West Bengal Polls: The Muslim Vote

May 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI/KOLKATA:  The ongoing multiphase elections to West Bengal Assembly are marked by a new importance being given to the state’s Muslim vote-bank. Will the Muslim-vote play a crucial part in deciding the fate of the Left Front government, led by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)? The state has been headed by left bloc since 1977. The Muslims constitute around 28 percent of the state’s vote-bank. Of late, a lot of hype has been raised about possible chances of Trinamool Congress, headed by Mamata Bannerjee, in alliance with the Congress Party ousting the Left bloc from power in West Bengal. Interestingly, Bannerjee, popularly known as Didi, is not contesting from any constituency in West Bengal. This naturally has raised questions about whether she is sure of her party winning substantial number of seats in the assembly.

The polls to 294-seats, spread over six phases began on April 18. Voting in the last phase will be held on May 10. The counting will take place on May 13. Within less than a fortnight, the political picture in West Bengal will be clearly laid out. At present, the possible impact of Muslim-vote in these elections shall be elaborated on. Out of the 42 members from West Bengal in Lower House (Lok Sabha) of the National Parliament, six are Muslims, with three from Congress, two-Trinamool Congress and one from CPI-M. The state has 15 members in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha), three of whom are Muslims with two from CPI-M and one an Independent.

The Muslim members constitute around 15 percent of the strength of outgoing state assembly. Of these, more than 50 percent belong to CPI-M and less than 30 percent to both the Congress and Trinamool Congress. The Speaker of the outgoing assembly is a Muslim from CPI-M, Hashim Abdul Halim. He has held this office since May 6, 1982.

Though Muslim-legislators’ strength in the assembly falls below their population-percentage in West Bengal, it would be wrong to assume that their concerns and grievances have been ignored or sidelined. A major reflection of this trend is that the state, under the Left-bloc government, has not been witness to any communal riot targeting the Muslims. In fact, Muslims have confided about their feeling secure in West Bengal. Here, one may draw attention to West Bengal government’s reaction, when Muslims were targeted in Gujarat-carnage (2002). A considerable number of the survivors, who decided to leave Gujarat, selected West Bengal as their home. Among these was Qutubuddin Ansari of Ahmadabad, whose picture with folded hands and tears streaming down his cheeks, pleading to rioters for sparing him, was then splashed across the world. He first rushed to Maharashtra, from where he was not spared by riot-mongers and some media persons. Eventually, he found a safe shelter in Kolkata, with initiative taken by some CPI-M leaders, including Mohammed Salim, who was then a minister in charge of secretariat dealing with development of minority communities. Ansari arrived in Kolkata with his wife and children in August 2003.

Electorally, apart from image presented by politicians appealing to Muslims for their votes, it is important to reflect on the picture that certain statistics suggest. More than 1700 hundred candidates are in the fray for contesting the West Bengal assembly polls. Less than 300 of these are Muslims. The Muslim candidates from CPI-M are more than 40, from Trinamool Congress- 38 and the Congress- 23. Interestingly, Muslim candidates trying their political luck are the maximum from small parties (116) followed by Independent candidates (61). Several major parties with minimal influence in West Bengal are also testing their political fate here, with Bharatiya Janata Party having fielded six candidates and Bahujan Samaj Party – 10.

These statistics clearly indicate that only 16 percent of the contesting candidates are Muslims. Interestingly, had Muslims decided not to enter the political fray as Independents and from smaller parties, statistically their participation as candidates would have fallen by more than 50 percent. When only the numbers of Muslim candidates fielded by major political parties, including CPI-M, Trinamool and Congress are added together, they constitute less than seven percent of the total candidates.

Now, the crucial question is whether the Muslims contesting polls as Independent and from smaller parties, will play a crucial part in deciding the fate of major parties in the fray? There is a possibility that a split or even too many divisions in Muslims votes may not prove helpful in helping Muslim candidates win. At the same time, considering that West Bengal is known for its secular harmony, the religious identity of candidates in the fray may not influence the voters in taking their decision. Their vote is likely to be more strongly influenced by their political preferences than religious identity of the candidates. There is a possibility that several Independent candidates may have been deliberately fielded by political players keen to cut into vote-base of rival parties, primarily on ground of religion.

Irrespective of the degree to which the religious card is being exercised by political parties in West Bengal elections, the crucial card is likely to be played by political speculation, apprehension and the trust that the voter displays through his/her vote. And the voters’ decision shall be known only when the results are declared later this month!

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American Admirers & Friends of BB have made a Documentary on her Legacy

May 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Large Number Of Persons Attending The Pre-Screening of PBS Documentary BHUTTOThe Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) Houston Channel 8 will be airing a documentary called “BHUTTO” on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 at 10:00pm under their “Independent Lens Series”. This documentary is directed and produced by Duane Baughman, while majority of the statements in the documentary are from Mark Siegel of USA, a close friend and advisor of Benazir Bhutto.

The preview of this Former Late Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto’s (BB’s) documentary was shown at Rice University Cinema last week, which was attended by Consul General of Pakistan in Houston Honorable Aqil Nadeem, many Americans of Pakistani origin and several indigenous Americans. Program was jointly sponsored by the Houston-Karachi Sister City Association (HKSCA) and Pakistan Chamber of Commerce – USA (PCC-USA).

Julie Coan of PBS Houston moderated the session before the screening of the movie, with brief statements given by the representatives of the two partnering organizations, namely Saeed Sheikh of HKSCA and P. J. Khan Swati of PCC-USA.

People had mixed feelings about the documentary, as they commented and asked questions during the panel discussion after the filming of the documentary. The panel discussion was moderated by award-winning journalist Patricia Gras (Patty), featured internationally acclaimed author Bapsi Sidhwa (now lives in Houston and originally from Lahore, Pakistan); and University of St. Thomas Professor of Economics Dr. Javed Ashraf.

The documentary has several stereotypical images, like while talking about terrorism and extremism; people are shown establishing congressional prayers in mosques. Another image was of jovial faced Indian leaders after the independence, while enrage faced Pakistani leaders.

Most of the people agreed with Ms. Sidhwa that the heroin of the documentary is BB and the whole film revolves around that theme and angle. The film portrayed BB as a brave lady, who originally had to wear Burqa, but then her charismatic dad Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto allowed her to come out of it, being one of the first ladies in the Bhutto family to do that. Some people felt that mistakes made by BB in terms of not fully supporting political culture in Pakistan by having it within her party, was not much highlighted in the documentary, while others said that BB fought & died for democracy.

Several people were bemused by the comments in the documentary of famous professor Dr. Akbar Ahmed, who somehow termed BB as mystic and Sufi.

Many people talked about the role of army in Pakistan and its corruption. Some said doubting comments if Pakistan and Pakistanis will ever embrace democracy.

On this our media representative at the event reminded that somehow people worldwide keep forgetting that the birth of Pakistan in fact came through a constitutional, political, and democratic struggle: So existence of Pakistan has very deep roots in democracy and political activism.

In a write-up, Duane Baughman, Director and Producer of the documentary “BHUTTO”, has said that he watched CNN in horror on Dec. 27, 2007, when Benazir Bhutto, the first woman in history to lead a Muslim nation, was blown away by a suicide bomber. Millions felt Benazir was the best hope for democracy and progress in that strategically critical nuclear-armed country. He has written that before Benazir’s death a close colleague of his reconnected him with Benazir’s advisor and close friend Mark Siegel, who had been pulling together American consultants on her behalf in anticipation of her 3rd rise to power in Pakistan. Three days after her death, Mr. Baughman watched Mark Siegel desperately trying – almost singlehandedly – to keep Benazir’s legacy alive by making the rounds on every conceivable news show. Before long, he spoke about telling the world Benazir’s story via a documentary film; and that is when they started to work on this documentary in Dubai, talking to her widower Asif Ali Zardari and three of her heartbroken children.

Duane Baughman has brought this angle in the story of BB that the Bhutto’s are called the “Kennedy’s of Pakistan.” Ironically, at Harvard, BB’s roommate was Bobby Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy.

Again the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) Houston Channel 8 will be airing this documentary called “BHUTTO” on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 at 10:00pm. under their “Independent Lens Series”.

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