Jangipur/Murshidabad: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not known to be generous in fielding Muslim candidates in elections, has given tickets to two members of the community in West Bengal, as it did in 2014.
While Mafuja Khatun has been fielded from Jangipur, a constituency where 61.79 per cent of the population is Muslim, Humayun Kabir is the BJP candidate from Murshidabad, where the community comprises 66 per cent of the population.
Among the 420 Lok Sabha seats for which candidates have been announced so far, the BJP has fielded seven Muslims. In 2014, when the party contested 428 seats, the BJP again gave tickets to seven Muslims.
Muslim candidates fielded on a BJP ticket had no luck in 2014, with all seven losing, giving India its first Lok Sabha where the ruling party had no MPs from the country’s second-largest religious community.
The record is dimmer in Bengal: Even in 2009, the sole Muslim fielded by the party, Syed Ali Afzal Chand from Burdwan-Durgapur, lost the election.
The two candidates nominated this time belonged to other parties until recently, but enter the fray as dyed-in-the-wool BJP members who claim that the party’s communal image is a construct of its rivals.
The red in saffron
Khatun, 47, is a former two-time MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from West Bengal’s south Dinajpur district. She joined the BJP in May 2017, after the Trinamool Congress (TMC) defeated her in the 2016 assembly election.
“Continuing in the CPI(M) made no sense and there was hardly any option before me,” she told ThePrint in an interview.
“I have always fought against the TMC. I could not have surrendered before the party. And the Congress hardly has any presence in the state today. This only left the BJP,” she said.
Pitted against the Congress’ Abhijit Mukherjee and Khalilur Rehman of the TMC, Khatun knows she has a tough fight ahead. Jangipur has been with the Congress since 2004, when it voted former President Pranab Mukherjee to the Lok Sabha.
After Mukherjee became the President in 2012, his son Abhijit was fielded from the seat and he has retained it since.
“It’s not going to be easy this time,” said Khatun. “But I will give him (Abhijit Mukherjee) a run for his money.”
Khatun’s foray into electoral politics began in 1993, “all because of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi”, she told ThePrint.
“Rajiv Gandhi pushed the 73rd constitutional amendment bill, reserving 33 per cent of seats for women in the three-tier panchayat,” she added.
The legislation came into effect under the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government.
“I contested in the gram panchayat election for the first time in 1993 and got elected,” she said. “At 22, I was the youngest gram panchayat member.”
There has been no looking back since. “I was the first woman gram panchayat pradhan, the only one among 65 men,” she said.
Asked if she was apprehensive about joining the BJP because of its “anti-Muslim” image, Khatun said this perception about the party had been built by its “enemies”.
“There is no discrimination. And I am impressed by Modiji’s dynamism,” she added.
Also read: ‘Vote for CPM is vote wasted’: Bengal’s Left supporters look to BJP to challenge Mamata
The ‘dal badlu’
Humayun Kabir’s adversaries often refer to him as “dal badlu” (turncoat) because, over his 26-year political career, he has been associated with the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party, as well as the BJP, whose stripes he currently wears.
In Murshidabad, Kabir’s main challenger will be CPI(M)’s Badaruddoza Khan, the incumbent MP.
Talking to ThePrint, Kabir, 55, said the reason he joined the BJP was “simple”. “Today, there is no alternative to Modi. Rahul Gandhi is no challenger. The Left in Bengal is history,” he added.
But it was with the Congress that Kabir started his political journey, way back in 1993, when he fought the panchayat elections.
He contested the assembly elections for the first time in 2011, and won. “I defeated the CPI(M) candidate by 9,000 votes,” Kabir told ThePrint.
Once the protégé of former state Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Baharampur MP, Kabir resigned from the party on 20 November 2012 after a fallout with him.
“The very next day, I joined the TMC, and was made a minister by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee,” Kabir said.
However, Kabir had to resign as minister after he lost the Reginanagar assembly bypoll to the Congress’ Rabiul Islam.
“I lost because a section of TMC leaders were angry and did not support me,” Kabir told ThePrint. “They thought I was being favoured by the CM.”
Soon, Kabir fell out with Mamata Banerjee as well, and was expelled from the party in 2015. He joined the Samajwadi Party for some time before deciding to contest as an Independent in the 2016 assembly elections. He lost and subsequently joined the Congress.
Last year, he left the Congress to join the BJP. Asked about the BJP’s communal image, he said it had been painted as such by the Congress and the CPI(M).
“The fact is, both the Congress and the CPI(M) have become very weak in Bengal today. People want change,” he added.
Kabir faces 13 police cases, on charges ranging from criminal intimidation and attempt to murder, to kidnapping and assault.
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