The importance of being Asaduddin Owaisi
While Owaisi's AIMIM was originally interested in joining the DMK alliance, it backed off due to reservations expressed by other Muslim parties in the alliance.  Photo: PTI (File)

The importance of being Asaduddin Owaisi

A popular takeaway from Hyderabad’s political folklore is that time stands frozen beyond Musi River, the entry point to the old city, the stronghold of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) for over four decades. It is said that no political upheaval elsewhere in the country can touch this part of the city, once ruled by the Nizams.

The AIMIM, a dynasty-driven party now headed by four-time MP Asaduddin Owaisi, has a vice-like grip over the city of pearls and minarets, winning every election since early 1980s. Such has been the party’s dominance here that only the margin of its victory becomes a debating point in every Lok Sabha poll.

Owaisi, a suave and articulate barrister who is unapologetic about wearing the Muslim identity on his sleeve, is fast emerging as a pan-India Muslim face, taking up issues concerning the rights of minorities. His cogent arguments within and outside the Parliament make him the toast of the national media and a prominent voice of the Muslim community.

However, he doesn’t like to be fitted into a straitjacket. “It is wrong to say that AIMIM is only the party of Muslims. We fight for the rights of Muslims as enshrined in the Constitution but we also raise our voice for justice to Dalits and other oppressed sections,” the 59 year old alumnus of Lincoln’s Inn, London, says.

Expanding the footprint

For a party that is keen on transforming itself from a localised outfit to a pan-India organisation, the performance in the recent Bihar assembly elections, winning five seats in the Seemanchal region, has come as a big boost to its efforts to expand the footprint.

Every time the AIMIM contests an election outside Hyderabad, be it in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, it faces the charge of cutting into Muslim votes, thereby indirectly benefiting the BJP. In Bihar too, where the party secured 1.24 per cent vote share, it faced a similar allegation of being “BJP’s B team” and denting the prospects of Mahagathbandhan, an opposition alliance comprising RJD, Congress and left parties.

Related news: Owaisi’s rise in Bihar could be bad news for Mamata in Bengal

“This is rubbish. In four of the five seats that we won, the NDA candidates were the runners-up while Mahagathbandhan candidates were in the third position. Moreover, we contested in only 20 constituencies in the state. What stopped Congress from winning the seats it had contested?” wondered Syed Amin Jaffrey, an AIMIM member of the Telangana Legislative Council.

Owaisi has been making a concerted effort to expand his party’s base in Bihar’s Seemanchal region, particularly Kishanganj — which has an overwhelming Muslim majority — for over five years now. It won a by-poll in the region last year, but has emerged as a major force this time around.

The next destination is West Bengal. “Our party has been actively working there for the last few years. We are working out the details regarding the number of seats where we can put up candidates,” Jaffrey, a former journalist, told The Federal.

Similarly, the party is also gearing up for a poll battle in Uttar Pradesh as well.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s harsh criticism of the party reflects a sense of unease over its entry into her state. “There are some extremists within the minority community. They are being funded by the BJP. They are based out of Hyderabad. They are conducting meetings here, telling Muslims that they will protect them. Do not fall for it,” she had warned.

Reacting to allegations that his party was dividing anti-BJP votes, Owaisi said he was running a political party that has a right to contest on its own.

“You mean we should not fight elections? I will fight in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and will fight every election in the country. Do I need to ask anyone’s permission to fight the polls?” he questioned.

Related news: Big parties saw me as an untouchable: Owaisi

The plan is to contest in Muslim populated areas like Murshidabad, Malda and Dinjapur that are contiguous to Seemanchal. “The dividing line between the secular parties and communal outfits is getting blurred and Muslims are used as a vote bank in the power-play. The AIMIM will counter this vote bank politics,” Jaffrey asserted.

Countering Hindutva politics

Unlike his grandfather and the party founder Abdul Wahed Owaisi and his father, Salahuddin Owaisi, a six-time MP, who never looked beyond the Muslim dominated areas of Hyderabad, Asaduddin led the party’s ambitious transformation and expanded the base to other states to build a pan-India appeal.

“Owaisi’s rise as a pan-Indian Muslim face has been in the making for quite some time, particularly with the rise of Hindutva politics which led to further alienation of Muslim community,” said political analyst Ramakrishna Sangem.

Unlike his younger brother and the party’s floor leader in the Telangana assembly Akbaruddin Owaisi who is brash, belligerent and often gets into trouble for his provocative speeches, the elder Owaisi comes across as a more balanced, nuanced and accommodative leader who has been in the forefront of the fight for rights of minorities.

The critics, however, point out that the parts of the old city still lack basic civic amenities despite being represented by the AIMIM for over four decades and that the party has a vested interest in playing the victimhood card and keeping the people poor and backward.

“This is a baseless allegation. Our party has been fighting with the successive governments for more funds for development of the neglected old city region,” Jaffrey says.

Another charge, often hurled by the BJP leaders, is that the party has been soft on extremist elements who find a safe haven in the city. “By contesting elections, I am preventing radicalisation of those people who have lost confidence in democracy,” Owaisi says. He has been steadfastly advocating the importance of education and women empowerment.

Burden of the past

The AIMIM also carries the stigma associated with a controversial past. The detractors dub it as a party of “Razakars”, a ruthless band of private militia promoted by the last Nizam ruler Mir Osman Ali Khan to crush the masses and also to resist the integration of Hyderabad State into the Indian Union.

Apart from ‘vote-cutter’ and ‘BJP’s B team’, a slur that often gets hurled at Owaisi is ‘Neo-Jinnah’. The BJP has likened him to Mohammad Ali Jinnah for playing the minority card and pursuing the ‘dangerous politics of instigating the Muslim community.”

However, Owaisi retorted this, saying “Unlike Jinnah, I want India’s diversity to be celebrated. This country is too diverse for one person to be the sole spokesman of a group.”

MIM was founded in 1927 as a party to promote socio-economic and educational development of Muslims. It was in favour of keeping the then Hyderabad State independent. After the military action led to the accession of the princely state to the Indian Union in 1948, the organisation was banned.

Related news: Owaisi’s bet in Bihar may divide Muslim votes, help BJP gain

However, it was revived in 1958 with a new constitution by Moulana Abdul Wahid Owaisi, grandfather of Asaduddin Owaisi, and renamed as AIMIM to fight for the rights of the minorities as enshrined in the Constitution.

The AIMIM began its journey as an unregistered outfit making its electoral debut in 1959, contesting the municipal elections in Hyderabad. Later, it contested the assembly and Lok Sabha, but largely confined to Hyderabad and its surrounding areas.

Asaduddin’s father Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi held the Hyderabad Lok Sabha seat six times in a row. He chose to confine the party to Hyderabad, with a tag of ‘old city party’. This was the case until the baton was handed down to his elder son.

After taking over the reins of the party in 2008, he expanded the party, making electoral forays in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

“Under his leadership, the party underwent a radical change in its character and form. As a purely religious organisation floated to counter the anti-Muslim narratives of the Arya Samaj during the liberation movement in Telangana under the Nazam, it became inclusive by accommodating non-Muslims,” says a senior journalist Mir Ayub Ali Khan.

The AIMIM has sought to expand its base by entering into coalitions with subaltern caste groups to suit the local socio-political conditions, he says.

Owaisi coined the slogan – Jai Bhim-Jai Mim – to represent an AIMIM-Dalit coalition that helped his party to emerge as a formidable force in certain caste-sensitive pockets in Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The party has been pursuing a dual strategy of rallying the youth using social media effectively on issues concerning minority rights while at the same time ensuring that concessions and reservations available for minorities are fully tapped by Muslims everywhere. For this, Owaisi picks middle class, educated Muslim youth to be local leaders of the party while the AIMIM headquarters in Hyderabad provides them inputs to articulate on issues so that the party can build a pan-Indian appeal.

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