The victory of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in five constituencies in Bihar, largely at the expense of the Mahagathbandhan, made a crucial difference to the electoral outcome . Asaduddin Owaisi now plans to enlarge his party’s national footprint by contesting Assembly seats in districts with substantial Muslim populations in West Bengal and later in Uttar Pradesh.
Mr. Owaisi is harshly critical of the BJP’s agenda that he argues contravenes the basic principles of the Constitution. But his main objective, he says, is to expose the “hypocrisy” of the “secular” parties, especially the Congress, that he argues have exploited Muslims for decades by instilling in them the fear of the BJP and posing as their saviours. However, according to Mr. Owaisi, these parties have done nothing to improve the socio-economic status of the Muslims or empower them politically during the decades they were in power.
Asaddudin Owaisi | The champion of identity politics
Mr. Owaisi’s charge is corroborated by the findings of the Sachar Committee, which was set up to study the socio-economic conditions of Muslims. Its report, released in 2006, confirmed the abysmally low rate of Muslim employment in government services. It also showed that Muslims have higher levels of poverty than upper caste and OBC Hindus and their economic condition is worse than those of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in urban areas.
While Mr. Owaisi’s diagnosis about the indifference of the “secular” parties towards the Muslims’ plight and their use of the latter as mere vote banks may be correct, his solution will make the problem worse. Mr. Owaisi’s remedy for the Muslims’ sorry condition is to expand the reach of AIMIM across the country as an exclusively Muslim party that would demand that their socioeconomic conditions be improved and their civil and political rights guaranteed.
Mr. Owaisi seriously — and perhaps deliberately — underestimates the counterproductive nature of this solution. While AIMIM may garner a few seats in constituencies with Muslim concentrations, this will be at the cost of non-BJP parties, thus making it easier for the BJP and its allies to win elections. This strategy will also lead to greater polarisation and the consolidation of Hindu votes behind the BJP, thus rendering the Muslim minority even more marginal to political outcomes. A majoritarian backlash in an increasingly polarised society could irretrievably damage the “secular” parties and remove the buffer, no matter how deficient, they present between a pluralist idea of India and a majoritarian conception of the nation.
This outcome was evident in Bihar where the AIMIM, by drawing away a substantial number of Muslim votes in Seemanchal , spoilt the Mahagathbandhan’s chances of gaining a majority. The same story could in all probability be repeated in West Bengal where State elections are due soon. The contest in West Bengal will be principally between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the TMC won 22 seats and the BJP, 18. The BJP’s vote share was only 3% less than that of the TMC. Even a 2% shift away from the TMC could see a BJP government installed in West Bengal. If, as is likely, AIMIM draws a sizeable share of the Muslim vote in Murshidabad, Malda and North Dinajpur, where the TMC has done well in previous elections, this scenario could become a reality next year.
A few AIMIM MLAs shouting themselves hoarse about Muslim grievances will not resolve the community’s problems. What is needed is building bridges, not burning them. What is required is holding the “secular” parties’ feet to the fire, not tossing them aside just because that is the only way AIMIM can win a few seats. Mr. Owaisi is a consummate performer; nonetheless, he is a false messiah whose remedy for the Indian Muslims’ predicament is worse than the disease. Today Indian Muslims need a Maulana Azad, not another false messiah like Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University