PM Modi’s nudge on Muslims leads Bengal BJP to tweak its strategy
West Bengal BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s appeal came days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi told party leaders at the BJP national executive on January 17 to reach out to Muslims without expecting their votes in elections.
KOLKATA: At a media briefing on Thursday last, West Bengal Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Suvendu Adhikari held out a message for the state’s Muslim community. “I want to tell Bengal’s Muslims that they made Mamata Banerjee the chief minister in 2021 because 95 % of them voted for her. Only non-Muslims voted for the BJP,” said the BJP leader as he asked them to switch sides. “I appeal to the Muslims to hit the streets against her and vote for us. The welfare policies of the Prime Minster are meant for all. Muslims are living in prosperity in (BJP-ruled) Uttar Pradesh and Assam. Go and see for yourself.”
Adhikari’s appeal came days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi told party leaders at the BJP national executive on January 17 to reach out to Muslims without expecting their votes in elections.
In Bengal, the fresh outreach to Muslims comes against the backdrop of the BJP working to improve its record tally of 18 of the state’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha when the country votes in 2024.
“It is difficult for any party to win 25 Lok Sabha seats without support from Muslims. They currently comprise around 34 % of the population according to our estimate,” Ali Hossain, former president of the BJP’s state minority morcha (cell), said.
“I am sure Muslims will vote for us in 2024”.
Leaders of the opposition BJP and ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) agree that Muslim voters play a decisive role in 120 of West Bengal’s 294 assembly segments. In 2021, the BJP won only 75 seats.
BJP leaders in Bengal said PM Modi’s message was conveyed to the state leaders by senior leaders Sunil Bansal and Mangal Pandey at the state unit’s executive on January 21. “Modi ji wants us to reach out to educated as well as economically backward Muslims before the Lok Sabha polls even if the effort does not lead to electoral dividend,” a state leader who attended the meet said on condition of anonymity.
At his media interaction of February 2, Adhikari condemned the January 22 arrest of Indian Secular Front (ISF) leader Nawsad Siddiqui, the only Muslim opposition legislator in Bengal, and said criminal charges he faced for a clash his supporters had with the police is a conspiracy by Banerjee to force him into submission.
Adhikari highlighted that Siddique’s family is the custodian of Hooghly district’s sacred Furfura Sharif shrine. “It is one of the most visited places of pilgrimage in India and built around the mausoleum of Pir Abu Bakr Siddiqui,” said Adhikari.
“Nawsad Bhai (brother) is a man of courage. He has the guts to stand up against Mamata Banerjee. How can a man from such a pious family be treated like this?” Adhikari said.
TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh alleged that Siddique was working for the BJP.
Referring to Siddique’s mobile phones seized by the Kolkata police, Ghosh said: “He was in constant touch with a BJP national leader during the 2021 polls. There are WhatsApp messages.”
On the Ground
A senior Bengal BJP leader underlined the emphasis not to expect electoral dividends out of its outreach, saying the party still has some distance to go before it can even expect support.
“We have no Muslim member in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha as well…. Or in most of the 31 states and Union territories. These include Uttar Pradesh which has 403 assembly seats. Non-representation of Muslims has not affected our governance at state or national level. In Bengal, however, it is not possible to win 25 Lok Sabha seats without sizeable Muslim votes.” the leader said. In 2011 when the last headcount was conducted, Muslims made up 27% of Bengal’s population.
BJP leaders concede that the Muslim community’s opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 does make it difficult to effectively reach out to them.
Implementation of the CAA, which offers fast-tracked citizenship to non-Muslims who entered India from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh before 2015, has been a priority for the BJP which has traditionally focused on illegal immigration from bordering Bangladesh. TMC, Congress, Left and other opposition parties are opposed to CAA, the rules for which are yet to be notified.
BJP leaders, including actor Mithun Chakraborty, who joined in 2021, do make it a point to tell Muslims during district tours that they don’t need to be worried about CAA as long as they have valid citizenship documents.
TMC Rajya Sabha member Santanu Sen said: “It is next to impossible for the BJP to win the confidence of Bengal’s Muslims. They cannot ignore the threat posed by CAA and the effect of enforcement of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam”.
It is not that the BJP hasn’t tried in the past. In the 2021 assembly polls, the BJP fielded nine candidates from the Muslim community but they lost. The only BJP candidate from the minorities to win a seat in the election was Bishal Lama, a Buddhist who won the Kalchini seat in north Bengal’s Alipurduar district.
In north Bengal’s eight districts - where members of the SC and ST communities have a sizeable presence- the BJP won 30 of the 54 assembly seats in 2021. Seven of BJP’s 18 Lok Sabha seats won in 2019 are also in north Bengal.
In both elections, the TMC bagged most south Bengal seats where Muslims make up a sizeable number of voters.
The West Bengal Imams’ Association reacted sharply to the BJP’s strategic plan. Of about 40,000 mosques in Bengal, clerics from at least 26,000 are its members.
Md Yahiya, the association’s chairman, said: “We have heard Adhikari saying repeatedly in public that all Indians will someday chant the Jai Sri Ram slogan. Was he talking of mass conversion? And, why is the Prime Minister suddenly talking of educated and socially backward Muslims? Why wasn’t a census done since 2014 to find out how many are economically downtrodden?”
Political science professor Udayan Bandopadhyay said the BJP is in a position to win the next Lok Sabha polls but it has to achieve the goal without support from Muslims.
Bandopadhyay said: “Bengal’s Muslims will never vote for the BJP en masse because the party has no Muslim minister in the Union cabinet or even a member in the Parliament. To Muslims, their representation signifies empowerment. Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has already achieved that goal. Add to that the BJP’s constant focus on the CAA to win Hindu votes. Muslims see CAA as a threat”.