Bengal: BJP’s Muslim face eyeing Pranab Mukherjee's turf
Draped in a saree, Mafuja Khatun takes guard on a makeshift cricket pitch curetted off a paddy field in Bajitpur village. It’s obvious cricket is not her domain as she fails to connect an underarm delivery a little boy rolls at her.
Her stamping ground is politics. But there too she finds herself on a sticky wicket. In Muslim-dominated Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency of Murshidabad district, Khatun, 47, is contesting on a BJP ticket. Around 61.79% people in the constituency belong to the religious minority community.
This former two-time Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA from Kumarganj, in neighbouring Dakshin Dinajpur district, however, is not daunted by the uncharted turf. Being the BJP’s maiden female Lok Sabha candidate from Bengal, she has already smashed several stereotypes and is hoping to break a few more glass ceilings.
Perception among Muslims
“I will change the perception of the minority community towards the BJP by sharing my experiences with them,” asserted Khatun.
“Has any of the development projects initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi excluded Muslims?” she posed a question before an audience at Kandi. “Modiji bolen sabka saath, sabka vikas (Modiji insists on development of all communities)”
Egged on by her supporters with constant cheering and applause, Khatun raised her pitch accusing Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of debasing Muslim community by wearing a hijab (headscarf) despite being a Brahmin woman. Surely, her target audience is Muslim women.
Immediately after switching side in 2017, she had attributed her decision to turn saffron from red, to Modi government’s push for abolition of triple talaq, a customary practice that allows any Muslim man to legally divorce his wife by stating the Arabic word talaq, which literally means “divorce”, three times in oral, written, or even in electronic form.
In Murshidabad, there are around two lakh Muslim women who have been a victim to the social practice of instant divorce, according to an estimate of the BJP’s state minority morcha.
Incidentally, a group of Muslim academics and social workers from the state under the banner of Reformist Muslim Society, Secular Mission and Progressive Muslim Society carried out a signature drive in 2017 demanding abolition of this Islamic practice.
Khatun’s poll planks
Khatun in her speech, however, tries to steer clear of the contentious issue. “I am mainly focusing on lack of employment opportunities, problem of river erosion, plight of the region’s beedi workers, lack of housing facilities, poor road condition, so on and so forth. People here are not getting benefits of the central schemes because of the state government,” she said.
Most workers in the beedi factories are Muslim women. Khatun often sits among them rolling beedis as she discusses their problems. Head wrapped in a blue and white scarf that act as an impromptu hijab, she comes across as one of them.
Soon after she is spotted in a roadside tea stall, sipping tea seated with a group of men—not a very usual scene in this part of the world.
Then again, there is nothing usual about Khatun, the most popular Muslim face of the BJP in the state.
Her speeches on YouTube are a instant hit, with some drawing over 10 million views. Many overenthusiastic BJP supporters even describe the firebrand leader as their answer to the mercurial Mamata Banerjee.
“My social media popularity is a big advantage. People instantly recognise me even in remote villages. ‘Apnei ki sei mohila? (Are you the same woman from YouTube videos),’ I am often asked,” she says with a smile.
Not withstanding the social media popularity and impressive crowds her election meetings are drawing, Khatun knows she is up against formidable opponents in the home turf of former President and Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, who represented the seat in the Lok Sabha from 2004-12.
His 59-year-old son Abhijit Mukherjee, the outgoing MP, is again in the fray as a Congress candidate. Zulfiqar Ali of the CPI (M) and Khalilur Rahman of the TMC are other two prominent contenders.
BJP hope floats on
In this quadrangular contest, the BJP is banking on a complex arithmetic, besides the good chemistry its candidate shares with a large section of Muslim women, who appear to be in awe of the cricket bat-wielding, hijab-clad Khatun. Of the 1,087,054 electors in the constituency, 525,319 are females.
The party is hoping that while Khatun will draw a large chunk of Muslim women votes, the remaining minority votes will get split among the Congress, the TMC and the CPI (M) and the Hindus will vote enmasse for the BJP.
Its optimism stems from the existing discontent over the lack of development in the region.
“The sitting MP is never seen in the area. He has not done anything for the constituency. On the other hand, the state government instead of facilitating the development, deprived the people from getting benefits of the central schemes,” she alleged, claiming these factors would work in her favour.
Mukherjee, who is this time facing a tough challenge, claimed he had spent more than his allotted quota of funds for the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme.
“I have done development works of almost ₹27 crore in the area in the last five years, but due to some unexplained reasons, the updated figure is not showing in the government website. Maybe, it’s deliberate so that I can be projected as a useless parliamentarian, who has not worked for the constituency,” he said.
There is also a groundswell of anger against the TMC mainly because of large-scale violence the district witnessed in the 2018 panchayat elections. The state’s ruling party is also faced with factional feuds. Only last year, former TMC minister Humayun Kabir switched over to the BJP. This time, he is contesting from the neighbouring Murshidabad parliamentary seat.
Mamata’s RSS jibe at Congress
To prevent a split in the minority votes, Mamata Banerjee in a recent rally in the district accused the Congress of being hand in glove with the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. As for the CPI(M), she alleged it has a tacit understanding with the Congress.
“So voting for the Congress or the CPI(M) will mean voting for the BJP. You must vote for the Trinamool,” she added, while relaying benefits of welfare schemes launched by her government.
“This district is known for the historic battle of Plassey. We all know about Mir Jafar’s betrayal of Siraj-ud-daula. It took 190 years to recover from that. The history of this region is so eventful. Once again you have the opportunity to create history,” the TMC chief said at a rally in Bhagabangola in Murshidabad.
In nearby Jangipur, Banerjee’s call has altogether a different connotation for another woman, who is also eyeing to create history.
Jangipur will go to poll on April 23 to decide the fate of the candidates, if not to chart history.