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'Muslim factor' in Bengal may surprise complacent CPI-M

By Jyoti Malhotra in Kolkata
Last updated on: May 12, 2009 13:43 IST
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In the filthy and impoverished bylanes of North Kolkata's minority-dominated areas, the 'Muslim factor' might be slipping away from the CPI-M's grip, finds Jyoti Malhotra.

You can hear Mohammed Salim before you can see him. The Communist Party of India–Marxist comrade is a favourite of television talk shows back home, and he is fluent in several languages.

The voice over the loudspeaker in the Rajabazar area of Calcutta North constituency, from where the dapper and articulate leader is contesting, clearly belongs to him, although here's the element of surprise: He is speaking in Hindi.

Turns out that this is a Muslim-majority area, comprising both Bengalis and immigrant Biharis, and Hindi-Urdu is often the preferred language. But there's more to being elected from Calcutta North than the ability to turn a phrase around different consonants at the same time, and Mohammed Salim is keenly aware of this fact.

With Muslims comprising 26 per cent of its population, and with the Sachar Committee report's widely-publicised findings that Muslims, including in West Bengal, are among the poorest communities in the entire country, Salim isn't likely to get away as easily this time.

The filth on the side streets is evidence of the neglect. Kolkata has lived cheek-by-jowl on the streets for so many decades that complaints about cleanliness, hand-pulled rickshaws and taxis that rattle so badly they won't even be accepted by the dustbin of history, seem like bourgeois, upper-class concerns from another planet.

But the fact is that Rajabazar is also beginning to complain about the severe lack of attention on Mohammed Salim's part in the last five years that he has been in the Lok Sabha -- and Salim knows it.

No wonder his speeches border on the plaintive. He's saying sorry to the small crowd of people in front of him, but because of the presence of this reporter in the crowd, he is naturally not going to use that word.

He is also sweating profusely in his white Lucknavi kurta, although that could also be due to the severe damp heat sweeping across the city.

"When you marry your daughter off and she goes to her sasural (husband's home), she doesn't stop being your daughter. She will always come back and you will always love her. This is how it is with us too... Please vote for me and I promise to represent your best interests," he says in a mohalla called Patwarbagan, while a party worker holds a red-and-white striped umbrella over him.

"Lekin yeh hamaara kila hai, hamaara garh hai, aap sab ko hamaare saath rehna hai (This is the party's fort, our stronghold, and you have to remain with us)," he adds.

Then, as he gets off the stage and espies this reporter, he winds off, "and you people say that the Muslims have deserted the CPM."

It is as telling a comment as any, and media stories on the 'Muslim factor' in this Bengal Lok Sabha election (which gives 42 seats to the Lok Sabha) could have more than a ring of truth to them.

One major reason is the 'wind of change' currently sweeping the state, against the CPI-M, because it has been in power for 32 years "and has done nothing in terms of development," believe many.

The beneficiary of this feeling, if it translates into votes, will be the Trinamool Congress's Sudip Bandopadhyaya, notwithstanding the fact that he has changed his party several times, twice to join the Congress and coming twice back to the Trinamool.

So when Salim's voice, speaking about the Left Front's decision to protect India from the 'anti-imperialist forces of the United States' over the India-US nuclear deal and protesting the US war in Iraq, wafts into a tiny 4X4 shop in the adjoining lane where two elderly Muslim gentleman sit, one of them pipes up.

"Toh yeh larne gaye the America se Iraq mein, (so they are the ones who went to fight in Iraq)," Mohammed Suleiman says with withering sarcasm.

Suleiman and his companion, who refused to be named, have all-too-familiar grudges about the party in power: They have been around for 32 years and done nothing about it, they have refused to utilise money the Centre gave the state for improving schools and creating jobs, and have simply been unable to contain prices.

"Joh poore shehar ka, poore kaum ka hamdard banega, vahi to vote payega na, (the person who looks after the city, after the people, he is the one who is going to get my vote)," says Suleiman, leaning into me on the shop floor, emphasising his anger with jabs on my arm, his eyes magnified behind his thick glasses.

Suleiman and his companion admit that Bandopadhyaya may or may not be such a great alternative, but that the growing feeling in the constituency is that "we need a change. Let us see what the Trinamool can do for us. Let us give them a chance."

Suleiman's companion is fully conversant with Trinamool leader Mamata Bannerjee's personality and her manifesto promises about transforming Bengal into another Europe. "Haan, voh jasbaati aurat hai, lekin voh bhi dheere-dheere badal rahi hai (yes, she is a whimsical woman, but even she is slowly changing)," he says.

Further into the heart of the city, in the shadow of Kolkata's Nakhuda mosque, which has retained its hold over the imagination of the community's faithful, Mohammed Shahabuddin holds out a basket of tantalisingly ripe mangoes.

But when I ask him why the crowd around the meeting being held by one of Salim's aides is so thin, he laughs. "Baat to yahi hai, kya Salim jeet jayega? (That is the point, will Salim win?)"

Then he answers his own question. "Lagta hai, nikal jayega, lekin Sudip ki hawa bhi tez hai (he may win by the skin of his teeth, although Sudip could also make it)."

Like so much else in this election, the stakes for the CPI-M in Calcutta North are also extremely high.

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Jyoti Malhotra in Kolkata