Kolkata: The political landscape of West Bengal looks set for a major change with Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM deciding to contest the 2021 assembly polls, signalling the advent of a new player in a hugely polarised arena where Mamata Banerjee's TMC holds sway over Muslim votes.
After the eclipse of the once-mighty Left Front and the Congress, Banerjee's party virtually had a monopoly over the Muslim electorate, who acted as a bulwark against her rivals ever since the TMC was catapulted to power in the politically volatile state.
Banerjee's recent bilious assault on the AIMIM leader surprised even the most avid watchers of West Bengal politics when she, without naming Owaisi, asked the Muslims to be wary of the "minority extremists" from Hyderabad.
She said the "moneybags" from the Telangana capital were bent upon "misleading" the minority community, remarks that came out of the blue, as the tempestuous Bengal leader had never criticised Owaisi in the past.
Owaisi, who is fast emerging as the foremost Muslim voice in the country where the predominant minority community has been without a towering leader in a long while and were being patronised by leaders like Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Banerjee, hit right back.
"When arrogance gets to your head you make nonsensical, baseless statements. She is making these statements because she is frustrated... because she is losing ground... and she has demeaned all the Muslims who have voted for her," Owaisi said.
He said Muslims of Bengal were ranked "worst" among states in development indicators.
The Hyderabad MP said his party has already been working in the state for a year-and-half and will contest the next assembly elections.
"I have to contest election if I believe in democracy.
I have to contest election if I have to realise my constitutional rights.... to stop these opportunistic parties who have used Muslims to be in power," he asserted.
For years, the AIMIM's influence was limited to the old Hyderabad city before it forayed into Maharashtra and two of its candidates won the assembly elections from there in 2014.
The party now has a Lok Sabha member from Maharashtra and it recently pocketed the Muslim-dominated Kishanganj seat in Bihar in a bypoll to make its maiden entry into the state assembly.
Owaisi's posters could be seen in several minority- dominated pockets of the state proclaiming both in Hindi and Bengali "Intezaar ab khatam (The wait is now over), Mission West Bengal".
In a huge setback to Banerjee, the 2019 Lok Sabha poll saw the BJP's tally soar from two to 18, and the TMC's plummeted from 34 to 22. West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats.
Muslims constitute around 30 per cent of the state's population. It has the largest Muslim electorate after Kashmir, and Owaisi apparently saw in West Bengal a fertile ground for his expansion plans.
"Initially we decided against foraying into Bengal as it would have divided the minority votes and helped the BJP.
But in last two years, we witnessed the poor condition of minorities in Bengal and decided to make our presence felt in the state," a senior AIMIM told PTI from Hyderabad.
Attempting to protect her formidable Muslim constituency, Banerjee, apart from excoriating the AIMIM, has raised the pitch against the NRC.
Her cry against the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was hitherto restricted to Assam, has grown shriller after BJP chief and Home Minister Amit Shah's announcement that it will be extended to the entire country.
The feisty West Bengal chief minister has declared that the NRC, which aims at weeding out illegal immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh, will not be allowed in her state, wary that it could disenfranchise a section of her Muslim support base.
"Since last year, we have seen politics over Muslim infiltration and the proposed NRC in Bengal. The TMC, apart from doing politics to consolidate minority votes, has done nothing. So, we are increasing our presence in minority districts, educating Muslims about documents they need for NRC," AIMIM state president Zameerul Hasan told PTI.
He said whether the party will contest all 294 seats in the assembly polls will be decided by Owaisi, who is likely to start touring the state from next year.
The TMC, however, sought to make light of the AIMIM challenge.
"The minorities in Bengal firmly stand behind Mamata Banerjee and the TMC. Parties like the AIMIM, which are agents of the BJP, will be exposed," asserted state minister and TMC general secretary general Partha Chatterjee.
Though the TMC leadership does not attach much importance to the "tall claims" by the AIMIM, some in the party feel its electoral foray into the state could somewhat disturb the support base of Banerjee's party.
"The AIMIM won't be able to win seats but it can damage our prospects in seats where the minorities play an important role... where it's a close contest," a senior TMC leader said on condition of anonymity, acknowledging that the BJP could benefit from it.
Of the 22 Lok Sabha seats that the TMC won this year, 16 were those with sizeable Muslim electorate who voted for the party en masse. On the other hand, 14 of the 18 seats the BJP won were those where the Muslims constituted less than 15 per cent of the electorate.
A Muslim TMC leader, who did not wish to be named, said the community voted for Banerjee's party as it saw there a "credible force" against the BJP.
"The entry of the AIMIM for sure change several equations. Banerjee's comments are based on the ground level feedback about the damage AIMIM can cause to the TMC's Muslim vote bank. Its entry will only help the BJP divide Muslim votes," he said.