In West Bengal, motivations and fortunes of 9 Muslim candidates from the BJP - Hindustan Times
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In West Bengal, motivations and fortunes of 9 Muslim candidates from the BJP

Mar 23, 2021 06:52 AM IST

Five have been fielded in Murshidabad, where Muslims form two-thirds of the population; two from Malda, where they are half the population; and two from Uttar Dinajpur, where Muslims are a little less than half of the population

Mafuja Khatun has been in politics for three decades. The 50-year-old first stepped into politics in 1987, when she was in class 10. A resident of Gangarampur in the impoverished Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal, Khatun started working with the Student’s Federation of India, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist that was in power at the time.

A section of the crowd at a public rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Haldia, West Bengal, on February 7. (HT file photo)
A section of the crowd at a public rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Haldia, West Bengal, on February 7. (HT file photo)

A firebrand speaker and rare woman leader in a Muslim-dominated district, Khatun swiftly rose through the ranks. When seats were reserved for women in panchayats in 1993, she became the village chief.

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In 2001, the Left nominated her for the assembly elections from Kumarganj, and she won. She repeated her victory in 2006 but was swept aside when Mamata Banerjee stormed to power in 2011.

Out of power, she started mobilising bidi workers, who number around two million in central Bengal, are overwhelmingly Muslim and make a paltry 150 a day for their labour. With the help of a group of local young men, she started taping videos of her speeches with the workers, circulating them on social media. Today, her Youtube channel has nearly 90,000 subscribers.

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In May 2017, she made a curious move —switching to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), at a time when most of her Left colleagues were moving to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). “I could never think of the TMC, it has no ideology. I went from one ideology-driven party to another. And, I was attracted by PM Narendra Modi’s slogan, sabka sath, sabka vikas,” she said.

She fought the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as the BJP’s only Muslim woman candidate but lost. Today, Khatun is the senior-most member of a group of nine Muslim candidates fielded by the BJP for the high-stakes West Bengal elections, the highest number of picks from a community traditionally seen at odds with the party’s ideology.

This group comprises doctors, small businessmen, grassroots activists, turncoats, party diehards and TMC opponents. Of the nine, five have been fielded in Murshidabad, where Muslims form roughly two-thirds of the population; two from Malda, where Muslims are half the population; and two from Uttar Dinajpur, where Muslims are a little less than half of the population.

All three districts are among the most under-developed, far away from the state capital Kolkata and are largely rural with few cities or industries. More than half the population is dependent on agriculture and small-scale industries and is a sink for migrant labour.

Other than Khatun, none of them has won an election before. No one has been fielded from a seat where the BJP had a lead, according to votes polled in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Their task is more daunting given the charged and polarised atmosphere in the Bengal election campaign. The three districts are considered fortresses of the TMC and Congress. And, there are internal contradictions.

Khatun, the candidate from Sagardighi, for example, questions where it is written that Muslims cannot work with the BJP and says political opponents call the party anti-minority to secure their vote bank. “My district is the hub of migrant workers. I want to improve their lives. The TMC has failed; it is exploiting even the poor bidi workers. Only the BJP is an option,” she said.

Ghulam Sarwar, the candidate from Goalpokhor, is fighting his brother and sitting TMC minister, Ghulam Rabbani. The family estrangement has spilled out into the political arena, and both brothers have separate groups of relatives backing them.

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He argues that the BJP has proved its secular credential by naming nine Muslim candidates. He admits that his entry into politics was a response to his imprisonment during the violent 2018 panchayat election, allegedly at his brother’s behest.

“Yes, there is mob lynching in other states, but it happens here too. We are scared, but you just don’t get to know about it. We want to stand up to the local strongmen,” he said.

Mehboob Alam, the candidate from Bhagabangola, became a BJP member when he went to Jamnagar for work in 1998. Now back home in Murshidabad, he says he longs for jobs and economic prosperity that he saw in Gujarat.

“Everyone says BJP will ban beef. But have they banned beef in Goa? They say, BJP will send us to Bangladesh, but we are not illegal, we have nothing to fear,” he said.

Among the other candidates, one worked with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen before joining its ideological opposite; another is a grassroots leader who got noticed while agitating against a political murder in north Bengal.

The TMC dismissed these candidates, adding that in a region where chief minister Mamata Banerjee had solid support from all sections of the community, the BJP will find it tough to attract votes from the Muslim community, especially because of its campaign around alleged Muslim appeasement by the TMC.

But the BJP says these candidates represent the groundswell of rural anger against the ruling party. “BJP is not a communal party, it’s a party of development,” said Ali Hossain, the party’s minority wing chief.

Realistically, experts say the nine candidates have a slim chance of winning.

“The BJP has fielded Muslims because of structural compulsions. These seats are majorly Muslim. Polarisation will not work. Most of the ground-level poll workers and foot soldiers are also Muslim,” said Abdul Matin, a professor at Jadavpur University.

“Plus, remember that only 9 of 294 candidates are Muslims. In this charged campaign, it will be very difficult for these candidates to win,” he added.

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