I met Asaduddin Owaisi for the first time in Kishanganj, in Bihar’s north-eastern Seemanchal region. I asked him point-blank the question everyone wants to ask him: Are you a BJP agent? He had a logical reply: “Why would I be contesting only a few seats if I was a BJP agent? Wouldn’t the BJP like to cut Muslim votes everywhere?”
Since then, I have paid closer attention to the pattern of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s (AIMIM) electoral attempts. They take a handful of seats, where Muslim voters are in large enough numbers to play a decisive role. They fight these elections to win, and not to help the BJP win. For instance, the AIMIM did not put up a single candidate in Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections since the SP and the BSP were putting up a joint fight and the AIMIM candidates would only have helped the BJP.
The idea that the AIMIM is a BJP agent, I was convinced, is a Congress conspiracy theory. For the Congress party and its sycophants, anyone who’s not with them is communal.
But this still didn’t tell me what Owaisi wanted. What was his goal? What was he trying to achieve? If he wasn’t even contesting elections on each seat, or joining any big coalitions, what could he achieve through electoral politics anyway? Muslims in his home state, Telangana, don’t care for the AIMIM outside Hyderabad. Even in his home state, Owaisi can never dream of becoming the chief minister. The AIMIM won’t be a party of governance any time soon. I wanted the answer to the big question: What does Asaduddin Owaisi want?
What does Owaisi want?
“What I want,” he replied, “is an MLA in every state assembly. Just one is enough. And I want him to stand up in the assembly and ask the secular parties, you took Muslim votes using the BJP to blackmail them. Now how about building roads and schools in Muslim-dominated areas?”
That, I thought, was a laudable goal. Muslim voters often feel they have no choice in elections. They have to vote for a crook from a secular party because the BJP doesn’t even want their votes. The BJP-RSS worker takes a 180-degree turn when s/he reaches a Muslim neighbourhood. In such a scenario, the presence of a Muslim party that threatens the idea of Muslims as a fixed vote-bank of secular parties is a noble one.
This also means Owaisi is not trying to be the “sole spokesperson” for the Indian Muslims, a mischievous term used to describe Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Owaisi is, before anything else, a constitutionalist. Islam is his faith, the Constitution is his ideology. The point he wants to drive home is that the two can go together.
In Kishanganj in 2015, I saw young voters go crazy over Owaisi, like people are about their heroes. It was akin to how great sportspersons inspire hero worship. The phenomenon was explained to me by a Muslim journalist in Aligarh, who said that Owaisi was a product of post-Babri Muslim politics. The fall of the Babri Masjid in 1992 silenced vocal Muslim politicians who used to speak at mainstream public debates as Muslims. It also deepened the idea, almost to finality, that Partition had left no space for a “Muslim party” in Indian politics.
Owaisi challenges all these notions, and finds willing supporters in Muslim youth who were born after 1992. There is thus a generation divide among Muslims in Owaisi’s popularity: the pre-92 generation thinks he’s a bad idea, and the millennials think he’s just what they need. The young feel they don’t have to be apologetic about being Muslims and don’t need to accept second-class status. They think they must assert their rights as equal citizens as per the Indian Constitution, just like any other Indian, and that’s what Owaisi does on their behalf.
Obviously, Muslim votes alone are not going to help the AIMIM win seats. And why would Hindu voters want to vote for a Muslim party?
That’s why this constitutionalism is also part of the AIMIM’s appeal to Ambedkarite Dalits. The AIMIM has thus been trying, with some success, to build a coalition of the marginalised along with Dalits. A Muslim vote-bank gives the AIMIM the ability to transfer votes to a Dalit candidate, for instance. It was such an idea that led to the AIMIM’s alliance with Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra.
And yet, the AIMIM lost the 2015 election in Kishanganj. I saw young voters go up to Owaisi and say – they loved him but they’ll vote for him next time. After all, the Nitish-Lalu-Congress alliance had to be supported to defeat the BJP.
The AIMIM had stood a strong third in the Kishanganj Lok Sabha election in 2019. The Congress won the seat and the JD(U) stood second. Had it not been for the AIMIM, the JD(U), the BJP’s ally, would have won this seat. The only seat that the UPA won and the NDA lost in Bihar was Kishanganj, thanks to the votes cut by the AIMIM.
The Congress candidate was also the sitting MLA, therefore necessitating a bypoll for the Vidhan Sabha seat. Thursday, the AIMIM won that seat. The party has opened its account in Bihar. What’s even better is that the BJP stood second and the Congress stood third. In the Bihar assembly election in November 2020, Owaisi will be able to say that in Kishanganj it’s AIMIM versus BJP. The impact will be felt in the entire Seemanchal region.
The AIMIM had won two seats in the Maharashtra assembly in 2014, but lost them this time. But it picked up two new seats: Malegaon Central and Dhule City. In other words, the AIMIM has become a regular electoral party, and people are getting used to pressing the AIMIM’s kite symbol on the EVMs. The AIMIM used to be called a one-MP party, but now it has two MPs in the Lok Sabha: Imtiyaz Jaleel won the Aurangabad seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
In Uttar Pradesh, AIMIM has 30 seats in various municipal corporations – its party member was elected chairperson of the Dasna municipal council in Ghaziabad. Thursday, the AIMIM candidate in the Pratapgarh assembly bypoll stood third. Owaisi’s dream is coming true: he now has an MLA in Bihar and Maharashtra assemblies and the most important state in Indian politics, Uttar Pradesh, is within striking distance too.
The growing electoral success of the AIMIM is a reminder to secular parties that they cannot take Muslim voters for granted. If apathy or the fear of losing Hindu votes is going to make “secular” parties look away from Muslims, why blame Owaisi?
Views are personal.