The upcoming West Bengal elections are gradually becoming a fight between ideologies and identity politics instead of just being a political battle. It all started with the entry of the newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) led by Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, who became the first religious leader in West Bengal to take such a political plunge. Let’s ask the most obvious question here — Left-ISF-Congress, will the BJP gain from this alliance in Bengal?
The state politics came to the major forefront soon after the Left-Congress-ISF alliance was announced and a massive rally had been organised at Kolkata’s iconic Brigade Parade Ground on February 28 to display the show of strength as West Bengal’s third contesting front after ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the centre’s ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Photos, videos from the ground showed a huge crowd turning up in support of the alliance. But there are evident cracks within.
The alliance has been initiated by Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui, well-known for his famous speeches at various religious events. While forming the third front, he ensured to include representatives of the Dalit and tribal communities. He seems to enjoy considerable popularity in parts of south Bengal districts such as South 24-Parganas, North 24-Parganas, Hooghly, Howrah, Burdwan and Birbhum. His brother, whose name is Naushad, is the chairman of ISF and Simal Soren, a member of a tribal community, is the president.
Why the Left wants the alliance
Despite his controversial speeches, the Left has, over the past few months, made it clear that they did not consider Siddiqui to be a communal force. “He is raising the issues of the common people, the poor masses, not the issues of any particular community,” the CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra said in January. CPI(M) politburo member Md Salim, had agreed to the same. “Spreading misinformation about the ISF is part of a well-thought-out conspiracy being played out over the past four months. The hand-outs to the media came from the office of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). The party is named Indian Secular Front. Its president is Simal Soren. We have agreed to leave some seats for them, we have asked our partners to give some seats to this new political force. We have also asked ISF to come to an understanding with Congress. A section of the media is playing a deliberate role to ensure the alliance does not take shape,” Salim had said in February.
Will the BJP gain from this alliance in Bengal?
Frankly, the BJP has been quite happy with these developments. “It would have benefited us even if Siddiqui struck a deal with the AIMIM. It would have not only split Mamata’s Muslim vote bank but also helped us polarise the Hindus against the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. Now that Siddiqui has found a bigger patron than Owaisi, it should be even better for us. If all the parties are appeasing Muslim fundamentalists, who other than us can protect the Hindus?” an anonymous BJP MP told a major newspaper.
According to a lot of other critics of the BJP, this thrid front trying to weaken the TMC’s hold might benefit BJP in different fields and ways. “The Left has damaged its secular credentials. It will help the BJP’s narrative of Muslim appeasement by other parties. Siddiqui has made too many regressive and controversial comments in the past not to be considered a fundamentalist and communal force,” famous filmmaker Aniket Chattopadhyay had said. “The Left, the Congress, the BJP and these so-called protectors of Muslim interest are working together to topple of Mamata Banerjee government and usher in a rule of the BJP,” alleged state library minister Siddiqullah Chowdhury, who also heads the Bengal chapter of Jamiat Ulama e Hind, a pan-India organisation of Muslim scholars and clerics.
Congress’ alliance with parties like ISF and other such forces militates against the core ideology of the party and Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism, which forms the soul of the party. These issues need to be approved by the CWC.
— Anand Sharma (@AnandSharmaINC) March 1, 2021
However, cracks and difference of opinion were already observed during the rally. Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma objected to the Left-Congress-ISF alliance saying that the grand old party cannot be selective in fighting communalists but must do so in all its manifestations. “Congress’ alliance with parties like ISF and other such forces militates against the core ideology of the party and Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism, which forms the soul of the party. These issues need to be approved by the CWC,” Sharma had said. Currently, the Left and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) are in talks with Congress over seat-sharing arrangements in the assembly elections of Bengal.
However, the Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and state president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury defended the alliance and even got engaged in a war of words with Sharma. Chowdhury replied to Anand Sharma on Twitter. “Know ur facts @AnandSharmaINC ji”, he wrote. Not just the Left-Congress-ISF alliance, but even BJP and the ruling TMC have been tearing into each other in the fierce polarising debate of fanning communal sentiments in West Bengal, where the electoral discourse is meant to steer clear of political propaganda.
In the meanwhile, even the heads of TMC and the BJP thinks West Bengal’s election race will be unique in relation to the ones we have seen since freedom. The BJP administration concurred that public polarization was on the ascent in the state, yet accused community appeasement politics by the TMC for it. “For us, the election plank happens to be ‘development for all’. That said, appeasement politics and injustice towards the state’s majority community by the TMC government has indeed led to communal polarisation in Bengal,” BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said. Elections in West Bengal, ready to be a firm challenge between the TMC and the BJP, will be held in eight stages, will start with voting for 30 seats on March 27. Votes will be counted on May 2.