KOLKATA — Mamata Banerjee has let the cat among the pigeons by promising to introduce a quota for Muslims in West Bengal government jobs if the Trinamool Congress wins the 2006 assembly elections. The promise flies in the face of Trinamool ally, BJP’s, bitter opposition to any religion-based job reservations, particularly for Muslims anywhere in India.

Significantly, she dropped the bombshell on Monday within hours of her much-hyped meeting with the new BJP chief, Rajnath Singh, in Kolkata. “We are opposed to reservations on religious ground, but at present we are not prepared to comment on Mamata’s unexpected announcement”, was all Rahul Sinha, West Bengal BJP general secretary, was prepared to say on record yesterday.

But in private BJP leaders said they were shocked by Banerjee’s move. A senior BJP leader said: “On the one hand she tries to give the impression that nothing is more important to her than Trinamool-BJP ties and on the other she makes an announcement which is against the grain of our ideology.”

He added: “At present, our hands are tied. So we will keep our mouths shut because our survival in West Bengal is dependent on the Trinamool. But we are very upset and extremely disappointed.”

Banerjee realises the importance of the Muslim vote in West Bengal elections. Almost 25 per cent of the state’s electorate is Muslim. Her closeness to the BJP kept Muslims away from the Trinamool in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections reducing the party’s tally of MPs from seven to one. Speaking at a convention of the party’s minority cell, she announced that “job reservation in government departments as well as improvement of madrassa education will be a top priority if we win”.

She also said that “Hindutva issue must be avoided in Bengal”. “Let the BJP have its own agenda in Delhi. But in Bengal we are opposed to all fundamentalist forces and our one-point agenda is to oust the Left Front from power.”

Banerjee recounted that during 1972-77, when he ruled, the minorities had representation in government departments and in police. In a resolution adopted at the convention, she challenged the Left Front to publish a white paper on what it had done for the minorities in its 29 years in power.

“Give me a chance to serve you better. I shall see to it that there is a regular flow of funds for madrassa education, which the Left Front government has stopped”, she said. Banerjee also promised reservation in educational institutions. CPM secretary, Anil Biswas, accused Banerjee of trying to incite the minorities.

“The Trinamool chief is treading a dangerous path. We believe minorities should be provided equal opportunities”, without directly commenting on job reservations.