The Left's prospects in the forthcoming elections will hinge in large measure on the Muslim vote. Post-Nandigram and post-Singur, a big chunk of Muslims moved to the Trinamool Congress and the Congress, making the Left Front vulnerable.

The West Bengal government’s promise to set aside 10 per cent of government jobs for Muslims, by including a majority among them in the Other Backward Castes list last year, and increasing the OBC quota in the state from 7 per cent to 17 per cent has sparked off a controversy ahead of next month’s assembly elections.

Dr. Abusaleh Shariff, Chief Economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) - who was also Member, Secretary of the Sachar Committee, which had mapped the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in the country - has challenged the authenticity of this assurance.

Senior CPI-M leader and former MP Mohammed Salim, explaining the new scheme, said the state government’s new OBC list had ensured that about 85 per cent of Muslims in the state would now be categorised as OBC, and that with the old 7 per cent OBC quota, increasing to 17 per cent, and then divided into backward and most backward categories, OBCs, who are Muslim, would soon be entitled to 10 per cent of state government jobs.

Dr. Shariff told The Hindu that this promise was typical of the Left Front’s lack of “transparency when it comes to numbers and issues”. He disputed the Left Front government’s claim that 85 per cent of Muslims in West Bengal had been categorised as OBC: “Where is the population count?” He also wanted to know how in a state, “where Hindus are 75 per cent of the population, and Muslims 25 per cent, any government can possibly give 10 out of 17 per cent to Muslims?” Dr. Shariff added that if it did so, it would be “totally disastrous for integrating Muslims into the mainstream”.

Interestingly, before the West Bengal government increased the OBC quota and the number of Muslim communities in the OBC list, 8.4 per cent of Hindus in the state and 2.4 per cent of Muslims were categorised as OBCs, figures that Dr. Shariff also disputes: he believes that these numbers were deliberately kept low by the state government for political reasons. He points out that Muslims in other states were able to make advances using the OBC quotas.

In West Bengal, the condition of Muslims has always been abysmal, whether one looks at their educational levels or at the sort of loans they get from public sector banks or, in the implementation of the minority concentration district scheme, or as Dr. Shariff pointed out, their representation in the state government: while Muslims account for a quarter of the state’s population, they currently only hold 2.1 per cent of state government jobs. It is a figure, he says, that compares unfavourably with virtually all others states in the country: in Kerala, for instance, 10.4 per cent of state government jobs are held by Muslims who account for 24.7 per cent of the population.

Indeed, the Left Front’s prospects in the forthcoming West Bengal elections will hinge in large measure on the Muslim vote. Traditionally, till the assembly polls of 2006, the Left Front could depend on securing about 18 out of the 25 per cent Muslim vote in the state. Post-Nandigram and post-Singur, the situation changed radically, with a big chunk of Muslims - who dominate Nandigram and Singur - moving to the Trinamool Congress and the Congress, making the Left Front vulnerable. This has been observed in the elections since 2006, whether they were local polls or the Lok Sabha elections in 2009.

The Left Front is, therefore, leaving no stone unturned: not only has it promised state government jobs, it has fielded 57 Muslim candidates, up from 44 in the last election. Muslim voters are disenchanted with the Left Front government not merely because of the land acquisition drive to set up industries, but also because the Sachar Committee report had revealed the pathetic state of Muslims in the state. Finally, there was the mysterious death of Rizwanur Rahman, a computer graphics teacher, in Kolkata, and the alleged complicity of the police in the matter.