Imam Barkati
In picture: Imam Barkati with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata BanerjeeTwitter/Ankita Singh

Syed Mohammed Nurur Rehman Barkati, the former Shahi Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque in Kolkata, has said that he is open to taking out rallies of Muslims supporting the BJP if the saffron party gave money to political leaders like him.

Barkati, it may be remembered, had announced a reward of Rs 25 lakh in January last year to whoever blackened the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Barkati, once a close associate of West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee, had also once threatened to behead Canadian author and columnist Tarek Fatah.

'Biggest Imam is money'

Barkati's statement came after a TV channel aired the video of a sting operation last week in which the controversial religious leader was heard saying: "The Muslim vote can change with money. In Bengal, the sentiment has changed. Andar hi andar Muslim log BJP ko pyaar karne lage hai (Muslims have started loving the BJP)…"

He went on to add about the 2021 Assembly election in West Bengal: "The BJP is aiming for 22 seats. I'm telling you they'll get 28. If the Muslims had not voted for her (Mamata) in the last election, what would she have done? I will take out rallies of Muslims if the BJP gives me the money."

Barkati managed to top that when speaking to reporters on Saturday. He told the Sunday Express: "The biggest Imam is money. BJP has money. If they spend that money in Bengal, you will see how Muslim votes turn in their favour. Nothing comes for free."

He added: "I can rally for BJP and can easily influence people to vote for them."

He also said: "The sentiments in Bengal have changed. Muslims in Bengal are no more anti-BJP. They are just waiting for their leaders to tell them who they should vote for. If I am approached and they consider our conditions, I may issue a fatwa asking people to vote for the BJP in 2019, like I had issued a fatwa in favour of Mamata Banerjee before the 2011 election."

Mamata-Imam fallout

Barkati's statements may have come as a shock to many external observers, but those who have been keeping an eye on the goings-on in Bengal know that this once-upon-a-time rakhi-brother of Mamata Banerjee is not as close to her any more.

He criticised her earlier this year with allegations that she had not done enough to improve the condition of Urdu medium schools in the state.

However, what triggered his latest outburst is he not finding a place beside Banerjee in the annual Martyr's Day rally on July 21 this year.

He said: "On every July 21, I used to get an invitation. My presence was vital for Mamata and TMC then. This was the first time I wasn't invited. It is obvious that TMC no more wants to be branded as the party of Muslims. They don't want to give the BJP the grounds to get sympathy votes from Hindus."

Interestingly, it was during her July 21 speech that Banerjee – in what many detractors are saying was an effort to ingratiate herself with the Hindu vote bank – uttered the names and chants of several gods and goddesses, but managed to change the gender of one from the Holy Trinity of Hinduism.

Since then, "Vishnu Mata" memes have been circulating on various social media platforms.