The entry of Abbas Siddiqui, the Pirzada of Hooghly’s Furfura Sharif, a holy place for Bengali Muslims, in electoral politics ahead of the crucial West Bengal assembly election, has given birth to many questions.
Will Siddiqui be able to bring back Muslim votes from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to the Left-Congress alliance? If so, would it be in significant numbers to bring down the Mamata Banerjee government? Will Siddiqui be able to rescue the Left from its shrinking political space? The bigger question is, can Bengal look at Siddiqui as both a secular and Muslim candidate?
Ever since the hastily stitched pre-poll alliance with Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) was made public by the Left-Congress front with much fanfare from the Brigade Parade Ground rally on 28 February, there is a palpable sense of jubilation among Left and BJP leaders alike.
Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), had come to Furfura Sharif in the first week of January to meet Abbas Siddiqui and express his wish to make him the leading face of the AIMIM in the state. It is not clear how and when Siddiqui changed his mind and closed ranks with the Left.
Public perception is often formed by established norms. The fact that this Pirzada, popularly known among his devotee-followers as ‘Bhaijan’, has been a scion of the Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiqui family — the founder of the Furfura Sharif — makes him a religious leader and thus confines him to the arena of Muslim religious identity. People have also not forgotten the video clip of him speaking out at a jalsa against actor and TMC MP Nusrat Jahan for marrying a Hindu man.
Siddiqui’s secular ISF has been branded a communal outfit and many BJP leaders are hoping he may take away Muslim votes from the TMC.
A section of Left sympathisers is also criticising the Left parties, mostly the CPI(M), for making the ISF their electoral partner. A Bengali fortnightly journal ‘Arek Rakam‘ (founded by late Dr Ashoke Mitra) came out strongly against this alliance in its editorial. Yet, in public meetings where Siddiqui was campaigning for Left and ISF candidates, he took a complete areligious line.
Bengal’s electoral outcome may just rest on Siddiqui’s tightrope walk.
After putting up candidates in about 20 seats in south Bengal, Siddiqui started asserting his party’s secular credentials more. In Canning and Bhangar (both in South 24 Parganas), the ISF leader was heard addressing the crowd as “deprived and humiliated” sons and daughters of “Bharatmata” and urging them to assert their right by casting their votes for the Left-ISF-Congress candidates. He asked poor working people, owners of small businesses, servicemen, women and the unemployed to mobilise. He added that he was in favour of forming a united front of these people irrespective of their religious and caste identities. Unlike any Muslim leader, Siddiqui was not heard of uttering the word ‘Muslim’ in his speech, and most of his attacks were targeted against the BJP and TMC.
Refuting the allegations of pampering Muslims, the Pirzada, who used to hold regular jalsas in south Bengal before joining politics, said “many a people come to me and share their problems with me. It’s not that Muslims only come to me, the Hindus, tribals, Matuas and all kind of poor people come to me. In fact, that motivated me to join politics.”
In fact, the ISF’s first list of 21 candidates had 11 Muslim, three Brahmin, two tribal, and five OBC and SC names. Unlike the Muslim League, now defunct in West Bengal, the ISF seems to be widening its constituencies by trying to include poor lower caste people, Dalits and Scheduled Tribes. Incidentally, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP, has been busy trying to bring the same section of people to the Hindu fold.
Not a big footprint
The positioning of Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF as a secular outfit and its not-so-pronounced pro-Muslim stance gives the Left a suitable ally, which, by trying to unite the poorest of the poor irrespective of their caste and religious identities, follows the class line of the Communists.
But that does not mean that the ISF, riding on the popularity of Pirzada Siddiqui, will be able to win the support of a sizeable section of Muslims in West Bengal, who have been supporting the TMC for their own security.
As Sabir Ahmed, a senior researcher associated with Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute, observes, Siddiqui’s influence among his devotees is restricted to mostly two-three districts — Hooghly, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas. Moreover, Muslim scholars and activists point out that the Furfura Sharif is a known centre of Sufism. The orthodox Muslims, who outnumber the followers of Sufism, won’t vote for the ISF. Even a section of Siddiqui’s devotee-followers might not vote for his party because they feel that a religious leader should not mingle in politics.
A school teacher in Malda said that the ISF becoming an electoral partner of the Left and Congress would help consolidate Hindu votes in favour of the BJP. This will, in turn, help build a Muslim consolidation in favour of the TMC.
Why the Left is happy
Despite all these shortcomings of ISF, the Left Front is jubilant. The parties are enthusiastically hoping that the Muslims, who left them to support the TMC after the Singur-Nandigram movement, will return to their fold now. This new-found confidence, coupled with a good number of fresh and young candidates under their flag, might help them in a different sector too. The Left can retrieve some of the votes they had transferred to the BJP in 2019. That year, the Left workers were unable to resist the TMC onslaught and decided to take shelter under the BJP flag — their avowed goal was to teach the ruling TMC a lesson. The unofficial slogan was “Ebare Ram, parer bar Baam” (This time BJP, next time Left).
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, the CPI(M) vote share was reduced to 6.3 per cent, while the Congress could only secure 5.6 per cent of the votes. The BJP got 41 per cent votes in 2019, a jump from 10.2 per cent in the 2016 assembly election. Obviously, the increase in the BJP’s vote share had a co-relation with the decrease of the Left-Congress vote share. But the TMC was ahead of all of them — with 43 per cent votes. If this year, with the induction of Abbas Siddiqui, a rejuvenated Left starts pulling out the votes it had transferred to the BJP, it would spell disaster for Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s party. That would be the perfect storm the Left is hoping for. But perfect storms don’t come easy.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.
Edited by Neera Majumdar.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.