Mamata Banerjee’s recent remarks aimed at Owaisi have come as a huge surprise. The West Bengal CM who has never shied away from blatantly appeasing the primary minority community in West Bengal- the Muslims, has suddenly taken a veiled dig at the AIMIM chief Owaisi over “minority extremism”. While speaking at an event in Cooch Behar, which is located on the Indo-Bangladesh border, Mamata Banerjee said, “I am watching that there are some extremists among the minorities. They have their base in Hyderabad. Don’t listen to them.” Though she did not name Owaisi directly, her “Hyderabad” reference leaves little doubt about whom she was targeting.
While her sudden concern about the rise of “minority appeasement” could be befuddling to an average political observer given that the TMC supremo herself has come to epitomise minority appeasement. How she prohibited Durga idol immersion to facilitate Muharram processions is a known fact. The payment of a monthly stipend to thousands of Imams and Muezzins in the state is yet another example of how she has indulged in minority appeasement in order to create a minority vote bank for the TMC. However, by attacking Owaisi, Mamata is only trying to rework the electoral arithmetic in West Bengal which currently seems tilted against her.
It is important to mention here that the BJP won 18 seats during the Lok Sabha polls held earlier this year. BJP’s campaign targeted Mamata Banerjee and TMC over minority appeasement, and it became clear that the West Bengal CM was losing out on Hindu votes. TMC never really had a Hindu vote bank in the state, and the Hindus were voting for TMC only due to absence of any other option. With the rise of BJP, the Hindus saw an alternative and it was the TMC which faced major losses due to BJP’s rise in the state.
After the Lok Sabha poll results, Mamata has been trying to shed her pro-minority image, or at least get rid of allegations of blatant minority appeasement. Therefore, while in Cooch Behar, she also visited the Madan Mohan Mandir and offered prayers, moments after having met her party cadre and addressed them. Till now, Mamata Banerjee must have been of the opinion that with her primary minority vote bank in the form of Muslims intact, she only needed to get back a fair share of Hindu votes through an image makeover. However, major disruption is set to take place in the form of AIMIM’s rise in the Eastern parts of India. Mamata Banerjee has realised that and this explains her sudden attack on Owaisi.
AIMIM chief Owaisi had been trying hard to expand his footprint in the East. Recently, he pocketed the Kishanganj seat in Bihar, which is located near Bihar’s neighbouring state of West Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee has obviously gauged an emerging threat to her Muslim vote bank in the form of Owaisi’s rise in the region. What must have aggravated her fears is the fact that Owaisi’s AIMIM is planning to contest from all 294 Assembly seats in West Bengal in 2021. Mamata Banerjee understands that Owaisi is a very polarising figure. Mamata Banerjee’s minority appeasement will be overshadowed by his polarising narrative. The TMC which has already lost a major share of Hindu votes to the BJP, and is struggling to win it back, will be in a spot of bother if it loses out substantially on Muslim vote share as well. If Owaisi is able to make substantial inroads in the state of West Bengal, TMC would be the biggest casualty and the West Bengal CM, Mamata Banerjee might virtually end up losing her political relevance in West Bengal.
Owaisi might not be able to win a large number of seats straight away, however, his entry in West Bengal politics can spoil TMC’s electoral equations by dividing Muslim votes. In such circumstances, it is only natural that Mamata Banerjee is trying to dismiss him as an “extremist”. With this, she is trying to emerge as a bold leader to woo the Hindu voters and at the same time, she is trying to keep her Muslim vote bank intact by warning against an outsider and extremist in the form of Owaisi.
The fact that Mamata Banerjee has made this statement in Cooch Behar, which is located near the Bangladesh border also seems to be a part of her larger strategy to keep Owaisi at bay. Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are a major political factor in the state of West Bengal, and supporting them forms the core of TMC’s appeasement politics in the state. Therefore, Mamata Banerjee’s sudden outburst against “minority extremism” does not seem to emanate from any genuine concern, rather it is a shrewd move based on political expediency and electoral arithmetic.