By Mithun Dasgupta
Kolkata, (IANS) With Muslims comprising nearly 30 percent of the state’s 92 million population, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee continues to dole out largesse to Muslims. However, many, especially the opposition Left, alleges that the sops are intended to woo the community ahead of next year’s panchayat polls.
Even though her last month’s announcement that the state government would provide a monthly honorarium to imams drew flak from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Banerjee went on to declare an honorarium for muezzins of mosques to be paid through the Waqf Board this week.
Continuing to shower sops on the minority community, the chief minister also said the cabinet had ratified a proposal for reservation of jobs for Muslims under the other backward classes (OBC) category.
The Left, which maintained a clean sweep in the panchayat elections for decades till 2008 – when they won but saw an erosion in their rural base – dubs this policy of the Trinamool-led government as “election sops” to woo Muslims.
“Every day she (Banerjee) is making this sort of announcement, simply eyeing the next year’s polls,” Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) central committee member Mohammad Salim told IANS.
Though Banerjee defended her decision, terming as “very poor” the muezzins who lead the call to prayer and help out in other socio-economic activities like administering polio drops, some political observers feel the Trinamool, facing several problems on different fronts, is trying its best to woo Muslims for the panchayat elections.
Elections to the three-tier local government bodies promise a tough political fight for the Trinamool Congress leader, who became the state’s first woman chief minister, dethroning the Left Front after 34 years of uninterrupted rule in May last year.
Ally Congress has dropped enough hints that it would love to go it alone in the polls. The party had fought last year’s West Bengal assembly elections, joining hands with the Trinamool and the latter, which is also a constituent of the central government, heavily benefited from it.
Recently, however, there has been a widening rift between the two parties on several issues, from the Teesta water sharing dispute to foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail.
Meanwhile, the Marxists, who had managed to retain dominance in 13 districts, will surely leave no stone unturned to reclaim lost ground.
In this scenario, some quarters believe Banerjee was desperate to retain the minority vote bank, which had been with her in the assembly polls.
There have been signs of her popularity going down due to controversies like Kolkata’s Park Street rape case, the arrest of an academic over a cartoon and the banning of some newspapers in state-run libraries.
There are, of course, those who did not agree with the assessment on Banerjee trying to appease Muslims.
“I am happy with the chief minister’s decision (to give a monthly honorarium to imams and muezzins) as, according to the Sachar Committee, the condition of Muslims in Bengal is not good,” Aziz Mubaraki, national secretary of the South Asia Ulema Council, told IANS.
On whether the honorarium was an attempt to woo Muslims, Mubaraki said: “If we always look at it this way, then we cannot do good for anyone.”
Samir Kumar Das, a political analyst, also does not believe Banerjee is trying to woo minority voters.
“I do not think so. And, moreover, the concept of a ‘Muslim votebank’ is a myth. Nowadays Muslims do not cast votes as a community, every Muslim casts his or her vote as a separate voter,” Das, a professor of political science at Calcutta University, told IANS.