The Muslim-Vote In West Bengal Polls

It is indeed ironical that respected politicians suddenly become aware of the importance held by Muslim votes only when elections are in the air. Should it thus be assumed that hype raised about Muslim votes while campaigning is confined only to their electoral importance? This question is being deliberately raised as West Bengal Assembly polls have witnessed a new importance, greater than before, to the state’s Muslim votes. Why? Or why not, as Muslims constitute over 28 percent of the state’s population. The political scenario would have been different if only a few strong parties were in the fray. The aim of several rival parties, including the Trinamool Congress and the Congress is to oust the left bloc, which has headed the state government since 1977. This is not the first time that Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Bannerjee is testing her political destiny in the state. But this certainly is the first time that a tremendous hype has been created about the possibility of her heading the next government in West Bengal. Incidentally, an impression has also been created of there being a high probability of the Muslim vote being inclined towards her.

Irrespective of whether Mamata succeeds or not, it would be erroneous to hold only the Muslim votebank as having played a crucial role in this direction. Rather, the degree to which Muslim vote splits may play a more decisive role than expected. This point is being made primarily on the basis of the number of Muslim candidates in the fray and their political affiliations.  Despite Muslims constituting over 27 percent of the state’s population, less than 20 percent of the candidates participating in the elections to 294 seats are Muslims. If one were to go only by statistics, the hype raised about the Muslim vote demands that the concerned parties should have fielded Muslim candidates to at least 27 percent of the assembly seats, which would be more than 75. This has not been the practice. While CPI-M fielded more than 40 Muslim candidates, Trinamool Congress – less than 40 and the Congress – 23. More than 60 Muslims have tried their luck as independent candidates. Added together, the candidates fielded by small parties total 116. Despite these parties having barely any roots here, six Muslims filed their nominations as Bharatiya Janata Party candidates and 10 from Bahujan Samaj Party.

Only around 16 percent of all the candidates are Muslims. Certainly, had Muslims not opted for contesting elections as independents and had smaller parties not fielded more than 100 candidates, the statistical representation of Muslim candidates in the fray would have fallen by more than 50 percent. Muslims fielded by CPI-M, Trinamool Congress and the Congress constitute less than seven percent of the total contestants. These statistics certainly pose a major question mark on the rhetoric indulged in by several party leaders about their concern for the Bengali Muslim.

At the same time, the probability of Muslims having been deliberately fielded as “independent” candidates or from small parties cannot be ignored. If politicking of this nature has been deliberately indulged in, the intention is obvious. It has less to do with concerns about Muslims. The aim of this politicking has been to cut into votebanks of rival candidates by creating a split in the Muslim votebank. Once the results are out, an analysis of votes secured by Muslim candidates and their position as winners or losers would reveal the degree to which this politicking led to a split in votes, because of the religious identity of the candidates.

There is yet another angle to West Bengal assembly polls that cannot be ignored. The state has not witnessed any communal riot targeting Muslims since the left bloc has been at the helm. Also, it cannot be forgotten that some Muslims targeted in the 2002 Gujarat carnage moved to West Bengal. Quite a significant number of Muslims living here for decades have claimed that they feel secure here. These points have been made to highlight the fact that statistics indicating inappropriate representation of Muslims in the assembly and at other levels cannot always be viewed as correct indicators of their attitude towards political parties in the electoral fray.

In this context, it may be pointed out that the Speaker of the outgoing assembly is a Muslim from CPI-M, Hashim Abdul Halim. He has held this office for nineteen years, since May 6, 1982. Only 15 percent members of preceding assembly were Muslims. More than 50 percent of these belong to CPI-M and less than 30 percent to both Trinamool Congress and Congress. Given that Muslim voters have already been labelled in certain quarters as “floating voters,” their representation and political affiliations in the new assembly is to be closely watched and studied. Should it be regarded as an indicator of religious politicking indulged in, along negative lines, to cut into votebanks of probable winners or should it be viewed as an indicator of the electoral card shrewdly exercised by Muslim voters?