Shifting sands and the Owaisi effect

The rise of the AIMIM chief as a prominent Muslim leader points to many political intricacies

February 04, 2021 12:40 am | Updated 01:34 am IST

Asaduddin Owaisi , president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), complicates political equations. He stirs the easy fit between mainstream secular parties and their hold over Muslim voters. In terms of the popularity index in India, he comes close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) triumvirate of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath. Recently, the AIMIM’s electoral gains in Bihar and Mr. Owaisi’s visits to poll-bound West Bengal (2021) and Uttar Pradesh (in 2022) have revived the debate around his exact intention, emerging Muslim voting patterns and their implications for the BJP and its rivals.

Mr. Owaisi’s national avatar is a conjunction of the political dynamics that were induced by the Sachar Committee report and the Batla House encounter case, wherein while political Hindutva was on the decline, the interplay of the backwardness of Muslims and their insecurities exposed the failures of secular mainstream parties in catering to the community’s aspirations. This created a secular paradox, where, comforted with the decline of the BJP and the electoral ascendency of the Congress and other regional parties, many Muslim outfits and leaders blamed secular parties for failing Muslims. Thus began a new, although cluttered, phase of the community’s experiments with Muslim parties and a growing clamour for more representation. The Peace Party of India and the Rashtriya Ulama Council in U.P., the AIUDF in Assam, and the popular resonance of the Pasmanda movement led by Ali Anwar Ansari in Bihar, and, since 2012, that of the AIMIM in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, U.P., and now in West Bengal, point to the churn within the Muslim community.

Comment | Asaddudin Owaisi — A false messiah

Here, it is important to note that initially, the AIMIM had its limitations. Firstly, it was just a city-based party. Secondly, until the 2004 Andhra Pradesh Assembly poll, the party’s electoral tally had plateaued at a maximum of just four seats. Thirdly, whenever the party tried to venture outside Hyderabad — like in the 1989 and 1994 Assembly elections, where it contested 35 and 20 seats respectively and forfeited its deposit on 28 and 15 seats — it fared poorly. Thus, Mr. Owaisi had the ardent task of strengthening the party’s foothold in its home turf before venturing outside. Hence, he chose the safe path of aligning with the UPA and defended the Congress in 2008 in the wake of the confidence vote sought by the Manmohan Singh-government after the Left Front withdrew support over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

National ambitions

By 2009, two factors were helping Mr. Owaisi. His parliamentary interventions established him as an eloquent spokesperson for the Muslim question at the national level, and the delimitation exercise making more Assembly constituencies in Hyderabad, like Malakpet and Nampally (previously Asifnagar AC), Muslim-dominated seats, raised the electoral tally of the AIMIM, thereby empowering Mr. Owaisi at the regional level. This fuelled his national ambitions. By 2012, the party had set its eyes on two neighbouring States — Maharashtra and Karnataka — and particularly regions that were part of the Hyderabad State during the Nizam’s rule and had significant Muslim populations. A significant breakthrough for the party’s national ambitions came in October 2012, when the AIMIM won 11 of the 25 seats it contested in the Nanded municipal polls in eastern Maharashtra. Now, Mr. Owaisi followed the template of the secular paradox theory — accusing the Congress of favouring Hindu communal forces and acting against the interests of the Muslims, he withdrew support from the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh and at the Centre.

A closer look at Mr. Owaisi’s political moves reveals his calculations. In his quest to find an alternative to the BJP and political Hindutva in future, he is working towards the creation of a national third front, a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance, wherein AIMIM would be an indispensable part, acting as a magnetic pull for minority votes away from traditional claimants like the Congress and other parties. For instance, in 2018, Mr. Owaisi supported the JD(S) over the Congress in Karnataka; in Maharashtra in 2014 and 2019, he targeted the Congress and the NCP more than the BJP. The same template was repeated in 2015 and 2020 in Bihar and in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh. Now, in West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are the prime targets, and predictably, the Samajwadi Party, the BSP and the Congress would be in Mr. Owaisi’s line of fire in the run-up to the 2022 U.P. Assembly election.

Also read | Owaisi visits Furfura Sharif in Bengal, announces political tie-up

Political psychology

No wonder, parties that are at the receiving end of Mr. Owaisi’s politics label him as being hand-in-glove with the BJP. However, the underlying reason for Mr. Owaisi’s attack on mainstream secular parties is a necessary evil he must embrace. The seats AIMIM aims to win in every State happen to be minority-dominated constituencies mostly controlled by these parties. Wresting those seats leaves Mr. Owaisi with no other option but to train his guns at them rather than the BJP. However, navigating the Muslim electorates’ maze is also contingent on the community’s political psychology.

Let’s take three states: Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh alone, in the Meerut-Muzaffarnagar-Saharanpur region, one finds castes like Muley Jats, Tyagi Muslims, and Gujjar Muslims, besides the Sheikhs, Sayyids, Quraishis and others; in Rohilkhand region, the Turks, Pathans, Saifis, Ansaris, etc., maintain their caste identifications; in Braj, particularly in Aligarh town, the upper-caste Pathans, who have lost their political clout, are present in pockets; further, in the Poorvanchal region, both south and north of the Ghaghra river, the OBC Ansari Muslims constitute a majority but lack political representation. In Bihar, the OBC Ansari Muslims are politicised and dominate the Bhojpuri- and Mithila-speaking districts; in the Seemanchal region , where the AIMIM recently made electoral gains, the rivalry among the upper-caste Surjapuris and OBC Kulhaiya and Shershahvadi Muslims is well-known. Further, in parts of north-Bengal like Coochbehar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, the Nashya Shaikh Muslims, who are also found in Dhubri, Kokrajhar and Goalpara districts of lower Assam, have a significant presence; similarly, in districts like Dinajpur and north Malda, the Muslim universe mirrors the composition of Seemanchal Bihar, ie., the Surjapuris and Shershahvadis; in south Bengal, while a majority of Muslims identify themselves as Sheikhs, they fall in the OBC category and are divided along sectarian and religious lines of being either the followers of Furfura Sharif or of the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind.

In this context, the Muslim psychology is about accentuating these internal differences when the fear of an aggressive Hindutva discourse is not the prime factor affecting their minds. However, when elections are polarised and the fear of the BJP’s imminent victory is paramount, Muslims close ranks and vote for mainstream secular parties. Hence, it can be expected that in the 2021 West Bengal election or the 2022 Uttar Pradesh election, the aggressive Hindutva push and the prospect of a BJP victory may ensure that Muslims would reject Mr. Owaisi and consolidate behind the traditional claimants. In the meantime, the AIMIM chief would keep analysts guessing.

Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst associated with People’s Pulse

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