‘CM is concerned’: Mamata Banerjee sets up panel to look into Sagardighi defeat
Mamata Banerjee wants to know why Muslims voted for the Left-Congress alliance although she is running so many welfare schemes for citizens, said Bengal minister Siddiqullah Chowdhury
KOLKATA: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday constituted a four-member committee of legislators to look into the reasons for the Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) defeat in the Sagardighi assembly bypoll.
Banerjee formed a committee of four Muslim legislators and ministers to probe the Sagardighi defeat over concerns that it could be a sign that Muslims, who constitute about 64% of the population in the assembly segment, could drift away from the party in future elections, people familiar with the matter said on the Sagardighi setback. The seat went to Bayron Biswas, the Left-backed Congress candidate, who secured 47.35% votes while the TMC’s share dropped to 34.94%. The BJP came third with 13.94% votes. Sagardighi is in Murshidabad district where Muslims comprise 66.28% of the population, the state’s highest among all districts.
Minister Siddiqullah Chowdhury, who will lead the committee, told HT that Banerjee sought a detailed report on why Muslim voters turned away from the TMC. Minister of state, Sabina Yashmin, a legislator from the adjoining Malda district, which has Bengal’s second-highest Muslim population of 51.27%, is part of the committee.
“The chief minister is concerned. She wants to know why Muslims voted for the Left-Congress alliance although she is running so many welfare schemes for citizens. This election result is important since state panchayat polls will be held shortly. Banerjee wants our report to be submitted directly to her,” Chowdhury, who is also president of the Jamiat Ulema-e–Hind’s Bengal unit, said.
TMC leaders said the concern around how Muslims could vote in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections was in the context of the TMC’s performance in 2019 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wrested 18 of the state’s 42 seats.
According to surveys by the TMC and BJP, Muslim voters influence the outcome in about 120 of the state’s 294 assembly seats. TMC bagged 215 seats in 2021.
In her first reaction to the poll results announced on March 2, Mamata Banerjee told the media that BJP, Congress and the Left formed an “unholy alliance” against her party to defeat TMC.
TMC leader Subrata Saha, whose death necessitated the bypoll, won the seat thrice since 2011 when the TMC first came to power in Bengal. The TMC’s vote share at the seat in the 2011, 2016 and 2021 elections was 38.02%, 26.23% and 50.95%, respectively.
Murshidabad district - where Bengal Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has won the Berhampur Lok Sabha seat five times since 1999 – was considered a bastion of his party till the TMC started making inroads after 2011.
In 2016, when Congress and CPI(M) contested separately, their Sagardighi candidates scored 23% votes each while TMC’s Subrata Saha won with only 26.23 % votes. In 2021, when Congress contested as an ally of the Left, its Sagardighi candidate still ended third with only 19.45% while BJP’s Mafuja Khatun, who was earlier a two-time MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), came second with 24.08 % votes. Poll experts said Khatun’s long association with the CPI(M) helped her secure Muslim votes.
Mamata Banerjee’s concern
In the 2021 assembly elections, the Congress and CPI(M) could not win a single seat for the first time since Independence while the BJP, which claimed that it was targeting to win at least 200 seats, bagged 75.
Of the 23 districts in Bengal, Muslim population is substantially high in Murshidabad (66.28%), Malda (51.27%), North Dinajpur (49.92%), South 24 Parganas (35.57%), Birbhum (37.06%) and Howrah (26.20%). There is a large number of Muslim voters in East and West Burdwan districts (20.73% combined), North 24 Parganas (25.82%) and Nadia (26.76%).
All these districts, with the exception of North Dinajpur, are in the bigger south Bengal region where the TMC dominates. The BJP won most of its Lok Sabha and assembly seats in 2019 and 2021 in the seven north Bengal districts, where the Muslim population is low.
Md Yahiya, chairman of the West Bengal Imams Association, of which clerics from around 26,000 of Bengal’s 40,000 mosques are members, said most Muslims in Sagardighi dumped the TMC not because they expect more welfare measures but because some recent actions of the government hurt their sentiment.
“Muslims have not forgotten the mysterious death of student leader Anis Khan in February 2022. He was leading a movement demanding better administration at Kolkata’s Aliah University. The real culprits were not arrested. Firhad Hakim, the second-most powerful minister in the state, faced public ire at Khan’s village in Howrah district in May last year. Didn’t the government get the signal?” he asked.
In July 2022, the state police said in its charge sheet that Khan died of a fall from the second floor of his home when some policemen tried to question him in connection with an old case. The charge sheet ruled out the allegation of murder by policemen raised by Khan’s family.
Yahiya said the January 21 arrest of Indian Secular Front (ISF) leader Nawsad Siddique, Bengal’s only Muslim opposition MLA, also didn’t go down well with the community.
“He was in police and judicial custody for 39 days. Siddique was arrested in Kolkata and charged under non-bailable sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 307 (attempt to murder), for a clash his supporters had with the police after they were stopped from holding a rally. In similar incidents, BJP leaders are either not touched or released from custody within hours,” Yahiya said.
Siddique’s family is the custodian of Hooghly district’s Furfura Sharif shrine, built around the mausoleum of Pir Abu Bakr Siddiqui, which draws millions during the annual Urs festival.
Besides, the cleric said Muslim voters too were victims of the bribe-for-job scam in the school education department. ‘Hundreds of youths worked hard for jobs while those who paid bribes were employed,” he said.
Political science professor Udayan Bandopadhyay agreed, adding that the perceived hurt will have some effect on the coming elections as well.
“In Sagardighi, Muslims possibly wanted a send Congress candidate to the assembly and teach TMC a lesson… It is too early to say the by-poll points at an anti-establishment wave among Muslims across Bengal,” Bandopadhyay added.
Minister Siddiqullah Chowdhury rejected the possibility that Siddique’s arrest may have had an effect on the bypoll. “He has no influence over voters in Murshidabad,” Chowdhury said.
BJP sees opportunity
BJP leaders are asking the opposition to aim at defeating the Trinamool rather than the saffron party.
Addressing a public meeting in East Midnapore district on Sunday, leader of the opposition in the state assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, said the 2021 assembly election results may have been different if Congress and CPI(M) hadn’t asked voters to defeat BJP.
Adhikari, who left TMC and joined BJP in 2020, said: “What did you (Congress and Left) do in 2021? ‘Defeat BJP’ was your election slogan. If you had asked people to defeat Mamata Banerjee, they would have decided which party to vote for.”
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the BJP is trying new tactics because it has lost relevance in Bengal.
“The BJP has lost its relevance. People have made up their minds. Congress, Left and all anti-BJP forces will oust Mamata Banerjee,” he said.
Although the Left and BJP candidates helped each other win three cooperative body elections in the districts since December last year, the CPI(M) has officially declared that there cannot be any alliance between the two parties.
CPI(M) state secretary Md Salim said: “BJP made some gains in 2019 and 2021 because it projected itself as the only party that could defeat TMC. But in the last two years, people have released that it is a fake opposition. Why should Congress, CPI(M) and ISF hand over their platform to BJP?”