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What the Owaisi phenomenon says about Indian Muslims & future of ‘secular’ parties

In episode 616 of ‘Cut the Clutter’, ThePrint’s editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta elaborates on the ‘paranoia’ among ‘secular parties’ over the rise of the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM in Bihar.

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New Delhi: The Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) bagged five seats in the Bihar assembly elections, prompting critics such as the Congress to accuse it of dividing the secular vote and behaving like the BJP’s “B-team”.

“Secular parties are now paranoid about Owaisi because they’re worried that now he’s made inroads into Maharashtra and Bihar, what if he does so in Uttar Pradesh?” says ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta in episode 616 of ‘Cut The Clutter’ Wednesday.

Gupta adds that while the Congress is willing to team up with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala, it is shy of an arrangement with Owaisi for fears that it could be seen as anti-Hindu.

Congress should realise that it “cannot become more Hindu than the BJP” and it needs to start looking at political players like Owaisi differently to counter a force as dominant as the BJP, Gupta says.

Also read: Six takeaways from the Bihar election results

Owaisi’s growing appeal

Gupta explains that when Owaisi divided the secular vote or the Muslim vote in the past, it did not evoke such a strong negative response, adding that the political question around him has now evolved.

According to Gupta, in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, AIMIM candidates didn’t fare well because Muslims in the state thought it best to vote for parties that were “tried and tested” — the RJD and Congress.

But then the AIMIM started to become successful in other states. In the 2019 Maharashtra assembly election, AIMIM picked up two seats, challenging the Congress and NCP grip over the Muslim vote. After Bihar, it shows that no secular party in India can take the Muslim vote for granted, Gupta adds.

Evolution of Muslim vote in Independent India

Since Partition, Muslims in India have never trusted a fellow Muslim as their leader, Gupta says.

In the 1920s, when Mahatma Gandhi was concerned that Congress was still seen as a Hindu party, he got the party involved with the Khilafat movement. This created a new Muslim leadership in India and the first impulse for the two-nation theory.

Gupta adds that for the next six decades, Muslims trusted the Congress party and members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. They, however, became disillusioned by the Shah Bano case and tensions around the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister. That sentiment was cemented with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

Gupta says that Muslims then opted for other non-Muslim leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Lalu Yadav and partly Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. They still voted for the Congress in places where there weren’t strong political alternatives.

However, the Congress, which has benefited the most from the Muslim vote, hasn’t produced one Muslim leader of consequence despite the likes of Zakir Hussain Gesawat and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, adds Gupta.

In the 1960s, a Muslim party, the All India Muslim Majlis, did emerge in the Hindi heartland but once it joined the informal coalition against Indira Gandhi, it became “subsumed by socialist politics” and went into decline.

Owaisi is a very good example of how India’s Muslims are still not entirely keen to have a Muslim represent them, adds Gupta.

Also read: Despite the sweet victory, Modi-Shah BJP has a Nitish Kumar-sized problem in Bihar

Emergence of Muslim leaders

Like Owaisi, a new political figure in Assam, Badruddin Ajmal has emerged, Gupta says, but adding that since Muslims are concentrated in a few constituencies in Assam, especially those nearer to Bangladesh, the politics there has become polarised.

Gupta then describes the BJP and RSS’ “35-year-project” to create a narrative in Assam that Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, who Ajmal represents, pose a threat to the indigenous Assamese causing Ajmal to be “demonised” in the state. Comparatively, Owaisi has been able to expand his footprint beyond Hyderabad and he’s also English-speaking and media savvy, observes Gupta.

To explain the dearth of Muslim leaders, Gupta recalls how senior BJP leader Balbir Punj once explained that Muslims have a “veto” on who will rule India. Take the fall of the Vajpayee government in 2004 and its inability to form a coalition government as other parties were afraid they would lose their Muslim vote. Alternatively, Congress was able to form a coalition government which was UPA-I, he says.

Gupta observes that today, the BJP has stopped reaching out to Muslims completely and there is a situation where other than the Ministry of Minority Affairs, there are no Muslims in the Union Cabinet.

To counter such a dominant force, Congress and other secular parties must reach out to the likes of Owaisi and Ajmal, make their arrangements with them and not be afraid of sharing their support base, Gupta adds.

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  1. Simple truth. Muslim was irrelevant in 2014. And 2019 general elections. even if 50% of Hindus vote for BJP, Muslims and their friends cannot call shots in India.

  2. Elections in India cannot be won by the votes of Muslims alone. That is why they remain with Congress and other secular parties. So that the votes of Hindus are also obtained and such parties have to do as their wish. So they don’t have need to produce muslim leaders

  3. Gupta observes that today, the BJP has stopped reaching out to Muslims completely

    The big losers are Muslims. They should reach out to BJP and elect a few BJP Muslims like Naqvi or Shahanwaz, if not for BJP interest but their own interest. Because without going over to BJP they can not get any real concession from secular parties. Secular parties will take them for ride and why not? Muslims are behaving like their captive vote. The very reason RJD, SP going to Muslims is they don’t want to share spoils of power with non-Yadav OBCs. Muslims don’t demand much because of their hatred for BJP.

  4. Good article by SG this time. I am also wary of Muslim parties, although I can understand why a minority may opt for it. I prefer a national party, and that can only be Congress, communist or state party. The communists stand up for secularism and against fascists, but are limited to two states. As SG says, Congress is confused and wishes to pose as a Hindu party. But as SG points out, the hard core Hindu communalists are not going to go with Congress no matter how Hindu it acts. It will be better if Congress stands confidently for secular democracy and explains to people in a convincing manner.

    Owaisi as a person does have an intellectual sharpness. He speaks Urdu and English fluently, chooses his words carefully (unlike his brother) and knows the constitution well – he is an English trained barrister. There is no one in the BJP who can match him. I have seen in panels, in front of him, even Subramaniam Swamy becomes meek and loses his swaggering bluff. He is able to respond quickly and logically without shouting, unlike the inferior Hindutva minds.

    Perhaps it would be better if Owaisi dropped MIM, and built a new party that is an alternative to dynastic Congress. If you broaden the base from Muslims, and Dalits, you can attract Hindu liberals.

    It was noticeable the opposition to CAA-NRC was initially spear headed by Muslim students and most surprisingly housewives. Liberal Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others then picked up the courage to stand up to fascism. It got international acclaim.

    India has reached a dead end with fascism. It has given delusions of grandeur to some but reality strikes gradually and eventually. The challenge to fascism could be catalysed by Owaisi and Muslims without resorting to violence, and the majority Hindus have to join in the movement and strengthen the leadership. There is a space for a secular non dynastic party. Congress should come out of its historic and dynastic mire, but if it cannot, then Owaisi and others need to think of it. AAP has fizzled away since Kejriwal sat on the fence in the Delhi riots and did not nail the BJP.

  5. I was looking for an equal reporting but right till the last line, I found none. There’s no BJP perspective and it doesn’t stop there. It’s sort of encourages other parties to join forces as if the BJP is a hardcore sectarian party involved in daily violence against the minorities. It rejects majority vote outcome as if it is a deplorable practice but prods Muslim to get united for, maybe apparently, a common good.

    And then it asks for donations for fair reporting. There you go, my 2 cents.

    • ‘…as if the BJP is a hardcore sectarian party involved in daily violence against the minorities.’

      Why do you want to pretend otherwise ? In the 1990s, the BJP organised a Hindu mob to demolish the Babari masjid, against court orders. It organised a massacre in 2002 to faciliate Modi’s election. In power, it has encouraged Hindu mob lynchings. It has devised a CAA-NRC to put Muslims in detention centres. It organised a riot in Delhi to break resistance to CAA-NRC. Its thugs beat up Christians on the grounds of conversion.

      So, why are you pretending the BJP is not a hardcore sectarian organisation ?

      • BJP is natural party for India. After partition Gandhi, Nehru should have disbanded Congress and encourage multi parties to form and contest election to get mandate. Once Nehru Gandhi fought for united India but then agreed for partition based on religion they lost the mandate. They sacrificed interests of non-Muslims, Pathans and other Muslims in Pakistan for their own power grab. On the other hand they embraced those Muslims of UP, Bihar & Bengal who wanted Pakistan, rather than sending them to Pakistan once Pakistan started kicking out non-Muslims.

        In short Nehru had no moral authority to lead India after Independence, while BJP or it’s forerunners were the right people to lead India. Nehru should have moved to England

        OWAISI HAS EVERY RIGHT TO FORM A PARTY AND FIGHT ELECTION. As he or Hyderabadi Muslims were not involved in Pakistan movement. Niazm was not interested in joining Pakistan. AS A MATTER OF FACT NIZAM FAMILY HAS BETTER RECORD OF SECULARIM RIGHT FROM HIS FOUNDER, WHO WENT UNRMED AGAINST MURDEROUS NADIR SHAH AND PRESUDE HIS TO STOP KILLING, COMPARED TO CONGRESS & HINDU SECULARIST ADMIRED TIPU SULTAN. But secularist, with their fake nationalism based on fighting against British, don’t like Niazm because he fought for his self interest and so did not fought British. Secus conveniently forget the fact that Tipu also fought for His self interest. not for any national interest.

        If India Had kicked out Jinnah supporters once Pakistan kicked out non-Muslims from Pakistan, Pakistan would have been flooded with so many refugees that it would have driven Jinnah & Liaqat Ali Khan crazy and they too would have left Pakistan and joined Nehru in England.

  6. Indian Muslims need a voice. Several of them, protecting the legitimate rights of a minority that has never been so embattled as it finds itself today. Claiming the constitutional space that affords them freedom to modernise at a pace which the more traditional and austere feel comfortable with. For a long time, the Congress gave them an umbrella, but not very much more. Now with its ill advised Hindutva lite, even that is being discarded, with a sentiment of, Aap aur jaa hi kahaan sakte hain. As far as Mr Owaisi is concerned, my doubts refuse to go away.

  7. Muslims need secular parties only when Muslim population is below 50 percent, once they reach the majority, they will discard secular parties and start electing their own Muslim party’s , have you seen any secular parties in Muslim majority areas !! Lol secularism survives in India , only as long as Hindu population remains majority, the day Muslims reach even 40 percent, they will start civil war , just wait and see

  8. So as per Print team, the muslim vote is the secular vote, so as corollary, people who vote for BJP or its allies are communal.
    This toxic narrative is exactly the reason why educated Hindus to a very large extent arent voting congress and their ilk.
    The word secular should be removed from the constitution preamble, it was for a reason it wasn’t put in by the original writers , but foisted upon by Congress for purely political reasons.

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