Kolkata: As the Left in West Bengal heads into what's being described as its toughest election in the state, it must contend with its growing gap from the Muslims, who once were on its side.
The minority community makes up 25% of the state's population. In 2006, the report of the Sachar Committee said West Bengal was among the worst states for Muslims to live in. Headed by retired judge Rajinder Sachar, the committee was appointed by Dr Manmohan Singh to assess the social, economic and educational status of Muslims in India.
Days ago, a member of that committee, Abu Selah Shariff, who is an eminent economist, dealt a heavy blow by declaring that Muslims are better off in Gujarat than in Bengal. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee dismissed that allegation. "In our state, minorities live in peace and harmony but in Gujarat they live with fear and mistrust. You should not compare Gujarat with West Bengal," he said.
As part of his argument, Mr Shariff pointed out that in Bengal, Muslims hold 2.1% of government jobs. In Gujarat, that figure is 5.4 per cent. Mr Shariff also said that half of Bengal's Muslim children don't go to primary school. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has said that there is 99% enrollment in Bengal's primary schools. Mr Shariff says that while Muslim parents may sign their children up for school, they're not attending class.
The Left has long argued that the Sachar report - is based on incomplete statistics. Even if that is the case, the general elections of 2009 showed that there was a 9 per cent swing in Muslim votes away from the Left.
"This is correct. This is a factor. The Sachar and Ranganath Mishra reports showed a terrible picture. That's why Muslims are depending on us. The people of Bengal want us in politics," said Siddiquallah Chowdhury, a leader of the People's Democratic Alliance of India that is contesting 40 seats this election.
It could be the results of the general election that have nudged both the Left and its political rival - Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress - to field a record number of Muslim candidates this time around - 56 for the Left, 42 for Ms Banerjee's party.