The meaning of Owaisi’s victory in Bihar

An interesting cartoon viral on social media has All India Ittihadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi in his trademark topi but uncharacteristically also wearing khaki shorts of the RSS. Two men carry him by holding hands. The faces of men are not shown but, from their dresses, they appear to be BJP’s top two leaders. Most of the comments the cartoon has received since it went viral suggest Owaisi is now headed to West Bengal which will go to the polls next year.

That explains a lot about what Owaisi and his party MIM did to the secular votes in the Bihar elections and what he can do to secular parties in the West Bengal elections due next year. Out of 20 seats where Owaisi fielded his candidates in Bihar, his party won five, the Mahagathbandhan (RJD-Congress-Left) candidates won 9 while NDA got six. So, if MIM was not there, Mahagathbandhan would have got 11 seats in the Seemanchal region, enough to ensure Mahagathbandhan’s edge over NDA. Tejashwai Yadav who electrified a drab, doddering campaign turned once foregone conclusion about the victors into a cliffhanger counting of votes could have become Bihar’s next CM. The 31-year-old Tejashwi, largely out his father Lalu Prasad Yadav’s shadows, would have got a chance to realize the promises he made to the crowds during election campaigns. The lakhs of unemployed youths who flocked to his election rallies are shocked as the slender margin of majority brings largely discredited Nitish Kumar back into Bihar’s saddle.

Though it will be unfair to put all the blames for defeat of the Mahagathbandhan on Owaisi, his entry in Bihar and aggressive campaigns targeted mostly at the Congress undoubtedly helped the NDA win an election it had almost lost.

Owaisi has explained he has rights to fight elections from wherever he chooses to. Of course, he has a right to do so. So, why he has not chosen to fight in Gujarat which went for by elections on eight seats recently? And why only on seats with overwhelming Muslim votes in UP, Maharashtra and now Bihar, the three states he has participated in assembly elections outside Andhra Pradesh/Telengana, so far? This shows his desperation to eat into the votes of secular parties, whatever little secularism may be left with them. By doing so, Owaisi ends up helping the saffron side. When the electoral, political history of post-2000 India is written, Owaisi will go down as the self-appointed champion of the Muslim cause who harmed the people he claimed to empower politically.

He says he wants to empower the Muslims who have been used as hostages or bandhuwa mazdoor (bonded labourers) by some parties over the decades. Owaisi will never accept it, but those who support him and his explanation are either oblivious to or willfully ignoring the damage Owaisi is doing to India’s social fabric. Now don’t tell me what is Yogi Adityanath is doing. But Yogi’s agenda is no secret. We know what he is in politics for.

Playing on the fears of the minorities and the injustices Owaisi only fuels the victimhood mentality of the Muslim youths. His protests are grievance-centric not solution seeking. Since he is a pariah for almost all the mainstream political parties—don’t count Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party which prevarication on secular values is as clear as the morning sun—he digs the lonely furrows. His Ekla Chalo initiative further alienates the community which needs to build bridges with other communities for economic prosperity. His voices, including tweets, speeches inside the Parliament and outside it, warm up the hearts of a section of Muslims who feel cheated by politicians of all hues. He compulsive replies to provocative posts, utterances of the Hindutva hotheads. Little does he know or care to realize how much damage his “reactions” do to Muslims. Though he doesn’t represent all Muslims in the country, the media, especially the sold out or godi media, present his reactions as if they have been issued on behalf of the entire Muslim community. Muslims don’t live in the ghettos of old Hyderabad alone. They are scattered and at many places are in miniscule minority surrounded by hostile non-Muslim neighbours. His comments aggravate the hostility against Muslims, making the community further insecure. It is this sense of insecurity that Owaisi feeds on.

I don’t buy the accusations that Owaisi has a tacit understanding with the BJP since I don’t have a credible proof. I am not privy to his “dealings” with the saffron side that he is often accused of. His detractors talk about the “soft” corner some senior BJP leaders have in their hearts for Owaisi. To back their arguments, these detractors argue that several Muslim critics of the BJP government have faced the strong arm of the law—raids by ED, CBI and arrests—on allegedly fake charges but Owaisi manages to remain out of those “dragnets”. “Why is it so?,” I once asked Owaisi at a press conference. “You are my friend, do you want me to go to jail?,” he replied. All my fellow journalists there had good laugh at his reply. He has never explained why senior leaders in the BJP mostly ignore his trenchant comments but come down heavily on others if they make similar comments.

Retuning to Bihar, what will his five MLAs manage to get for the poor region of Seemanchal that other Muslim leaders from the area never managed to do in the last many decades? One could understand they could have made much difference were they part of the government. Since it is unlikely he will ever support the BJP—his whole politics will collapse he if does so—his five MLAs will sit out in the opposition. After five years, they will go to the masses again, saying they couldn’t do much as they were not part of the government.

Political activist and a former student of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Tanweer Alam foresees another danger after Owaisi’s entry in Bihar’s politics. “Now all parties will dump Muslim seekers of tickets to Seemanchal because Owaisi has shown them the way. Since tickets are distributed on “winability” of the candidates, they will be sent there to try luck, depriving them the chance to fight from elsewhere,” said Alam. “Now Seemanchal has become the political ghetto of Muslims.”

This writer has observed the “rise” of MIM in Maharashtra for over a decade. In 2014 Owaisi decided to spread his “footprint” outside Hyderabad. He fielded nearly two dozen candidates in the Maharashtra assembly poll, winning two seats (Byculla and Aurangabad) but eating into a good number of votes on several seats of Congress-NCP candidates. In 2019, for the first time in MIM’s history, it won an MP seat outside the old Hyderabad when Imtiaz Jalil wrested the Aurangabad seat from Sena. Political observers and poll watchers credited a BJP rebel candidate, for “facilitating” ”Jalil’s victory as he took away a huge chunk of saffron votes. In the Maharashtra assembly elections of 2019, MIM won two seats again (Malegaon and Nandurbar) and lost both the seats (Byculla and Aurangabad) it had won in 2014. Meanwhile, it also damaged secular candidates on almost a dozen seats. Let me cite such one example. Arif Naseem Khan, the four-time Congress MLA from Chandivali, a Mumbai suburb, lost by around 400 votes. MIM candidate on this seat got more than double the number that Khan needed to win.

Now that Owaisi gears up to enter West Bengal, the BJP will be more than happy to spread out a red carpet, if surreptitiously so, for him there. After all Bihar is known as dar-e-Bengal (Gateway to Bengal). And BJP will do everything to get it in its kitty. Will Owaisi prove an enabler to the BJP there too?

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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