Why AIMIM’s Bihar performance spells danger for Mamata in Bengal

Experts say the frequent arrest of AIMIM supporters and curbs on rallies or events by the party, are signs that the Mamata administration is threatened by the Asaduddin Owaisi-led party   

Owaisi dared Prime Minister Narendra Modi to campaign for the GMHC to see how many seats the BJP wins

Even before a comprehensive analysis of the recent Bihar Assembly election results is ready, there is intense speculation about their impact on the neighbouring state, West Bengal, which goes to polls in a few months’ time. Critical attention is focused pointedly on one question: how would the proposed participation of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Hyderabad-based MP Asaduddin Owaisi would affect the 2021 electoral outcome in Bengal?

Game changer of Bihar polls

Such premature curiosity stems from the AIMIM’s spectacular success in the Bihar polls. Contesting 20 seats, but concentrating its efforts on 14 of these in the Muslim-dominated, economically backward Seemanchal region, bordering north Bengal to the east, the AIMIM has won five seats. In the process, it catalysed a political mayhem: long standing Congress MLAs and leaders of other parties were trounced by wining AIMIM candidates by huge margins. Given the extremely narrow margin of two or three seats that separated the ‘victorious’ BJP-led NDA from runner-up Mahagatbandhan-led by Tejashwi Yadav’s RJD, there was much understandable frustration and anger targeting the AIMIM from the losers’ camp. The grand old Congress party was almost decimated, while the ruling JD(U) also suffered major losses to make the contest a very closely-run affair.

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Dealing with the post-election flak thrown at him, the redoubtable Mr Owaisi regretted that his success should let loose an avalanche of abuse couched in political terms. “What have they (Mahagathbandhan) not called us – we are the BJP’s B team, the spoilers, losers with no chance, vote’ katuas’ and much else besides.’ As the polls ended, the ‘losers’ tag certainly looked out of place.

The AIMIM had won only one seat in the 2015 Assembly, with only 0.5 per cent of the aggregate vote. This time, along with a five-fold rise in the number of seats won, its vote share rose to 1.25 per cent of the total. Not stunningly impressive, but both the Grand Alliance and the NDA would concede how critically important such figures have become in the context of the razor’s edge 2020 contest.

There can be no question that the AIMIM’s surge ensured the defeat of the Mahagathbandhan alliance. The Mahagathbandhan’s allegation that its performance and striking rate helped the incumbent NDA to win is certainly valid. Its tally enabled the NDA to snatch the narrowest of victories out of the gaping jaws of defeat.

Rise of Yadav Junior

Significantly, five separately conducted exit surveys on probable results by experts had all predicted a win for the Mahagathbandhan. The 15-year-long incumbency of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was seen as a very strong negative force working against the leading party in the NDA – the JD(U). Continuing economic stagnation, growing unemployment, backward infrastructure, failures in facing up to the COVID-19 pandemic challenge and the problems of migrant labour, had all gone against the ruling coalition.

To Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD must go the credit of taking the fight to the NDA camp. The vigour of his campaign and its success among the job-hungry youth, nearly brought home the bacon for the RJD. Even in victory, NDA leaders cannot rest easy. The RJD’s continuing hold among a large section of the people still remains a major challenge for the BJP in the days ahead.

The young Tejashwi, whom his senior contenders had patronised as untested and somewhat inadequately educated for an aspiring chief minister, overcame his major handicaps convincingly. He has nearly exorcised the spectre of corruption that has consistently blighted the political fortunes of the RJD in recent years, thanks to his father Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is currently in jail. This is itself is a major achievement of the force with which the NDA has to contend with in the future.

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There is no way again to gloss over the political challenge confronting Yadav Junior in the very first major political war of his life.  He was really fighting against the national prestige and image of the biggest BJP leader and vote catcher in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The ‘Yuvaraj’ jibe made by the latter against the young Tejashwi was clearly out of place. Even in defeat, the RJD managed to best the BJP and rob it of the satisfaction of becoming the largest single party in the Bihar assembly by one seat.

Chirag’s the culprit, not Owaisi

Yet, the AIMIM cannot be treated as a mere spoiler, a vote’katua’ (cutting) party, as alleged by an understandably upset Mahagathbandhan leadership.

It seems inappropriate for Mahagathbandhan leaders to accuse the AIMIM or any other party, of acting as a cat’s paw for bigger parties like the BJP. The charge they level against Owaisi should ideally be directed at the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), led by Chirag Paswan.

Even before he put up 40 candidates for the 243-seat Assembly, Paswan declared his intent to cut the JD(U) down to size and bring down Nitish Kumar in particular. He had no wish to fight the BJP or Modi.  He said so himself repeatedly.

If these are not the words of a self-confessed ‘spoiler’, it is difficult to understand what else they stand for! Not only that – the LJP ended up winning only one out of the 40 seats it contested. But surveys showed that by winning even small slices of the total vote in its favour  in these  seats, it ensured the defeat of at least 30 JD(U) candidates. Therefore, before Mahagathbandhan leaders accuse the AIMIM of being the ‘B Team’ of the BJP, they should first admit that the LJP’s tactic has helped them in a major way.  It made their task much easier by its voting ‘cutting’. The obviously rattled Nitish Kumar may have survived Paswan’s assault, but his has been a Pyrrhic victory, no question.

What AIMIM’s Bihar win means for Bengal

This cannot be said of the AIMIM. As said before, its candidates won by major margins, unseating some very seasoned Congress and other campaigners. It can claim to have reached a larger number of people since 2015 and consolidated its position among the Muslims, unlike the upstart LJP. Further, AIMIM’s performance shattered the delusional perceptions in the Congress/RJD camps that they somehow enjoy a special ’secular’ relationship with the Muslim minorities (euphemism for a captive vote bank?). As if their support among the Muslims has been written in stone, and no other party should approach them.

No wonder Owaisi questions the very concept of parties nursing vote banks and treating loyal voters as ‘slaves’.  “We have every right to fight elections anywhere in India. We plan to expand beyond Telengana and become a national party,” he has said. This is not exactly the kind of message that Paswan uses to define his political mission, if any.

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The rise of the AIMIM will certainly cause much tension elsewhere, especially in neighbouring West Bengal. There is no doubt that Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee enjoys an unquestionable loyalty among Muslim voters. The Muslims are just under 30 per cent of the state’s population of nearly 100 million people. Again, between the 2016(Assembly polls) and 2019(Lok Sabha polls), the TMC’s support among Muslims has increased. According to one survey, it has risen by a whopping 15 per cent. During the same period, her support in terms of votes among majority Hindus dipped by 8 per cent.

As one observer explains, given that Hindus  account for  69/70% of the population  and  command  more votes than Muslims, the TMC cannot afford to lose even a small slice of the loyal Muslim vote. Between 2019 and 2021, there is no doubt that given the kind of communal polarization seen in Bengal, the TMC will certainly register a major drop in Hindu votes.   Here, the AIMIM can certainly play an effective spoiler.

Already Owaisi and Banerjee have crossed swords. She has denounced him as a Muslim ‘extremist.’ Owaisi pointed to the TMC’s alleged opportunism and tokenism and its utter failure to help the community significantly. “Why Bengal Muslims are the poorest and most backward in India? What about better education and jobs for them? They do not need empty slogans or Hijab-wearing public appearances from the chief minister,” he said.

TMC leaders have concealed their concern, claiming that the political cultures of Bengal and Bihar are not similar. The Bengali Muslim will not support the AIMIM, ‘the BJP’s agent, operating from Hyderabad, but remain loyal to Mamata Banerjee’. But the outlook for the TMC is not very positive.

One survey says that the AIMIM has won almost 5 per cent of the total votes in the seats in contested in the Seeamanchal belt. If similar trends are seen in Bengal, it could mean a curtain call for TMC candidates in many of the 90 Assembly seats (out of 294) where the Muslims are a factor. The AIMIM has also built up a party structure in recent years by appointing leaders and committees in most Bengal districts. It has plans to hold a major rally in January 2021 at the Brigade Parade ground in Kolkata.

However, a sure sign that the TMC government takes the AIMIM seriously are the regular arrests made by the police of AIMIM supporters in the districts and the steadfast refusal of the administration to allow a single rally or other programme by the AIMIM.

Finally the AIMIM apart, the TMC also finds a fresh threat within its Muslim support in the sensitive south 24 Parganas district, where local leaders are facing a serious challenge, involving rallies, counter rallies and violent clashes, already.