A young preacher and his fledgling party in Bengal is at the centre of a controversy roiling the Congress and the Left-led coalition ahead of the state election.
ISF (Indian Secular Front) chief Abbas Siddique, who is popular as “Bhaijaan” among his supporters, is a cleric from Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district, around 50 km from Kolkata. He is a Pirzada of Furfura Sharif, which is the second most revered Muslim pilgrimage after Ajmer Sharif. He is known to be a big crowd-puller.
It was his presence at a Left-Congress rally that set off a fresh round of internal wrangling in the Congress.
Anand Sharma questioned what Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was doing on the stage with the ISF chief. “Congress’s alliance with the ISF and similar parties goes against its core ideology, and the secularism advocated by Gandhi and Nehru, which is the soul of the Congress. These issues should have been discussed by the Congress Working Committee (CWC),” Anand Sharma tweeted.
“In the fight against communalism, the Congress cannot be selective. We must fight against communalism in all forms. The West Bengal Congress chief’s presence and support is shameful, he has to explain his stand,” he added.
Mr Chowdhury hit back at his party colleague, asserting that he would not take any step without his leadership’s sanction.
On Sunday, however, Mr Chowdhury looked distinctly upset when his speech was interrupted at a Left-Congress rally in Kolkata by the arrival of Siddique to loud cheers. The Bengal Congress chief stopped his speech.
CPM leader Md Salim appeared to suggest that Siddique should address the crowd. Looking annoyed, Mr Chowdhury walked off. Another Left leader, Biman Bose, then stepped in and urged the Congress leader to resume his speech.
Siddique has not exactly been circumspect in his statements on the Congress. Yesterday, he told a local channel that he had been told some Congress leader was in touch with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee and would eventually back whoever won, with a chunk of Congress MLAs. This has been rubbished by the Congress.
In an attempt to pacify the Congress, Biman Bose said Siddique had spoken out of turn and would not repeat such comments.
The BJP calls the Left and Congress’s alliance with Siddique “surrender”. The Trinamool has also targeted both parties, saying they can no longer claim secular credentials.
The Left insists that Siddique and his outfit are not communal.
Though many in the Left are reportedly upset about the tie-up, the leadership reportedly wants to capitalise on his pull.
As for the Congress, it is divided on this subject even in Bengal. Abdul Mannan, Congress MLA and leader of opposition in Bengal, went over Adhir Chowdhury and proposed the tie-up to party chief Sonia Gandhi in a letter in January.
Mr Chowdhury was reportedly unhappy with the move, since he chose to go slow on any decision to team up with the cleric’s party.
His softening over the past few weeks is believed to be a result of the top leadership pressing for faster progress on a tie-up.
Such is Suddique’s draw that in January, AIMIM leader and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi flew to Kolkata and drove to Abbas Siddique’s home at Furfura Sharif to tell him that his party was willing to fight under him in Bengal.
But Siddique has also been ambiguous about the AIMIM.
In an interview to NDTV in February, he said he would like all sides to fight together to defeat Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and the BJP, including AIMIM.