Kolkata-based scholar Kumar Rana says that instead of criticising Owaisi, secular parties should formulate their own strategy
THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears close to wresting power from Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. The party is employing every tool to achieve its goal, chief among them being its time-tested strategy of communal polarisation. The possible entry of Asaduddin Owaisi’s party in the fray may further help the saffron party.
The only force that can give fight to the emerging threat is the Left and the Congress which have bonded together at the national level. But to succeed in West Bengal, they will have to regain their support base that depends on many things, not just the anti-BJP and anti-Mamata rhetoric. They will have to do some real work on the ground.
These are the views of Kumar Rana, a Kolkata-based social scientist, researcher and author of several books. In a wide-ranging interview with Clarion India, Rana said people of the state were suffering. There are problems with high rates of unemployment, a very fragile public health system and skyrocketing prices. A section of people holds the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee responsible for this.
If the Left-Congress combine takes up these real issues, people will feel associated with it. “Wherever they are reaching out to people, challenging government officials at block level, they are gaining strength. The success of the nationwide strike on November 26 gives a very clear message that you have to stand by people… you have to endure pain for the sake of people,” he said.
Rana was of the view that the way the Left was preaching secularism was helping the communal forces, especially BJP. He said the policy of maintaining ‘equidistance’–that we are neither with Hindu communalism nor Muslim communalism–was wrong.
“In a country where Muslims are attacked every day, every moment, their biological existence is in question, if you say no we are away from it, that’s not done. You have to take a firm stand, and stand by those being attacked. Your position should be very clear. You are calculating that by speaking for Muslims, your Hindu vote will be affected. I think … they should do moral politics, not electoral politics. That pays in the long run,” he opined.
Rana said the Left criticising Mamata for ‘competitive communalism’ was also wrong. There is no such thing as competitive communalism. By saying so “you are accusing Mamata of doing Muslim communalism. But I don’t believe it,” he maintained.
The fact is, Rana said, Mamata has not done much for Muslims, except for some ‘Imam Bhatta’ which people easily relate to Muslim appeasement.
(Imam Bhatta is a monthly allowance for prayer leaders of mosques. It is paid from the income generated by Muslim-owned Waqf properties. But an impression has been created that the money was going through the state exchequer. Mamata did not find it necessary to dispel this impression)
Rana’s area of interest is the deprived sections of society, including Muslims. He has done extensive research in West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand. He said Muslims of West Bengal continued to be as deprived as they were before the Mamata rule.
“I was part of a study on Muslims of West Bengal. It was quite a large study, a survey of about 8,000 households. What we found was that up to 80 per cent of Muslims were very poor, day labourers. They don’t have the opportunities of education, health facilities, nothing,” he said.
But, Rana maintained, one can’t say that only Muslims are the deprived community. Muslims in the state are concentrated mainly in Murshidabad, Malda and North Dinajpur districts. These are the poorest areas. “Some Muslims relate their deprivation to their being Muslims, which is not correct. The Left has to stand very firmly with the Muslims and guarantee their physical survival. But at the same time, it has to articulate this in very clear terms that Muslims’ deprivation is not on religious lines. It’s on social lines, so we have to follow the line of social justice,” he opined.
Owaisi’s poll plan for West Bengal
Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won five seats in the recent Bihar Assembly elections. It is a big achievement for a party of the South because, in the 2015 Bihar polls, most of its candidates had forfeited their deposits. This success has encouraged him to try his luck in West Bengal.
Rana said Owaisi gaining ground beyond his home turf of Hyderabad was the result of Muslims’ loss of trust in secular parties. Many people are also wary of him and view his party as a divider of Muslim votes. Rana agrees that AIMIM’s presence in West Bengal poll was likely to divide Muslim votes which, in turn, will benefit the BJP. But he said there is no point in criticising him. “Instead, secular parties should formulate their own strategy,” he added.
Question of alliance with Mamata
BJP’s gains in the recent Bihar polls have prompted fresh calls for realignment of political forces. Dipankar Bhattacharya, leader of CPIML, has said that the Left in Bengal should identify BJP, and not Mamata’s party, as the enemy. Jamaat-e-Islami, which is not a political party but an important voice of the Muslim community, went a step further and sent its delegation to senior leaders of the Left, the Congress and TMC to urge them to upcoming elections jointly to keep BJP from gaining power in West Bengal.
Rana said ideally a grand alliance should happen but there was no ground for such an arrangement. The reason was ruling TMC’s past record. According to him, during the last five to six years Mamata’s party has targeted workers of various Left parties. They have either been poached or assaulted, sent to jail and even killed, he said adding just this week Dipankar’s own party workers were beaten up by TMC workers in Kolkata. So the ‘objective reality’ goes against bringing them together just for election. “Even Dipankar is not calling for immediate alliance. He has a different point of view which has substance. He is saying that you identify enemy first. But identifying your enemy and identifying them at grass roots level are two different things. They are not the same,” Rana maintained.
Support base of Congress
According to him, the Congress which ruled the state for 25 years after independence still has some support base in Murshidabad, Malda, etc. But of late the party has lost many of its activists to Mamata’s TMC. Recently, some are joining BJP.
Mamata and her party
According to Rana, the ruling TMC is more like a club than a political party. Everybody fights with each other and Mamata is a force that joins together different interest groups. Gradually, it’s becoming difficult for her to keep these different fragments together. It’s a real problem for her, Rana said, adding, of late she has created some problems for herself.
Rana’s observation explains the reason as to why Suvendu Adhikari, a powerful minister in her government, left her. He is likely to join the BJP like another senior TMC leader Dilip Ghosh who changed sides last year and joined the BJP.
According to Rana, the BJP’s real base is in villages where there is a deep sense of deprivation, and the saffron party is banking on this sentiment. “We in Bengal have created a huge gap between Kolkata and the hinterland. You have everything in Kolkata. But fruits of reform and renaissance led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagr, Rabindranath Tagore, etc. did not reach villages. Kolkata has record of giving birth to some international figures like Satyajit Ray and Saumitra Chatterjee. They are pride of the nation. But go to villages, many people don’t know who Satyajit Ray was,” he said.
Rana has been associated with Pratichi Institute formed by Amartya Sen for 28 years. He said even in some of the villages Birbhum from where Amartya Sen comes, he came across people who did not know who Amartya Sen is.
“The BJP is cashing in on this backwardness. In cities you are talking about something very forward looking, but at the village the same regressive things like early marriage are happening,” he said.
According to Rana, this situation is a “perfect hunting ground for the BJP which has been able to reach such backward areas and connect with people who believe that early marriage is good; that Ganesha idol drinks milk kind of things. The whole formation of the BJP is based on regressive ideology that is matching in Bengal villages.”
Rana said even if the BJP fails to get power following Assembly election, the party has foothold in Bengal and become a force to reckon with. “That’s where the demand for rational politics is increasing. We have not done much in the past. To save the future you have to do much now,” he added.
CAA-NRC as poll issue
Rana was of the view that though the issue has been weakened with the passage of time, there is possibility of it being revived. “The protest against Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens was a unifying movement. Both Hindus and Muslims were coming on one platform because it was going to affect everyone. But coronavirus pandemic came as a big relief to the government. However, it still has the potential of mobilising people. The issue is in public memory. You don’t have to explain much. People are concerned because of this,” he said.
Is there any sign of the Left-Congress combine reviving the movement? “Unfortunately, not. But who knows, as the election time approaches, the opposition may take it up,” he added.