Asaduddin Owaisi: A warning sign
Muslim community's support for the AIMIM is far higher than the party's victories in Bihar and Maharashtra; it should drive non-BJP parties to introspect on their reluctance and indolence in combatting Hindutva
Asaduddin Owaisi is the new name of the existential challenge facing the political parties positioned against the Bharatiya Janata Party. These parties badmouth Owaisi as the vote-cutter or the BJP's B team, but fail to analyse why he has started to convert the Muslim community's admiration of him into victories for his party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, which won five out of the 20 seats it contested in the Bihar Assembly election. Apart from these five, the party did not contribute to the defeat of even one Grand Alliance candidate.
Yet the AIMIM's performance in Bihar confirmed the trend observed in Maharashtra last year – a segment of Muslims no longer votes on their perception of which party or formation is best placed to oust or keep away the BJP from power. In the Maharashtra Assembly election, the AIMIM won two seats and came second in four out of the 44 constituencies it was in the fray.
The AIMIM is bad news for the Congress and a clutch of regional outfits – the Nationalist Congress Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Trinamool Congress. Muslims constitute a formidable phalanx for these parties in an electoral contest. Without the support of Muslims, they would struggle to win. Bihar and Maharashtra show Muslims have started to buy Owaisi's line.
For nearly a decade, Owaisi has been arguing that non-BJP parties garner Muslim votes in the name of saving secularism, but ignore the community's interests on coming into power. They do so because they believe Muslims will not vote for the BJP, which targets and torments the community. These parties, Owaisi says, will not reform unless they are defeated – and taught not to take Muslims for granted. He offers his party as a medium to teach the anti-BJP parties a lesson, as an instrument to increase community representation in legislatures, and as a possibility that they will work for the community's interests.
Owaisi's thesis gathered momentum after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Muslims realised their votes did not win elections for non-BJP parties. Did it not then make sense for them to vote for a leader who is their own, especially one who is a seductive mix of tradition and modernity, and speaks the language of Constitutionalism? This thinking also had a strategic underpin. With non-BJP parties vying to enter into alliances with even parties anchored in just one caste, a strong Muslim party could bargain even better with the big players for a better deal. The AIMIM was close to playing this role in Bihar, which nearly produced a hung Assembly.
North India's non-BJP parties have not protected Muslims from the sharp edge of Hindutva vigilantism. They did not mobilise people against the new citizenship policy. They welcomed the reading down of Article 370 and the Supreme Court judgement on Ayodhya. They have been mute over the tendentious investigations of the Delhi Police into the Delhi riots, on the basis of which many Muslims have been dumped into jail.
Worse, non-BJP parties blame Muslims for their defeat. For instance, soon after Delhi voted in the 2109 national election, Arvind Kejriwal predicted that the Aam Aadmi Party would not win because Muslims voted for the Congress. Did Kejriwal publicly wonder why his Bania caste brethren did not vote for his party last year? During the February riots in Delhi, assailants mocked Muslims for voting for AAP before attacking them – yet Kejriwal has been mostly silent over the community's tribulations. Such cynicism has Muslims seeing the wisdom in Owaisi's thesis – and his future plan to bring them and Dalits on the same platform.
This possibility, some Dalit activists in Bihar told me, will depend on whether the AIMIM's MLAs would focus on Dalit issues. If they do, a window could open up for an alliance between Owaisi and the BSP's Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, where too he plans to parachute. Mayawati is unlikely to do business with Owaisi unless he proves he has the capacity to transfer Muslim votes to her. It is hard to predict the AIMIM's capacity to wreck the chances of non-BJP players, although, in the 2019 Pratapgarh Assembly by-election, the party was third, polling around 3,000 votes fewer than the second-placed SP.
Before Uttar Pradesh, his next port of call is West Bengal, where the Bengali linguistic identity is no longer impervious to an Urdu-speaking leader. This transformation has come about because of Tablighi Jamaat activism and smartphones skilling people to overcome cultural barriers, a political scientist told me. He said Hindutva has triggered a Muslim counter-mobilisation, further legitimised by Mamata Banerjee's politics of identity. These factors may fetch him 5,000-10,000 votes in some constituencies, their impact enhanced because of the State's triangular contest, a veritable bonanza for the AIMIM.
This will justifiably dismay non-BJP parties. Yet they should introspect about their reluctance, and indolence, to combat Hindutva. Owaisi's rise represents the response of Muslims to the sense of betrayal they feel. Worryingly for non-BJP parties, the community's support for him is far higher than his victories in Bihar and Maharashtra represent.
The writer is a senior journalist
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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