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Can Mamata Banerjee outmaneuver the Owaisi threat to stop BJP in Bengal?

Asaduddin Owaisi has announced his entry in Bengal.

Owaisi vs Mamata, Bengal Election 2021: Asaduddin Owaisi is on an expansion mode, but his expansion has so far – and is expected to be – at the cost of other political parties that have long been beneficiaries of Muslim votes. Among such parties are Congress in the Centre and other regional parties in their respective states like Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD in Bihar and Mamata Banerjee’s TMC in Bengal. The leaders of these parties are upset with Owaisi because they think AIMIM makes other parties lose more than what it wins in close contests. This happened in Bihar, where Owaisi’s AIMIM in Muslim dominated region called Seemanchal won just 5 seats but hurt RJD in almost 9 constituencies of 20 it contested. Now, he has announced his entry in Bengal and Mamata Banerjee is worried about the possibility of a similar fate. And her fear is not entirely off the mark.

Muslim-dominated regions in Bengal

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Bengal has 27 per cent Muslim population, as per Census 2011. But this figure has now gone up to over 32 per cent, according to analysts. The state has 23 districts of which three are Muslim majority – Murshidabad, Malda, and North Dinajpur. They together account for 43 assembly seats — Murshidabad (22), Malda(12), and Uttar Dinajpur (9). But not all of them are Muslim majority, the ratios could be 50:50. In Bengal, about 125 seats have sizable minority votes for which Congress, Left and TMC compete with each other. Of these 125 seats, 41 have Muslims over 50 percent and 80 plus seats have the minority population of 30 (+-5) percent. These seats are concentrated in Murshidabad, Malda, North and South Dinajpur, North and South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Asansol, Birbhum, Nadia and Cooch Behar.

How Mamata Banerjee fared in 2016

Of these 120 plus Muslim dominated seats, Mamata Banerjee had won 90 in the last assembly election held in 2016. To repeat that performance this time could be an uphill task for Mamata Banerjee, as her party lost some of these minority dominated constituencies due to division of votes in the last parliamentary election held in 2019. In this election, the BJP increased its vote share to over 40 per cent from just 10 per cent in 2016.

How division of votes hurt TMC in 2019

From Raiganj, where Muslim votes are about 49-53 per cent, the BJP emerged winner defeating ruling TMC. Here, BJP’s Debasree Chaudhuri got 40.06 per cent votes whereas TMC’s Kanaia Lal Agarwal secured 35.32 per cent votes. The Left and Congress had also fielded their candidates — CPIM’s Salim Ali got 14.25 per cent votes and Congress over 6 per cent. While the BJP’s vote share did rise, the TMC could have still defeated the saffron party had it not been the division of minority votes with Left and Congress. Similar division of votes played out in Coochbehar where Muslims are 27-30 per cent and in Jalpaiguri where minority votes are between 17 to 20 per cent. In both the constituencies, the BJP won defeating the ruling TMC despite considerable minority votes.

Owaisi and his plans in Bengal

The TMC, already grappling with this challenge of division of votes, has been jolted by Owaisi announcing his entry in Bengal. Last week, he met Abbas Siddiqui, influential peerzada of Hooghly’s Furfur Sharif. The cleric holds considerable clout in four districts — Hooghly, Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas — and could fight on 45 seats. While it is not clear whether Siddiqui would tie up with Owaisi, the AIMIM is reportedly preparing to contest on 70 plus seats. The entry of these two players will further divide the already divided minority votes — a situation that will greatly benefit the saffron party. AIMIM has some support in Malda, Murshidabad, North and South Dinajpur and Cooch Behar. By some accounts, Owaisi will try to focus on areas like Asansol, Birbhum, Cooch Behar, Dinajpur, Malda, Howrah, Nadia and Kolkata.

How TMC has reacted

The TMC has termed Owaisi B-Team of BJP. Speaking to Financial Express Online, TMC’s state minority cell president Hazi Nurul Islam said that Owaisi was “bought-out” by the BJP and afraid of the central agencies. “You see ED and CBI are targeting every opposition leaders but no action against Owaisi or any other AIMIM leaders because Owaisi is helping the BJP,” Islam said. He, however, underplayed a possible impact of Owaisi’s entry in Bengal. He said Muslims firmly stand by TMC as they have been beneficiaries of multiple government schemes introduced by Mamata Banerjee. This time, he said, TMC will win over 100 of 125 seats. The BJP too has claimed that it will win a good number of seats from the minority dominated regions. The BJP Minority Morcha chief Ali Hossain says that the saffron party is eying more than 15 of 41 minority dominated seats. Hossain also says that the BJP will get over 10 per cent of 32 per cent of Muslim votes in the state. Home Minister Amit Shah recently said that the BJP will form the next government by winning 200 seats. Hossain has coined another slogan and that is “221 in 2021”. BJP’s minority cell chief says that his party will win 221 seats in Bengal.

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