Making a shift in its political strategy, the BJP has given tickets to an overwhelming number of Muslim candidates in the upcoming rural polls in West Bengal with an aim to corner a large chunk of crucial minority votes in the state.
The BJP this time has more than 850 candidates from the minority community for the rural polls on May 14.
According to state BJP sources, this is the highest number of candidates the saffron party has fielded ever in the panchayat polls in the state.
In the last panchayat polls of 2013, the BJP had less than 100 from the minority communities in its candidate list.
The ruling TMC, however, discounted BJP's minority outreach plan and asserted that they continue to have faith in party chief Mamata Banerjee.
"The minorities have full faith in us. The BJP is giving nominations to minorities and are fuelling riots in the state," senior TMC leader Partha Chatterjee said.
Citing the example of the 2016 assembly polls when the BJP had fielded only 6 Muslim candidates out of its list of 294 nominees, a senior BJP leader said "It is a major shift in party's political strategy where it is fielding more Muslim candidates."
"It is obvious that in a state like West Bengal where the Muslim population is near about 30 per cent, we have to reach out to the minorities. The minority community too has realized that BJP is no longer their enemy as projected by TMC and other parties," state BJP Minority Morcha president Ali Hossain told PTI.
State BJP president Dilip Ghosh said had the nomination process been peaceful, the party would have fielded more than 2,000 minority candidates in the rural polls.
"Our party has expanded its base in Bengal by leaps and bounds and Muslims too think that BJP believes in development of all. We are running the government at the Centre and in more than 20 states, Muslims are living in peace and there are no problems," Ghosh told PTI.
The party will repeat this strategy in 2019 general election, depending on the winnability of the candidates, Ghosh said.
"We will not give tickets because of religion or caste but only on the criteria of 'winnability'," he said.
According to party sources, former TMC leader Mukul Roy, who had joined BJP last year, had played an important role in selection of candidates and ensuring that the party has higher number of Muslim candidates in the polls.
Roy not only ensured alloting tickets to larger number of Muslim candidates but also brought in dissidents of TMC and Left to the party to field them under its symbol, said a senior BJP leader.
The BJP has also outsmarted the Congress and CPI(M) to emerge as the second largest party after the ruling TMC in the number of candidates fighting the upcoming three-tier rural polls.
The rural polls in West Bengal is significant as it would show popularity of parties before general election next year. BJP has time and again said that for them West Bengal was a focus state in the next Parliamentay polls.
According to Hossain, Muslim candidates have been fielded mostly in areas where their population is high.
The party had fielded maximum number of Muslim nominees in Murshidabad, Malda, Uttar Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Birbhum and South 24 Parganas, he said.
According to West Bengal SEC (State Election Commission) sources, of the 48,650 seats in 3,358 gram panchayats, 16,814 were uncontested and of the 9,217 seats in 341 panchayat samitis, 3,059 were uncontested.
In the 20 zilla parishads, 203 of the 825 seats were uncontested, they said.
The election to the remaining seats will be held on May 14.
After the withdrawal of candidature, the final list ofBJP candidates in Zilla parishads is 629, while in the Panchayat Samiti the party has 5218 candidates. In Gram panchayat, the BJP has 23,445 candidates.
"TMC and Left used to treat us as a votebank. But BJP beleives in development for all," said Reshma Parveen a BJP candidate from Coochbehar district.