AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi’s hush-hush visit to Bengal’s Hooghly district has triggered more speculation over his political plans for a state due to hold Assembly elections in April-May.
During his visit Mr Owaisi met Abbas Siddiqui at Furfura Sharif, a place of religious significance for Bengali Muslims, and asked him to be the face of his party’s campaign in the state. Mr Siddiqui, who has been openly critical of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, had earlier claimed the ruling Trinamool exploited the Muslim population for votes.
Abbas Siddiqui is the nephew of the main preacher at Furfura Sharif – Toha Siddiqui, who has been supported by the Trinamool and whom Mr Owaisi did not meet. The younger Siddiqui, who is in his late 30s, has reportedly been identified by the AIMIM chief as someone who can help the party win votes in Hooghly and other districts, like Malda, Murshidabad and Dinajpur.
Toha Siddiqui has made it clear Muslims in Bengal will vote against “communal forces”; the Trinamool, which views Abbas Siddiqui as being in cahoots with the BJP, claims Mr Owaisi has been paid by the opposition party to divide minority votes.
A few days ago Ms Banerjee said: “… to divide the minority vote, they (the BJP) have brought in a party from Hyderabad. They (this party) takes money from the BJP. Their strategy is they will take a hardline stance to get Muslim votes so that Hindus vote for BJP.”
In an interview to NDTV Mr Owaisi hit back, saying: “My request to the media is – why don’t you ask about the Hindu vote… the upper caste Brahmin vote… the backward class vote? Why is the media fixated on the Muslim vote? Who was responsible when the BJP had 18 parliamentary seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election? These are tough questions which the media must ask.”
“As far as this question is concerned, we have proven that wherever MIM has contested it has benefited only MIM. My effort is to make my party and my candidates win,” he said.
“If Mamata Banerjee makes such wild allegations it does not befit her office but it shows her clear frustration that she is losing ground,” Mr Owaisi added.
He also told NDTV that his party would contest the Assembly election and would back Abbas Siddiqui in all matters. “We will go along with him… we will contest the elections. What number, in which places we will decide in the coming months,” he said.
The Trinamool is confident that Asaduddin Owaisi will not cut into its votes. The party is also confident that Ms Banerjee has the support of Hindu and Muslim voters alike.
The BJP meanwhile, which has rolled out some of its biggest guns – Home Minister Amit Shah and party chief JP Nadda – to back its campaign, has scoffed at Mr Owaisi’s visit and called it an attempt to regain ground after a few of his leaders crossed over to the Trinamool.
Off the record BJP leaders also say they expect Mr Owaisi’s presence in Bengal to hurt Mamata Banerjee more, given she counts on Muslim votes.
Thirty per cent of Bengal voters are Muslim and analysts say they vote for Ms Banerjee en masse, making her almost invincible. To counter this, the BJP has accused her of “Muslim appeasement”. Mr Owaisi’s presence – an alternative for that Muslim vote – could be a red flag for the Trinamool.
Mr Owaisi has also ruled out an alliance with any of the other political formations but there is chatter about him joining hands with one of the anti-BJP blocs.
Reacting to criticism his play in Bengal might help the BJP, he declared: “I am the ‘Laila’ of Indian politics and have a lot of ‘Majnus’… but it doesn’t make any difference to me.”