Progress or decline? Why the number of elected Muslim MLAs fell in West Bengal Assembly Elections 2021

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Despite TMC winning a landslide victory in the West Bengal Assembly Elections 2021, the Muslim representation in the Bengal Assembly has fallen to exactly where it was 15 years ago. There were 44 elected Muslim candidates during the Left Front regime in 2006. TCN spoke to experts, political observers and locals to understand the reasons behind the decline in the number of Muslim legislators. 

Yumna Mobin, 

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Kolkata: Although the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) has won a landslide victory in the West Bengal Assembly elections 2021, the Muslim candidates have fared poorly compared to the previous assembly elections. 

The outgoing assembly had 59 Muslim legislators whereas, the new assembly has 44 elected Muslim legislators only, out of which 43 are from TMC and 1 from Indian Secular Front (ISF). 

The main reason behind the decline in the number of Muslim legislators, which is also the most visible one, is the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the electoral scene of West Bengal and the decline of the Congress and the Left Front. 

In all previous assembly elections, as well as general elections, Muslim MLAs or MPs had belonged to different parties, and representation of Muslims was more or less distributed equitably throughout. 

Comparing with 2016, the total number of seats won by the Muslim candidates including the opposition has fallen drastically.  

The previous assembly had 59 Muslim legislators out of which 32 were from TMC, 18 from the Congress and 9 from the Left. 

Though the number of elected Muslim candidates belonging to TMC has increased, yet the total number of Muslim candidates nominated by the party was less. As opposed to 2016, when 53 Muslim candidates had been nominated by the TMC, this time only 47 were nominated by the party. This is one of the reasons for the fewer number of elected Muslim candidates this year. 

What is telling is that Muslim representation in the Bengal Assembly has fallen to exactly where it was 15 years ago. There were 44 elected Muslim candidates during the Left Front regime in 2006. 

“This time Muslims had the fear of their votes getting divided which would help BJP. The Muslim votes, therefore, got consolidated, and unitedly all of them voted for the TMC. Also, the Muslims voted without looking at the candidates of the other parties, or whether the candidate is Muslim or not,” Mohammed Reyaz, Assistant Professor at the Aliah University, Kolkata told 

Another major factor that has contributed to the TMC’s victory is that traditional voters of the Congress or the Left have switched sides and voted for the TMC. 

“I have many ‘Left-minded’ friends, and this time when I had asked them before the elections who they would vote for, all of them were in a dilemma. Most of them said that the Left and the Congress would not be able to come to power because of a lack of organization, especially, in the rural areas. So, why should we waste our vote on the Congress and the Left?” said Arghya Chatterjee, a professional lawyer practising at the Calcutta High Court. 

According to Chatterjee, the main aim of the election was to prevent BJP from coming to power. Therefore, the Congress and Left votes shifted to the TMC. 

“The ideologies of the Left/Congress and the BJP are starkly different. As a result I and my friends ideologically find TMC closer to the Left, than the BJP,” says Chatterjee.

According to Sayeed Rahmatullah, the BJP’s campaign consisted of excessive polarization of the Hindu voters, trying to convince them that Muslims are only going to harm them and that the BJP will be their saviour. Mass disinformation campaigns had been launched and run few months before the elections to infuse the public space with anti-Muslim and anti-TMC propaganda. 

A 28-year-old MBA graduate, Rahmatullah said, “Most of the seats that the BJP has won is in the northern districts like Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Darjeeling and Nadia. In these districts and only a few rural areas, the religious factor does have a pull to some extent. But, in Kolkata people are not divided by religion. It is essentially a cosmopolitan area, that has a mixed population and people vote mostly based on governance and development provided by the incumbent government.”

Therefore, it is not only the decline of the Congress and the Left front or the consolidation of Muslim votes. There are several other fallacies and discrepancies as well that number of Muslims in the assembly this time has fallen.

An interesting point raised by Prof. Reyaz is that the strategies in the fielding of Muslim and non-Muslim candidates by the Congress and CPI(M) may have contributed to people switching to TMC. 

For example, in 2016, from the Jamuria constituency of Asansol, a Muslim candidate from CPI(M), Jahanara Khan was elected. But this time the party gave the ticket for this seat to Aishe Ghosh, the JNUSU President, which she lost to Hareram Singh of the TMC.

A similar pattern can be seen in the seat of Nalhati (Birbhum). Rajendra Prasad Singh of TMC won against an independent Muslim candidate, Moinuddin Shams, who was a former TMC candidate as well, even though this particular constituency has nearly 47% Muslim population. 

Thus, despite the fall in the number of Muslim MLA’s, the consolidation of Muslim, non-Muslim and Left voters, the assembly election in West Bengal was fought more on party lines and much lesser on religious or caste lines like most of the other states in India. 

Although TMC can be questioned about the fall in the number of Muslim legislators nominated from the party, what it did, however, was that it shrugged off the image of a ‘minority appeasing’ party. Since Muslims had only one party to turn to, religion was not the key driving point they could vote on. Consolidation happened by default, not by choice.