With Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM announcing that it would contest Bengal polls, having bagged five seats in neighbouring Bihar, political arithmetic, in all likelihood, is set to witness a major change as TMC's sway over minority votes seems to be up for a stiff challenge.
The Mamata Banerjee-led party, which had been the sole beneficiary of minority votes since the defeat of the Left Front in 2011, however, tried to put up a brave face, arguing that Owaisi's influence on Muslims is limited to Hindi and Urdu-speaking communities that make for just six per cent of Muslim electorate in the state.
Muslims comprise 30 per cent of West Bengal's voters. The state has the highest number of Muslim electorate in the country after Kashmir.
A deciding factor in nearly 100-110 seats in the 294-member Assembly, minorities especially the Muslims, till 2019, have acted as a bulwark of the TMC against its rivals, with most of them voting in favour of the party, considering it to be a "credible" force that can resist saffron surge.
AIMIM's entry to change equations
With the entry of the AIMIM, equations are likely to change, prominent Muslim leaders said. Buoyed by the results of Bihar polls, Owaisi had announced that the AIMIM would contest elections in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and other states.
Talking about the Telangana-based party's detailed plan for Mission West Bengal, its national spokesperson Asim Waqar told PTI on Wednesday that the outfit has already set up units in 22 out of the 23 districts of the state.
"We will fight assembly polls in Bengal. We are preparing our strategy. We have registered our presence in 22 out of the 23 districts of the state. We think, as a political party, we can make deep inroads into the state," Waqar said.
The AIMIM's plan to enter Bengal was frowned upon by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at an anti-NRC rally in north Bengal in November last year, when she, without taking a name, launched a frontal assault on the party by asking Muslims to be wary of "minority extremists" from Hyderabad.
Bengal 'fertile' ground for Owaisi's expansion plans
Owaisi -- who is fast emerging as the leading Muslim voice in the country -- was quick to hit back, stating that West Bengals minorities have one of the worst human development indicators.
According to the AIMIM, Owaisi has found Bengal to be a fertile ground for his expansion plans. The party has built a "good support base" in minority-dominated districts of Malda, Murshidabad, South Dinajpur, North Dinajpur, South 24 Parganas. All five districts comprise more than sixty assembly seats. Incidentally, barring South 24 Parganas, the remaining four districts border Bihar, where the party won five seats, eating into the Muslim vote share of the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan.
According to AIMIM state leadership, the party first evinced interest in Bengal after the 2019 parliamentary polls. A rally was duly organised in Kolkata, which witnessed a huge attendance of Muslim youths.
"We sensed that Muslims are looking for an alternative and decided to build our base in the state. When we visited the districts, we received a favourable response. Now we have a strong base in several places," a state AIMIM leader said.
According to AIMIM sources, the war of words between Banerjee and Owaisi provided the party a much-needed propellant to make a foray into the state's political scene. That followed by violent agitation over Citizenship Amendment Act gave the party a perfect opportunity to expand its footprint in the state.
"Also, the recent migrant labour crisis has helped us, as a large section of Muslims realised who is its true friend," the AIMIM leader said.
Mamata Banerjee losing plot?
Mohammed Kamruzzaman, the general secretary of All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, told PTI that Muslims who had voted for the TMC are not happy with the way the party has fared on many fronts. Several developments such as TMC leaders joining the BJP have propped up "questions about the credibility of the the Mamata Banerjee party in its fight against the BJP".
"The Muslims, for the last ten years, have voted for the TMC, and they have hopes and aspirations from the party. Although some of them have been fulfilled, there are a many grievances, too. A section of Muslims feels that the leaders they have voted for are either joining hands with the BJP or jumping the ship. So they are wary," Kamruzzaman said.
He refuted claims that Owaisi's influence is limited to just Hindi- and Urdu-speaking voters. "Owaisi is held in high regard among Bengali Muslims too. And his anti-BJP credentials are impeccable. He has never compromised with the BJP," Kamruzzaman, who during 2019 had appealed to the Muslim community to vote for the TMC, said.
The Imams of the city, who also exert a major influence on the Muslim population in the state, however, has maintained a stoic silence over the matter so far.
AIMIM may play a spoiler
The TMC, which is yet to fully recover from the 2019 Lok Sabha poll setback, when the BJP's tally soared from two to 18, is apprehensive that the AIMIM may act as "spoiler" in several assembly segments.
"In minority-dominated pockets, where we are still the most-preferred party, the AIMIM may not win the seats but will hamper our prospects. Although West Bengal has 24 per cent Bengali-speaking Muslims and six per cent Hindi-speaking Muslims, we need to ensure that entire minority vote share remains intact, as the BJP is making all efforts to polarise the majority population," a TMC leader said.
The TMC further termed the Owaisi-led party as a "communal force deputed by BJP" to act as "vote cutter". "Just like the BJP, the AIMIM is also a communal force. Both the political parties survive on divisive politics. The AIMIM is planning to fight elections in Bengal to help the BJP in the state," senior TMC leader and state minister Firhad Hakim said.
His cabinet colleague and state Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind president Siddiqullah Chowdhury exuded confidence that Muslims won't go with the AIMIM in the assembly polls, likely to be held in April-May next year.
"The Muslims in Bengal are politically conscious; they won't support a party which is an outsider in state politics and a B-team of the BJP. The Muslims would vote for the TMC to stop the saffron party from coming to power," he said.
The BJP, for which the division of Muslims votes is vital to winning the elections, however, denied the claim that the AIMIM might prove to be its B-team. "We don't need a B-team or a C-team to win Bengal elections. We will win the state assembly polls on our strength and merit, bagging more than 200 seats," BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy said.