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M.J. AKBAR
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Veteran journalist M.J Akbar is the founder of The Sunday Guardian.

Birnam Wood is not moving, yet

The Muslim vote moves slowly, almost imperceptibly, but when it shifts the impact is decisive in Bengal.

acbeth, Shakespeare's most self-destructive politician, was confident that he would never lose power until Birnam Wood began to move. Since it seemed highly unlikely that a whole forest would trot across towards his fortress, he lived in the complacent world of invincibility.

Every government in Bengal is equally certain of survival till the Muslim vote begins to move against its citadel. The largest Muslim concentration in India is in Bengal; they constitute 28% of the population, or twice the national average. The effective percentage is higher. Muslims, conscious of the strategic value of their vote, poll in higher numbers. Second, geography is on their side. They are concentrated in an eastern arc that rises from South 24 Parganas and develops demographic momentum in districts like Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur. They make the difference in at least half of Bengal's seats, if not more.

Quiz question: what is the Muslim vote in President Pranab Mukherjee's former constituency? Above 65%. Rub your eyes again at the next fact. Barring one instance in the 1950s, neither the Congress nor the Marxists have put up a Muslim candidate from this constituency, until the Left did so in last year's byelection.

Being a forest, this vote moves slowly, almost imperceptibly, but when it shifts the impact is decisive in Bengal. Till 1967, it supported the Congress. When the mood changed, United Front governments came to power. In 1971, it went back to Congress because of Mrs Indira Gandhi, but from 1977 it veered towards the Left and kept Marxists in power for over three decades. It now forms the vanguard of the Mamata Banerjee insurrection.

The decline in Mamata Banerjee's urban popularity is evident to anyone who lives in or visits Calcutta. Calcutta has not returned to red yet, but the mood is belligerent. There is incipient nostalgia among the genteel bhadralok in particular for the last Marxist Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who had the kind of soft public style that is considered good manners.

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Mamata Banerjee is too interventionist, a one-woman occupation force rather than a government.

Mamata Banerjee is too interventionist, a one-woman occupation force rather than a government. She has not understood the art of surrendering space to colleagues, if for no other reason but to share the blame when things go wrong, as they always will. If you hog the spotlight, warts from elsewhere will drift onto your face. Her nature is confrontational. This wins applause when she dares a Goliath called Delhi. It seems shabby when her ire descends upon little men from Lilliput who crowd the media.

But slip outside the metropolis and you can smell and see the change in mood along with the environment. Rural Bengal, on either bank of the Hooghly river, is as serene as urban Bengal is squalid. As we drive up towards Shantiniketan, where Bengal pays homage to the memory of Rabindranath Tagore, there are only a few patches of the potholed past. On one short stretch, a 20th century road was still being laid over a 19th century surface through 18th century methods. But these villages and small towns that echo through the early phase of East India Company history, remain Mamata territory. The devastation of famine, which came with the British, may have become a nightmare of the past but poverty remains pervasive, visible in the low wages and darned lungis of labour.

It is this constituency of the poor that gives Mamata her political strength. A recent opinion poll by the TV channel Times Now gave her 27 seats out of 42. Calcutta sneers at such projections, and believes that Mamata Banerjee will be, or should be, defeated. But these voters still trust her. She has raised minimum wages. This may not have had a radical impact on the largest employer of the poor, the domestic sector, but it has raised the poor's bargaining power. The numbers are not ecstatic yet, but the percentage of Muslims in police recruitment is rising. Mamata Banerjee is also sensitive to any problem in Bengali madrasas or Urdu institutions.

But her true opportunity lies in an area of decision-making which is rarely discussed. Both Congress and Communists never lose a chance to claim secularism as their bread-and-butter creed, but neither has ever empowered Muslims when in government. In any other state a community with a minimum 30% vote would have claimed the chief ministership. Forget that thought in Bengal. Neither Congress nor Communists have even given a Muslim an economic portfolio like finance. As a senior Marxist once told me, Bengali Muslims are considered good enough for only livestock (he was referring to animal husbandry, and in any case the remark sounds far more interesting in Bengali with a rural cadence).

So far Mamata Banerjee has remained within the conventional pattern. She has raised the political profile of some Muslim colleagues but that is not going to be enough for a community that is beginning to understand its power. If it continues to be taken for granted, fed with occasional tokenism, the forest will move much faster than before. Mamata Banerjee still has time. And time shall tell if she also has the will to be different.

 
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