This is an autumn of political windfall for Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. In September she emerged as a champion of farmer rights after the supreme court upheld her decade-long stance and ordered that the entire land of the Nano factory in Singur has to be returned to the farmers. October and November are gifting her the opportunity to extend her support to another politically influential constituency -- the Muslims.
Significantly for the Trinamool Congress chief, both farmers and minorities form two of the most important bases that she has wooed throughout her career. Equally important, the opportunities have arrived when she is preparing to extend her appeal beyond the confines of her state for a bigger role in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Hear it in her own words. “We have to spread the roots of Trinamool Congress to Delhi. You have to take us to a position where we can serve the people from Delhi,” she said on June 21 speaking to party leaders and workers in Netaji Indoor stadium.
In fact, she kept lambasting BJP on almost every ‘Hindutwa’ issue from beef ban to cow census. On July 21, at a flagship party programme in the city, she said, “What I choose to eat is my own sweet decision, and none else has any say in it.”
Mamata Banerjee’s plans for a national role were, however, evident on May 27, the day when she took oath for the second time as chief minister. All the prominent faces who can be members of the so-called Third Front -- Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Farooq Abdullah, Arvind Kejriwal and K Kanimozhi -- were present at the swearing in ceremony and later Mamata herself remarked that she will be happy to push the cause of a non-BJP non-Congress front.
It is against this backdrop that one has to consider her stand on the uniform civil code. Though she hasn’t uttered, or twitted, a word in support of the Muslim Personal Law Board, it is easy to decipher her support behind the agitation programme by three Trinamool MPs -- Idris Ali, Sultan Ahmed and Ahmed Hassan Imran -- protesting the Centre’s initiative of an uniform civil code.
“We will speak to the chief minister on this issue. She has always upheld the rights of the minorities not only in Bengal, but also in the country, in tune with the tradition of secularism in the state,” said Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati, imam of Tipu Sultan masjid, who is a confidante of Mamata Banerjee.
“It’s an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to move the focus away from development, and rake up communal issues before the impending assembly elections in a few states,” said Idris Ali, Lok Sabha MP.
Both Ali and Barkati, who led the protest on Friday, made it clear that they will launch their offensive against the Centre from Kolkata.
“Political parties who are using a section of imams and such people to further their political aspirations are scared that they will lose control over a section of the masses,” Sidharth Nath Singh, national spokesperson of BJP, told HT.
Very few politicians have been able to swing both the major constituencies -- farmers and minorities -- in their way as the Bengal chief minister did in her career.
In the Bengal assembly elections of 2011, she managed to rout the Left mainly on the votes of both these segments swinging towards her. While her support to the anti-acquisition movements in Singur (2006-08) and Nandigram (2007-08) brought the farmers close to her, the Muslims who form about 27.01% -- 24 million in a state of 91 million -- of the population voted solidly for her.
Five years later the support base consolidated even further, leading to 211 seats in a house of 294.
It is quite obvious that the Centre will not take her sympathy to the MPLB very kindly, and will hit back. But then Mamata Banerjee can never be faulted for picking her issues recklessly.
When after coming in power in Bengal she extended sops to the minorities in Bengal like grants to imams and muezzins and homestead land for them, many political pundits predicted a backlash from the majority community. In reality, all sections voted for Trinamool in more numbers than in 2011.
However, this time she may need to do a deft balancing act, as a proposed uniform civil code is likely to hold some appeal to a number of Muslim women.