Kolkata: Sitting at the one corner of his dilapidated muddy house made of hay bales with a palm-frond roof at Lauhati in Rajarhat, North 24 Parganas district, Huzaifa (45) looks restless as he has to finish all the broom bindings by ‘Jumma’ (March 5) so that he can sell it in the local weekly haat to earn some extra money.
A fisherman by profession, Huzaifa is good at handicrafts too and this helps him make some more money to feed his two daughters and three sons.
His wife Khadija is a ‘beedi’ worker by profession and she is happy to help her husband financially in running the family.
A few metres away from the scattered broomsticks, Huzaifa’s elder son Imran’s swirling wooden top broke the eerie silence of the sleepy hamlet of Lauhati while the boy’s brothers, Arif and Atif, were seen wrestling to capture the hammock made of a tattered saree tied to the carambola tree.
“Be careful of Bhaijan’s (Abbas Siddiqui’s) amulet…make sure it doesn’t get damaged. He has given those amulets for our better future ahead,” Huzaifa shouted at Atif.
In the meantime, a call from one Samshad Hussain (Huzaifa’s friend) drew his attention and he quickly received the call before it got disconnected. “Don’t worry…I will be there to support Bhaijaan. I will talk to you in detail in the evening as I am in a hurry to finish the broom bindings,” Huzaifa told Samshad.
For decades, Huzaifa was a staunch supporter of the CPI(M). But with the Left fading, the popularity of Abbas Siddiqui not only attracted people like Huzaifa but also managed to secure the confidence of a large number of Muslims, Dalits and tribal people in Bengal, mainly in areas bordering Bangladesh.
“Bhaijaan keeps inquiring about us and he also gave us amulets for our good fortune. We are with Bhaijaan so that we can go to heaven after we leave this world. He is contesting the elections under the banner of Indian Secular Front and this time we are going to support him,” Huzaifa said.
He said, “I voted for the CPI (M) for years but nothing has happened as far as the welfare of Muslims is concerned. The same politics is now being played by the Trinamool Congress. The Bharatiya Janata Party is more dangerous than all the parties now. So, we have become the followers of Abbas Siddiqui and we will vote for those parties which will have Bhaijaan’s support.”
Siddiqui, who wants to be a kingmaker, is an influential cleric of the Furfura Darbar Sharif of the Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat, an Islamic sect, located in Jangipara in Hooghly district, and presently he has a long list of followers in the Bengal.
Being immensely popular among Muslims with substantial mass support in some parts of Bengal’s border areas, he once termed himself a “great fan” of Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
It was his strategic move to gain entry in Bengal’s politics, as his statement became a concern for the ruling TMC that sensed they may work as vote-cuttersb after it had come to power in 2011 with the support of Muslims.
Siddiqui’s praises for Owaisi not only changed the political equations in Bengal but also created a huge opportunity for the AIMIM to flex its muscles in the assembly polls that will begin on March 27.
However, Siddiqui took another clever step and distanced himself from being a ‘great fan’ of Owaisi, to become a partner of the Left-Congress alliance in Bengal in a bid to play a long innings in the state’s politics.
When asked why he ditched Asaduddin Owaisi, Siddiqui said, “We have not ditched him. He came to meet me in Furfura Sharif and he went back to Hyderabad. After that there was no communication from his side. No local leader contacted me after that. So we have decided to move ahead with the Left-Congress.”
Siddiqui was born in Furfura Sharif in Hooghly and did his schooling from Narayani School in Rampara near Furfura and South Digha School in East Midnapore.
Inspired by his father Ali Akbar Siddiqui, he educated himself in Islamic ‘siksha’ and studied from Tentulia Madrasa in North 24 Parganas district. He completed his higher education from Aliah University in Hadith.
His brother Naushad is the chairman of the newly formed Indian Secular Front, while his mother is a homemaker.
In the context of his differences with West Bengal Congress Committee chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, which led to a war of words among some Congress leaders in Delhi, he said, “Whatever I had said during the Brigade public rally was true. We are not looking for any handout as an alliance partner of Congress and Left Front. We want our equal share and dignity.”
While commenting on senior Congress leader Anand Sharma, who questioned the party’s decision to ally with the recently formed ISF, he said, “I don’t want to react to Anand Sharma’s comment. This is an internal matter of the Congress.”
On the Trinamool, he said, “Initially, we wanted to have an alliance with the TMC but they were not interested. I would like to clarify that the ISF is not a communal party and it is not based on religious lines. We are mainly committed towards the welfare of Dalits, minorities and the tribal community. This is the reason why the Left Front and Congress agreed to consider us as an alliance partner.”
With a more than 31 per cent vote share, Muslim voters are undeniably a key factor in the West Bengal polls.
They played a crucial part in keeping the Left Front in power, till TMC chief Mamata Banerjee seized the reins in 2011.
Mamata knows well that any significant division in the Muslim vote share, a big factor in nearly 90 assembly segments out of the 294 in the state, could jeopardise her chances.
Despite his claim that the ISF is not a religion-driven party, Abbas saw a huge political opportunity in Bengal and from 2019 his ‘murid’ (followers) had slowly started working in the border areas of the state where the Muslim population is high.
Banking on Muslims, as Hindu votes gravitated towards the BJP, Siddiqui’s ISF could spoil Mamata’s game and improve the BJP’s chances due to an inevitable division in the Muslim vote share.
In West Bengal, nearly 22 per cent Muslims live in Kolkata city while a majority of them (nearly 67 per cent) live in Murshidabad district. The second and third highest Muslim populations are in North Dinajpur (52 per cent) and Malda (51 per cent) respectively.
West Bengal accounts for the second highest Muslim population in India which is nearly 2.47 crore, who form about 27.5 per cent of the state’s population.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC got 43 per cent votes which is 5 per cent more (because of Muslim support) as compared to the 2014 polls, despite losing 12 seats. In 2014, the party got 34 seats, while 5 years later it managed to secure only 22.
In the 2016 assembly elections, the Trinamool was ahead in nearly 90 Muslim-dominated assembly segments. In areas where Muslims comprise more than 40 per cent of the electorate, the TMC was ahead in nearly 60 of such 65 assembly constituencies.
On the other hand, in the same polls, the BJP’s vote share was 12 per cent and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections it went up to 39 per cent. There was an increase of 27 per cent in the vote share mainly because of Hindus moving towards the saffron party.
This shows how a minor swing in the Muslim vote share towards the ISF-Congress-Left Front combine could be a big problem for Mamata, as ‘Bhaijaan’ has even decided to field a candidate against ‘Didi’ in Nandigram.