On Sunday, a show of strength was organised in Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground by the CPM and the Congress, along with the newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) of cleric Abbas Siddiqui. Reports suggest that the huge crowd was not mobilized by either CPM or Congress, but primarily by Abbas Siddiqui. He is the pirzada of Furfura Sharif, a religious shrine venerated by Muslims and thus may have a major influence on that community. Let’s make no mistake, in spite of the name of Siddiqui’s outfit, there is nothing remotely “secular” about ISF. Its whole politics is premised on religious identity; and it is representative of a particular minority community. ISF hopes to tap into their grievances and raise their demands at relevant levels, and find political representation in the process. From all accounts, the young Siddiqui already has got a fan following among the youth of his community and may play a decisive role in certain minority dominated seats in the Assembly elections starting on 27 March. In fact, this minority vote bank has a decisive say in at least around a hundred seats in Bengal’s 294-seat Assembly. This has to be seen in the context of the fact that it was the en bloc voting by the minority community that helped Mamata Banerjee come to power in 2011 and return with a landslide in 2016. This vote bank was created by the CPM-led Left Front and it was only when it shifted to Mamata that she managed to defeat the CPM, which should explain her party’s pronounced tilt towards this particular community; and she is quite open about it. In fact, even Congress’ pockets of influence in certain minority dominated districts such as Malda and Murshidabad are because of this particular community. However, there is major grievance in this community that the so-called secular parties have always used them as a vote bank, but have done nothing for them. Siddiqui hopes to tap into this grievance, while at least talking about broad-basing his “movement” by giving a voice to the marginalized in general.
The Communists, who have become irrelevant in Bengal politics with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, are hoping to piggyback on Siddiqui’s ISF and get a chunk of Muslim votes and with that a few seats. Hence, CPM is going for a seat-sharing arrangement with ISF and is likely to give it around 30-40 seats to fight from. However, CPM’s ally Congress, or rather Adhir Chowdhury—MP and president of Congress’ Bengal unit—is not keen to join hands with ISF, in spite of what is believed to be pressure from the party high command in Delhi. This is primarily because, in the long run, Chowdhury’s minority vote bank in Murshidabad district may get dented with the entry of the cleric from Furfura Sharif. The state Congress under him is apparently unwilling to give the ISF even one seat in Murshidabad. Whether that part of the “secular” alliance works out or not, what is certain is that Siddiqui and CPM together have the potential to damage Mamata Banerjee in her stronghold in South 24 Parganas district in particular, where there is a substantial presence of minority voters. Until recently, the cleric from Furfura Sharif was seeking to be in alliance with Mamata Banerjee, but did not get any response from her. However, if Sunday’s show of strength by him is any indication, and if he manages to take away a chunk of Trinamool Congress’ Muslim voters, then sooner or later Mamata Banerjee may have to give space to Abbas Siddiqui, or else face an existential crisis, as her party’s political fortunes are totally dependent on this particular vote bank.
In the meantime, the rise of Siddiqui and the political legitimacy being given to him by the communists will further polarize, along religious lines, an already polarized state and deepen the divide in society. Whether this helps the BJP or not, will depend on the extent of minority consolidation for Mamata Banerjee and the counter consolidation of the majority in favour of the BJP. The other possibility of a hung verdict will depend on how far the CPM-led “front” can eat into the TMC’s and BJP’s respective votes. However, if there is a hung verdict, there is every possibility of the CPM, Congress, ISF and TMC coming together to form government in the name of keeping “communal BJP” out. In other words, BJP will have to sweep Bengal to come to power. Nothing short of that will do.
As for the rise of Abbas Siddiqui, only time will tell how his politics of religious identity will play out in Bengal.