The emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre in 2014 and later in these states has brought the spotlight on the electoral behaviour of the minority community.
The presence of significant Muslim votes and their ability to swing electoral fortunes has led to various parties aggressively woo the minority community in four poll-bound states.
Of the four, three states have sizeable Muslim population including Assam (35 percent), West Bengal (30 percent) and Kerala (27 percent) while Tamil Nadu has around 6 percent community voters.
As a result, politics in the three states has been revolving around pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim positions taken by the parties that have been contesting elections there.
The emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre in 2014 and later in these states has brought the spotlight on the electoral behaviour of the minority community given the saffron party generally prefers to be associated with the Hindu voters.
The BJP, which came to power in Assam in 2016, is pushing hard for a second term. In West Bengal, the saffron party has emerged as the main challenger to the ruling Trinamool Congress while it is struggling to get a foothold in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The Muslims in these states have traditionally supported the ruling formations like the Left Front from 1977-2011 and the Trinamool Congress after that in West Bengal, Congress and AIUDF in Assam, both Congress-led UDF and CPI-M-led LDF in Kerala and the DMK along with allies IUML and MMK in Tamil Nadu.
Of late, the growing aspirations of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, trying to present itself as a pan-Indian party of Muslims, has also generated a buzz around the community’s role in the coming round of assembly elections.
The AIMIM, led by Hyderabad-based Lok Sabha MP Owaisi, had upset the opposition’s calculations by winning five seats in the 2020 Bihar assembly elections. A division in Muslim votes contributed to the return of BJP-led NDA in Bihar.
Owaisi has now set his eyes on West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where his presence could dent the prospects of TMC and DMK respectively and indirectly help the BJP.
Though rules allow any regional party to contest elections in other states, Owaisi spreading his wings has provoked rivals to charge that the Hyderabad MP is playing the BJP’s game.
The north-eastern state has the largest 35 percent Muslim population which used to back Congress till perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front emerged in 2005 and gradually eroded the immigrant-Muslim support base of the grand old party.
AIUDF won 13 assembly seats in 2016, less than 18 it got in 2011. The Congress and the AIUDF have now joined hands to counter the BJP in the hill state where they hope to benefit from the widespread anti-Citizenship Amendment Act sentiment.
At 30 percent, Muslims are the second highest population in West Bengal and influence around 90 assembly constituencies out of the total 294.
In the 2019 national elections, 65 percent of Muslims supported the TMC, which had a vote share of 43 percent. Before that in the 2016 assembly polls, the TMC had won in all the 90 seats with Muslim influence.
However, a minor five percent swing of votes in the coming polls can dent the ruling party’s prospects and go in the favour of BJP indirectly.
Out of the 90, there are around 63 assembly seats where Muslim voters are over 40 percent. The Muslims are over 25 percent in districts like Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, North Dinajpur, South 24 Pargana, North 24 Pargana and Birbhum.
The Muslims in West Bengal used to support the Left Front government through 1977 to 2011 but had started shifting towards Trinamool Congress after the 2006 Sachar Committee report which highlighted their pathetic condition in the eastern state.
A review of the past assembly election results shows that the Muslims contributed majorly to the Left Front victory in 2006 and later to the TMC win in 2011 and 2016.
The BJP gained 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 national polls by playing the Hindu card. In a counter-reaction, this development has pushed the Muslims towards TMC and Congress.
After Mamata rejected him, Owaisi has joined hands with cleric Abbas Siddiqui and plans to contest around 100 seats.
Muslims constitute around 27 percent votes in the southern state and have traditionally supported both the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front.
In the December 2020 local body polls, the Congress paid the price of having a pact with the Welfare Party, backed by the Jamaat-e-Islami, and lost significant minority community votes in the northern areas. Now both the parties are wary of taking their alliance forward for the assembly elections.
The LDF accuses the Congress of hobnobbing with Indian Union Muslim League to woo the Hindu-Christian votes.
The BJP, which has largely grown in the southern state due to the protests it organized against the 2018 Supreme Court order allowing entry to women between 10-50 years of age in the Sabarimala temple, fielded 112 Muslims in the December 2020 local body polls to present itself as an inclusive party.
The BJP had struggled to find two women candidates for the local body polls in Malappuram, the only Muslim-majority district in Kerala where the minority community constitutes 70 percent of the population.
Muslims, which constitute around 6 percent votes in Tamil Nadu, are scattered across the state. They don’t have a majority in any assembly constituency but can impact the poll outcome in a tightly contested election.
Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam recently tried to rope in Owaisi’s AIMIM but faced resistance from home-grown Muslim supported parties like Indian Union Muslim League and Manithaneya Makkal Katchi.
Owaisi plans to contest around 25 seats in Tamil Nadu and could dent the Muslim votes of DMK and its allies which are hopeful of gaining power.
The minority community had traditionally backed DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi but felt hounded after the 1998 Coimbatore blasts. Locals feel the Tamil Nadu Muslims are different from the Muslims in north India and are not swayed by Owaisi.
Though some Urdu-speaking Muslims in north Tamil Nadu support Owaisi, the Tamil-speaking ones in the southern parts of the state are more driven by their regional identity.
In 2016, DMK had offered over four assembly seats Thondamuthur, Ambur, Nagapattinam and Ramanathapuram to ally MMK and five to IUML due to the presence of Muslim votes there.
DMK and its allies are banking on the anti-CAA sentiment among the minorities and the fact that Muslim groups, which backed the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are a bit uneasy over the ruling party’s closeness with BJP.