On March 21, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee coined a new slogan: "Some say NaMo-NaMo; I say No-No."
Trinamool Congress party leader Mamata Banerjee, center, greets her supporters at a rally in New Delhi. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
She then, at public rallies, took on Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) prime minister candidate Narendra Modi frontally, attacking claims of the 'Gujarat model of development'.
Mamata's campaign pitch, conversations across north Bengal and Kolkata reveal, is driven by a realpolitik calculation in a bid to retain and win over the Muslim vote and counter what is seen as a rise in the BJP's support.
This will have an impact on her post-election options. Muslims constitute slightly over one-fourth of West Bengal's population.
Minorities deserted the CPI (M) in large numbers in the 2011 assembly elections. Abdur Razak Mollah, who was minister in the CPI(M) government and has now been expelled from the party, says, "Muslims were alienated from the party after incidents like Nandigram. The Sachar Committee report also exposed that Muslims were backward in education, employment." Mamata tapped into this disenchantment.
Since taking over as the CM, she has recognised the power of their vote, and has made several efforts to reach out to the community leaders – announcing allowances for Imams and Muezzins, which were later struck down by the court; running campaigns to promote Urdu; supporting extremist ideologues and launching special schemes.
Some of these steps have drawn criticism from both the BJP, for 'appeasing' minorities, and from the CPI(M), for flirting with fundamentalists.
"She is soft on fundamentalists of both forms. These are token steps, but create doubts among those in majority community. What Muslims want is real empowerment," says CPI(M) leader Mohammed Salim.
The Trinamool Congress, traditionally strong in south Bengal, is also trying to make inroads into north Bengal, a region which had left to its ally, the Congress, earlier.
In this belt, Muslims are even more sizeable, comprising over 60% of the population in Murshidabad, over 50% in Malda and close to half the population in North Dinajpur district.
A TMC district-level activist in Malda, who wished to remain anonymous, said it would be 'political suicide' for the party to go with Narendra Modi after the elections.
"Muslims will en-masse move to Congress and CPM, who are waiting precisely for Mamata to make such a mistake. All our efforts till now will get wasted. Our real aim is winning the 2016 assembly polls, and we cannot afford to lose Muslims before that."
The Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan Mosque, NR Barkati, urged Mamata to be more aggressive against Modi two weeks ago. He is now convinced she is on the 'right line', and told HT, "She has promised to me that she won't go with BJP and rather sit in the opposition. I believe her and will campaign for her."
Read: Kolkata's shahi imam wary of Narendra Modi's ascendency
At his rally in Kolkata, Modi had left the doors open for an alliance, by choosing not to criticise the TMC directly.
Sharbesh, a taxi driver in Kolkata, laughed at the suggestion that the TMC won't go with Modi. "If he is going to be PM, she will support him. She will find some reason like special Bengal package. She has been with BJP earlier too."
A newspaper editor said the lack of any viable alternative meant she would win in 2016 even without substantial Muslim votes, and could take the risk of supporting the BJP from outside.
In Ghagra village in Raiganj, Azizul Rahman, a farmer, said, "Only Congress can stop BJP at the national-level, not TMC."
It is to counter such doubts, to ensure that the anti-Modi votes do not get divided among the CPI(M), Congress and her, and prevent any possibility of the BJP eating into her own votes, that Mamata has launched a new high-decibel campaign.
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