It is here where the ISF-led by Abbas Siddiqui, the pirzada of Furfura Sharif shrine in Hooghly that controls some 3,000 mosques, hopes to make a mark. ISF flags adorn the houses of voters, mainly Muslims, and the song, ‘Musalmano ka ek hi Rehanuma (there is only one saviour of Muslims) –– Vaaijaan’ can be heard here.
Announcing the nomination of Siddiqui’s brother Noushad Siddiqui from here last month, Siddiqui, largely known for his regressive and controversial stance, promised to construct a cold storage facility for fish farmers. The ISF’s pitch that the TMC has done very little for Muslims despite using them as a vote bank seems to have found some resonance, at least in Bhangar.
Jantu Mondal, owner of a small shop here, claims all the Muslims in the area will vote for ISF as they want to teach the TMC a lesson.
“People like Soakat (MLA of nearby Purba Canning) and others come and take thousands of rupees from us in the name of safety. Hundreds of people even came yesterday to see Abbas in his rally here. We did not even go for Mamata’s rally.”
A mother of three, Abida Amin, agreed, “We cannot be taken for granted. If they don’t do any work, we can always vote for someone else”.
The malpractices regarding distribution of Amphan relief and the dominance of local strong men –– Arabul Islam, Nannu Hossain, Kaiser Ahmed and, Saokat Mollah –– is the main talk in S24 Parganas where the ISF has candidates in four seats.
South 24 Parganas with 31 assembly constituencies stood by Mamata Banerjee even in 2019 when the BJP won 18 seats. According to the 2011 census, Muslims constitute around 36%, with a substantial number in Bhangar, Canning, Magrahat, Maheshtala, Diamond Harbour and Baruipur. At least 18 constituencies have over 30% Muslims.
With its proximity to the port and new town, the district is also key to the TMC as it has been mobilising resources (men and cash) whenever it needs. Party leaders have control over the unions in the companies and transport associations here.
“None of the frenzy for Abbas will convert into votes. It is a party without nuts and bolts,” Kaiser Ahmed, a local TMC strongman who was in jail till last month for causing violence, told ET. Ahmed and Arabul Islam, another strongman who allegedly burnt down the TMC office here last month after being denied a ticket don’t see eye to eye.
“I was away for a few months. That is when ISF entered. But now all local strongmen have been asked to keep off and work in their respective areas –– Arabul in block 2, I am in block 1, Pareshram in west and Soakat in East –– and we are working together as a team to keep communal forces at bay,” he added. Interestingly, it is the over 70,000 Hindu votes that the TMC is working the hardest to woo. “I am telling the Hindus their voting for BJP is as good as voting for ISF. I am telling the Muslims that they will have to stop sending their girls to college or bursting crackers during Shabbe-barat if ISF comes to power,” Ahmed said.
At least two local leaders admitted to getting calls from Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy to join the BJP, and about how there is constant factional clashes between the old TMC workers, and the yuva team that has the blessings of Abhishek Banerjee. The same leaders say they were also approached by ISF when the front started deciding its candidates.
Abour 30 km away, in Canning East, another strong man, Saokat Mollah, considered close to Abhishek Banerjee, runs his fiefdom. There is hardly any TMC campaign as people say Mollah doesn’t need to canvas for votes.
“The ISF and BJP have candidates and they have some traction, but this is Soakat’s ilaka (area). Anyone from Nadda to the ISF campaigners who dared to come here has faced his wrath. How he gets voting done is another story,” says Shamsher Khan, a trader, pointing to the street lights Mollah “gifted” people here. “We have no complaints with him”.
Mollah told ET there is no question of “cut money” alleging that the Centre never sent any money to the state. “Abbas will not get a single seat in S24 Parganas. Fifty five of the 56 clergy in Fufura Sharif support TMC.” Denying that there has been any large-scale political violence in his area, Mollah praised Abhishek Banerjee for “bringing in modern methods of campaigning to the party. He thinks about everyone. He is the future”.
In Masat in Diamond Harbour, a Tablighi Jamaat teacher Tehseen Ahmed told ET that the ISF has divided even brothers in a family. “People who saw their asbestos roofs crumble and polythene roofs fly away in Amphan were told they didn’t qualify for relief..The ones who had pukka houses got the money. This is a VIP constituency. We see senior police officials taking this route. What have they done for us?”
This is why the BJP thinks it can foray into TMC’s strongest bastion. Although ridden by its own factional problems, it is relying on its national leaders to deliver results. While a team led by the party’s UP strategist Sunil Bansal is working on keeping the new booth committees active, PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have addressed ten public meetings here. Similar efforts have been made by Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek Banerjee.
Jyoti Mondal, a resident of Betberia in Baruipur, told ET that though BJP leaders have placed their flags in the village, they are yet to hear from them. “Our panchayat members are all from TMC. It is the only party that has come to us. They gave every family Rs 3,000 two months ago saying it is for Amphan, eight months after the damage.”
Abhijit Das, former district BJP president, said Mathurapur in S24 Parganas had recorded the lowest number of votes in 2014 but had recorded an eight-time increase in votes in 2019. “Our party has realised that we don’t need to fear anyone.”