to the minorities, says that if such reservation in jobs on the basis of religion is possible, then Mamata Banerjee should provide job reservations for Muslims in the Railways.
Addressing the Muslims in a function organized by the Kolkata Muslim Orphanage on the 25 November 2000, the new CM announced a package of incentives for the Muslims. He promised to allot residential plots at the New Township Project in Rajarhat on the fringe of Kolkata and other urban areas in the city for the Muslims to solve the housing problems of the Muslims of Kolkata. He declared his intention to construct more hostels for Muslim students specially for women students. He assured the orphanage authorities that he would help the Kolkata Muslim Orphanage secure a plot of land, which was taken over by the Government during World War II. Alternately he promised to allot a big plot there for the orphanage. He has promised Government help in modernization of Madrasa system of education in West Bengal. and emphasized the need for learning English and Science alongwith other subjects in the Madrasahs. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who is also in charge of home ministry of West Bengal has criticized Mamata Banerjee for "aligning with the communal BJP and RSS combine who are responsible for the rise of communal forces in the State.’
The West Bengal Minorities Development & Finance Corporation, created by the Government of the state, is being geared up by the Left Front to provide Term loans to Muslim entrepreneurs and to promote self employment opportunities for the Muslims. On 25 November 2000 in a function organized by the W.B. Minorities Development & Finance Corporation (WBMDFC) the new Chief Minister of West Bengal handed over keys of 25 Taxis to Muslim and Budhist Youths. The Taxis were purchased by the Finance Corporation under its Taxi Loan Schemes which provides for 95 percent of the project cost as loan from the Corporation. This Finance Corporation is headed by the CPI (M) Rajya Sabha Member Md. Salim. WBMDFC has announced several financial assistance schemes under its Self Employment Programme. The interest rate for this Corporation's loan is 7.5 percent for loan upto Rs 2 Lakh and 10 percent per annum for loan above Rs. 2 Lakh. The term loan scheme requires one guarantor (Government/Semi Government employee or a School Teacher) but no guarantor is needed for a loan upto Rs. 25,000. Under the Margin Money Loan Scheme WBMDFC provides 35 percent of the project cost as loan for such projects upto Rs 5 Lakhs for which any Commercial Bank may be willing to finance 60 percent.
Congressmen are not lagging behind CPI(M) and TMC in trying to woo the Muslim voters. A close associate of the chief whip of the Congress Party in Lok Sabha (Priya Ranjan Das Munshi M.P.), Amitabha Chakraborti, the President of West Bengal Youth Congress, has called for processions and a youth rally in Kolkata on 6 December 2000 in support of the demand for resignation or dismissal of the Union Ministers LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharati and the governor of newly formed Jharkhand State, Prabhat Kumar (former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh) for their involvement in the demolition of Babri Masjid.. Youth Congress has been organizing public meetings in different areas of the state to mobilize public opinion in favour of their demands explaining how the barbaric act of demolition of Babri Masjid by the activists of Sangh Parivar in 1992 has tarnished the image of India and badly damaged the secular fabric of the nation. In public meetings Youth Congress leaders are blaming the NDA Government at the Centre of yielding to American pressures and adopting a pro-Israel policy by ignoring the Palestinians who are fighting a battle for liberation of Palestine. They are demanding that India should support the cause of PLO led by Yasser Arafat in the United Nations.