Kolkata: The Congress doesn’t want to ally with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) for the 2021 West Bengal assembly elections. The AIMIM, too, scoffs at the idea. And the Indian Secular Front (ISF) of Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui has made it clear that it won’t form an alliance based on conditions.
The ISF and the Congress have discussed forming a larger “secular front” to challenge the BJP and the Trinamool Congress, which are seen as the two main contenders in the upcoming elections.
However, the dialogue appears to have hit a wall with the Congress and the AIMIM — which has been in alliance talks with the the ISF — refusing to tie up. Between the ISF and the Congress, there have also been contradictory statements about who first offered an alliance.
The ISF wants to form a secular coalition, says Siddiqui, an influential cleric who heads the state’s most prominent Islamic shrine. But push comes to shove, he is ready to go it alone.
Hanging in the balance is the state’s Muslim vote.
Muslims have been key to Mamata Banerjee’s victory in 2011 and 2016, but Siddiqui accuses the chief minister of deceiving the community.
He claims her “appeasement policies” have harmed the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood and allowed the BJP to strengthen its presence in Bengal. According to Siddiqui, it is to offer an alternative to such politics that he has joined politics.
As uncertainty surrounds the new equations brewing in Bengal, political observers feel the ISF has greater bargaining power as the Left-Congress alliance — whose support among Muslims has been a slump — needs Siddiqui’s access to rural Bengal’s Muslim votes.
Talking to ThePrint, Siddiqui said the Congress met him with an offer to form an alliance. “Senior leaders of the Congress, including state chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, met me, requesting an alliance. But they want the AIMIM out of the alliance,” said Siddqui.
“Since then, we have not got any solid proposal from the Congress. Meanwhile, they have completed talks on seat-sharing in 193 of 294 assembly constituencies. We did not feature there,” he added.
“I want to form a secular alliance, but there have to be common terms, not conditions,” he said.
Congress leaders, meanwhile, claim the alliance proposal came from Siddiqui and there has been no further talk on this. “We cannot join any alliance that has the AIMIM in it,” Chowdhury said.
Abdul Mannan, Congress leader of the opposition in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, is believed to have written to interim party president Sonia Gandhi Wednesday, requesting her nod to an electoral alliance with the ISF.
However, Chowdhury said nothing has been finalised with the ISF. “We met him (Siddiqui) long back. The alliance proposal came from him. But the talks did not progress. For an electoral understanding, we need to know that the AIMIM is not part of it. We cannot join a platform that has the AIMIM in it,” he told The Print. Commenting on Mannan’s letter to Sonia, he said, “Abdul Mannan has written to Sonia ji, I have heard. It was his individual decision. He did not consult me on this and the party did not approve it.”
The AIMIM is looking to make its debut in Bengal with the upcoming election, having experienced a touch of success with its outing in Bihar last year.
However, Zamirul Hassan, the Bengal chief of the AIMIM, said they “cannot support any party that has an alliance with the Congress”.
“It is mutual enmity between us and Congress. They are our political rivals,” he added.
He said there had been no “internal organisational” meeting between Bengal’s AIMIM and Siddiqui’s ISF since 7 January, when AIMIM chief Owaisi met Siddiqui. “We are ready to field candidates in 25 seats . But the alliance part will be decided by our senior leaders in Hyderabad,” he added.
Abbas Siddiqui, who plans to field candidates in at least 70 seats across Murshidabad, Nadia, Malda, South Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Howrah, Hooghly, and North and South 24 Parganas, said he might go it alone if no party agrees on mutually consented terms for an alliance.
“I am open to joining hands with any secular force. I have tribal and Dalit leaders in my front too. I meet anyone who wants to talk and who has a reasonable seat-offer for us,” said the 34-year-old cleric. “But I will not bow down to arm-twisting tactics. I have nothing to lose. I will either win or learn from the defeat. In fact, I am still not in an alliance with the MIM. We are yet to work out a seat-sharing formula.”
Muslim votes matter
According to the 2011 Census, Muslims comprise 40 per cent of the population in at least 67 constituencies in Bengal. Siddiqui is looking to contest from all these seats, especially in the seats located near the India-Bangladesh border in Murshidabad, Malda, Nadia and North 24 Parganas.
Prof Abdul Matin of Jadavpur University, who has conducted extensive research on Bengal’s Muslims, said the “voteshare of the Congress and the Left among Muslim voters has witnessed a major slump over the past few years systematically”.
“Muslims do not see the Left-Congress alliance in Bengal as a force to reckon with. So, they want an access to these Muslim villages through Siddiqui. In my understanding, the Congress needs him more than he does them,” he added. “In Malda and Murshidabad, Congress votes have been fragmented after the 2016 assembly election.”
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.