South 24-Parganas: At Ranigachhi area in Bhangar, a few hundred people from all age groups were walking in a rally with the flags of the CPI(M), the Congress, and the blue-white-green flag of the Indian Secular Front (ISF), the newly launched party led by Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui. They were raising slogans against the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC), seeking to score a hat-trick in ruling the state, and the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had vowed to topple the TMC regime.
The rally-goers were upbeat about ending the TMC’s “highhandedness” in the area. Rafiqul Islam, a 67-year-old participant in the rally who has been a CPI(M) supporter for more than three decades, said, “The areas if full of the TMC’s ‘Dadas’ (strongmen).” He named them: “There are Arabul Islam, Nannu Hossain, Kaiser Ahmed and, above all there is Shaokat Mollah.”
“Now, we have someone who can speak their language,” said Karim Sheikh, also an elderly Left supporter. He was referring to Abbas Siddiqui.
The assembly segment is made of the Bhangar 2 community development block and three gram panchayats in the Bhangar 1 community development block. The assembly constituency has a nearly 70% Muslim population.
South 24-Parganas, the district with India’s sixth-highest population (8,161,961 according to the census of 2011), has been one of the bastions of the ruling TMC. Muslims made 35.57% of the district’s population, according to the census of 2011, and are mostly centred in areas like Bhangar, Canning, Magrahat, Maheshtala, Diamond Harbour and Baruipur.
It was from the panchayat election results in the districts of South 24-Parganas and East Midnapore in 2008 that the TMC’s rise in the state was first noticed. Since then, it has remained its bastion. In the 2016 assembly elections, the party won 29 of the 31 assembly seats and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it won all but one constituencies in these two districts.
Going by that, the TMC should have a significant edge over the opponents in South 24-Parganas. However, two factors since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections seem to have made the equation for the TMC a little more complicated – the rise of Abbas Siddiqui in Muslim majority areas and general grievances over malpractices in the distribution of compensation for the victims of Cyclone Amphan of May 2020.
Bhangar in South 24-Parganas has turned into one of the most closely-watched assembly constituencies in the state this time. Located in the eastern fringes of Kolkata, barely 25 kilometres from the TMC’s state unit headquarters at the Topsia area in Kolkata, it has stood witness to political violence for many years.
The CPI(M) started losing ground in the early 2000s, with the TMC’s Arabul Islam winning the seat in 2006. Thereafter, despite a land agitation in parts of the area over proposed land acquisition for a road project, the CPI(M) reclaimed the seat in 2011, the year Mamata Banerjee came to power in the state.
Since 2011, Arabul Islam has frequently hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons – mostly highhandedness and political terror. While Bhangar had repeatedly hit the headlines for the TMC’s internal battle – between the followers of Arabul Islam, zilla parishad member Kaiser Ahmed, panchayat leader Nannu Hossain, and new-inductee Saokat Mollah who was keen on expanding his influence.
In 2016, the TMC reclaimed Bhangar by fielding Abdur Rezzak Mollah, a veteran Left Front minister who was expelled from the CPI(M) in 2014 and joined the TMC. Mollah had earlier won from Bhangar in 1972, before winning from Canning East from 1977 to 2011 on a trot.
In Canning East, Saokat Mollah was Rezzak’s right-hand-man but he had joined the TMC at the end of 2011, barely a few months after the party came to power, and then helped the TMC wipe the CPI(M) out of the area. The TMC fielded Saokat from Canning East in 2016 and he won.
There was virtually no trace of opposition parties in Bhangar, until a land agitation against a power grid project broke out and challenged the authorities under the leadership of a small Naxalite group, CPI(ML)(Red Star), at the beginning of 2017. This led to another chain of violence. The land agitators even managed to put up a resistance against the TMC in the 2018 panchayat elections in a couple of gram panchayat areas, following which the state government finally resolved the matter through talks.
Then, from the end of 2019, it was from Bhangar that the rising popularity of Abbas Siddiqui began to draw attention.
“Bhangar is the womb of Abbas Siddiqui’s party,” said Safiqul Ali, a middle-aged farmer and resident of Bamunia.
This time, the TMC has fielded an ‘outsider’, renowned doctor and public health activist Rezaul Karim who had contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on the CPI(M) ticket from Burdwan district. The Left-Congress-ISF’s Samyukta Morcha candidate is Nausad Siddiqi, Abbas’s brother and the chairman of ISF. The CPI(ML) Red Star has fielded Mirza Hassan, a leader of the land agitation. The BJP has fielded Soumi Hati, wife of local BJP leader Shanti Hati.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC got 146,723 of the total 2,15,705, or 68% of the polled votes, while the CPI(M) got 34,758, or 16.11%, and the BJP got 24,963, or 11.57%. A local resident said that the 2019 result was an impact of Muslim polarisation in favour of the TMC against the BJP – as witnessed in many parts of the state – but the equations have changed.
“Since there is little chance of the BJP winning the seat, a good number of the Muslims will vote for the Samyukta Morcha candidate Nausad Siddiqui, while the Mirza Hassan is also likely to get some votes. The TMC’s vote share is sure to reduce but whether Nausad Siddiqui will have a chance depends a lot on how much votes Hassan gets,” said a high school teacher who did not want to be identified.
Siddiqui’s party did not seem to have a winning chance in Canning East, which has more than 63% Muslim population. In Saokat Mollah’s stronghold, two kinds of polarisation could be noticed – polarisation on communal lines and polarisation around Saokat Mollah, who allegedly has the last words in this area since 2012. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, of the total 206,263 votes polled, the TMC got 166,897, or 80.91%. The BJP got 23,724 or 11.5% votes, while the Left got 7,375, or 3.5% votes.
But now, the voice of Abbas Siddiqui seems to have resonated with a section of old Left supporters who have found in Siddiqui a man who can talk tough against the TMC, especially Saokat Mollah.
“Most of the people having sympathy for Siddiqui are keeping quiet here because there is large swathes of vested land on which the people have settled down. Opposition Saokat Mollah publicly could led to their eviction from those vested land,” said Shahjahan Mollah, a resident of Jhoror More area near Jibantala in Canning East.
He identified himself as a traditional left voter who is now upbeat about the party’s prospects due to the courage that Siddiqui has infused among the supporters.
Despite an alleged atmosphere of terror, Abbas Siddiqui’s rallies in Canning East in support of the ISF’s Samyukta Morcha candidate Ghazi Sahabuddin Siraji, a madrasah teacher, have attracted crowds of noticeable sizes. Siddiqui even addressed a rally at Jibantala, which is considered a heartland of Saokat Mollah and witnessed a significant turnout.
There also seemed to be significant support for Saokat Mollah, whom many described as a leader who was available all the time and in all sorts of problems.
“The ISF is a stooge of the BJP, trying to divide the Muslims when the BJP is trying to unite the Hindus,” said Lutfar Hassan, a resident of Miyagheri village. “The government has really done a lot of work. There is no reason why the people should vote against them,” he said.
However, some other local residents pointed out that they got hints that the BJP’s vote share may rise due to a trend of Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP, while the TMC’s vote share may reduce due to the shifting of some Muslim votes towards the Samyukta Morcha.
“It would not be a walkover for the TMC like the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but we see no possibility of Saokat Mollah losing,” said a resident of Madan Khali.
The Hindu consolidation they spoke of is stronger in the neighbouring Canning West constituency, where members from the Scheduled Caste communities make the majority of the population, making up about 47% of the population, while Muslims make up about 37% of the population.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC got 102,402 of the total 199,710 votes, or 51.27%, while the BJP got 77,056, or 38.58%, and the Left got 10,923 or 5.46% of the polled votes.
“This time, it’s going to be closer,” said Hareram Mandal, sitting in a tea stall near Taldi bus stand, discussing politics with some fellow local residents.
The discussion was cordial, despite a sharp difference of opinion among those present. Of the eight persons present there, six were Muslims. Three of them were staunch TMC supporters, citing the benefits of the government’s social welfare programmes, two were Left supporters enthused by Siddiqui’s entry, while one had criticism for all sides. The Hindus present there said they would vote for the BJP.
“You see, the Muslims are now building their own party, the ISF. The Hindus, too, need their own party,” Hareram Mandal said.
Travels to a few more areas within the Canning West constituency revealed that the trend of Hindu consolidation had been triggered more by the rise of Abbas Siddiqui as a political force than by alleged Muslim appeasement by the TMC.
Local TMC supporters were upbeat that the party had changed the candidate. Shyamal Mandal, who represented the constituency since 2011, had become unpopular, local TMC leaders said. They were happy with the new candidate, Pareshram Das. The BJP’s candidate is Arnab Roy, who contested the 2016 elections on a Congress ticket, joined the TMC thereafter and switched over to the BJP in January this year. His candidature triggered grievances among a section of local BJP workers but a sense of political consolidation among the Hindus may nullify those grievances. The Samyukta Morcha candidate is Pratap Mandal of the Congress.
Given the polling pattern of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a reduction in the TMC’s vote share and a rise in that of the BJP’s could make the contest a close one, local residents said.
When asked why the TMC should have its vote share of Muslim votes reduced, most of the people in Bhangar, Canning and Magrahat areas cited the malpractices over the distribution of compensation for the damage caused by Cyclone Amphan that wreaked havoc in large swathes of South 24-Parganas district.
At Magrahat Paschim, where nearly 58% of the voters are Muslims, the TMC in the Lok Sabha elections got 99,511 of the total 173,113 votes, or 57.58% of the polled votes, while the BJP secured 48,420, or 28% and the Left got 12,429 votes, or 7.17%.
In Magrahat East, where more than 50% of the voters are Muslims, the TMC got 99,951 of 188,739 votes in the Lok Sabha elections, or 53%, while the BJP got 62,307, or 33% and the Left got 15832, or 8.38%.
On papers, both seats should be cakewalks for the TMC. However, local residents hinted that a cakewalk may not be possible.
“Hindus are consolidating behind the BJP. They will bag the majority of the Hindu votes. Besides, a section of the Muslims are also aggrieved with the distribution of ration during the COVID-19 crisis, corruption in Amphan compensation and the handling of the migrant worker crisis,” said Safiqul Rahman Sarkar, a resident of Azam Khali in Magrahat East assembly constituency.
Maheshtala has nearly 40% Muslim population, while Baruipur West and Baruipur East has above 25% Muslim population. Muslims made less than 20% of the population in Sonarpur North and Sonarpur South.
A tendency of Hindu consolidation behind the BJP was also palpable in areas within Baruipur West and Bauipur East assembly constituencies, especially because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and several organisations belonging to the RSS, such as Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), have been working in this area at the ground level for the past several years.
According to some local residents, a little more than 100 Rohingyas had settled at Hardaha village within Baruipur East assembly area at the beginning of 2017. They had all come from their settlements in Delhi and Haryana and spoke and understood Hindi more than Bengali. Even though they all left overnight soon after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the HJM and other RSS-backed organisations carried out an intense campaign against the settling of Rohingyas, sharing contents on social media and delivering speeches from street corner meetings.
Another Hindutva organisation that held influence in the area was Hindu Samhati, which worked outside the Sangh Parivar since 2008 but split in 2019 and has literally merged with the BJP, with leaders of both its factions contesting on BJP tickets from Kolkata and Howrah. They also helped Hindu consolidation in the Baruipur area.
Of these seats, Baruipur West has a heavyweight candidate, two-term assembly speaker Biman Banerjee, a lawyer of repute. In the Lok Sabha elections, the TMC bagged 94,359 of the total 191,348 (49.31%) votes polled, while the BJP got 59,327 (31%) votes and the Left got 30,969 (16.18%) votes. In Baruipur East, the TMC got 99,719 of 204,929 (48.66%) votes polled in its favour, while the BJP’s vote share stood at 35.23% (72,214 votes) and the Left’s at 11.61% (23,793 votes).
“The Hindu consolidation has certainly intensified since the Lok Sabha elections. Abbas Siddiqui’s rise in stature has also helped that consolidation recently,” said Ashok Mandal, a resident of Betberia within Baruipur East constituency.
Pro-incumbency voices, nevertheless, seemed more dominant in almost all these areas, as might be expected from an area with the electoral records cited above. Most of the pro-TMC voices cited the government social welfare schemes, besides the need for resisting the BJP, as the basis of their political choice. Mamata Banerjee’s party still look favourite in these seats but the contest is likely to be closer.
These changing equations were, perhaps, among the reasons why Mamata Banerjee took digs at the Election Commission of India (ECI) on the day the elections for the state was announced.
“Elections in South 24-Parganas are going to be conducted in three phases. Why three phases for a single district? Is it because it is our stronghold,” Banerjee asked while addressing the media sometime after the ECI’s announcements of the election dates.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and author based in Kolkata. This field visit was conducted in association with People’s Pulse.