Even after the recent Bihar Assembly polls, most Indian political parties still do not seem to be taking the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Itttehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) seriously. This is, partly, owing to the unique political rhetoric that the AIMIM’s only nationally recognised face Mr. Asaduddin Owaisi uses whether he addresses a public meeting or speaks in Parliament.
As a consummate orator, the logic he employs is usually irrefutable, enabling his final messages to be unanswerable, even if minatory. This is totally unsettling for his opponents. His mission is to make the AIMIM a national party and he is prepared to do this the long, hard way. Hence, his current plan, which should keep him busy over the next decade, is to fight elections in as many states as possible and win the bulk of the Muslim-dominated seats.
Significantly, he is concentrating on spreading his wings in the states, from South to the West and the East. He has no wish to win Lok Sabha seats, while avoiding the dust and heat of at the state Assembly polls. His political strategy is a total reversal of the approach adopted by the Congress since the days of the late Indira Gandhi.
She preferred dealing with regional parties during Lok Sabha polls, while giving them a virtual walkover in the Assembly polls. In return, the Congress was helped to win the Lok Sabha seats more easily. Her successors pursued the same line, which worked very well in Tamil Nadu to start with but was later extended without fanfare to West Bengal and other states. The Left Front ruled Bengal with relative ease, never disturbed by serious opposition from the Congress, haunted by the spectre of President’s rule.
By weakening the party at its grassroots level in the states, Congress leaders knowingly ensured their own eventual decline. For embracing such labour-saving tactics for nearly three decades, they have to pay a heavy political price now.
Mr. Owaisi has seemingly learnt his lessons from the inexorable political diminution of the Congress. Therefore, when he announces his ambition to make the AIMIM a bigger national force, he should be taken seriously by India’s political establishment. He has not ignored grassroots level activism, and not attracted by all the glitz and glam of the NCR-based politics/decision-making.
Whatever the AIMIM’s success rate when it comes to winning Assembly or Lok Sabha seats, its poll-contesting strategy creates a win-win situation for the party and especially its present leaders. Why? It enables the AIMIM to spread beyond Telangana, upset the status quo in most states, forces a reworking of old formulas and equations, and exploit local angers and discontent. There is no end to the political benefits involved in the long run. As for recording unexpected victories, as in Bihar, that is an added sweetener.
His opponents accuse him of trying to be a new, present day Jinnah among Indian Muslims. The dynamic young BJP MP from Karnataka, Mr Tejasvi Surya is the latest major subscriber to such a view. How correct is this assumption?
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As of now, analysts believe such an assessment to be partially correct. It does not go far enough. In case the AIMIM becomes a national political Muslim-oriented party fulfilling the requisite conditions, the chief of these being a respectable presence in several state Assemblies as well as in the Lok Sabha, together with an assured share of the votes, Mr Owaisi will automatically morph into the most prominent Muslim leader in the land.
In the process, he will deliver a deathblow to the prospects of several major and not-so-major parties, including the Congress, the SP, the RJD, and the Trinamool Congress. The TMC, which specialises in winning in Bengal on the strength of Muslim votes, might wind up its business.
Leaders of these parties understand the long term threat they face, but are currently powerless to do much about it. From the Congress to the TMC, the accusation against the AIMIM is that it is a vote-cutting (vote katua) party that in effect helps the BJP defeat the ‘secular parties and forces’. It is a charge the AIMIM will find it hard to deny, looking at the outcome of the recent Bihar elections. But except for parties with a longer record of political survival, some regional forces may be looking at the end of their political roads.
What these leaders overlook is that the larger eventual outcome of the AIMIM victories will not only end with bringing about electoral satisfaction for the BJP. How many seats can the RJD, now once again in the opposition, win in Bihar in later elections if the M is gradually taken out of its winning combination of achieving the M+Y (Muslims plus Yadavs) unity formula during polls? It is no different with the TMC either.
Even in the medium term, observers could well be looking at a communally polarised scenario in India in the years ahead, in case the AIMIM bandwagon really gets rolling. At one end of the spectrum there will be the BJP, the Shiv Sena and some smaller outfits which will have to support them to maintain their political relevance. At the other end, except for the AIUDF in Assam and the Kerala-based Muslim outfits, there seems to be no other serious contender to challenge the AIMIM juggernaut.
For the moment, Mr. Owaisi is apparently not contemplating a political assault on the support base of the AIUDF, although Assam will go to polls along with Bengal in 2021. He has announced his intention to put up candidates in Bengal, but is silent about Assam. This is significant. The share of Muslims in Assam’s population is higher at around 33% than in Bengal, which is about 30%.
The AIMIM is apparently not interested in Assam at this stage. It may be that way for the time being, but the AIMIM will politically fight against non-Muslim dominated regional, professedly ‘secular parties, like the ones mentioned.
Given Mr Owaisi’s single-minded pursuit of his goals which is yielding fairly rich dividends, the present respite parties like the AIUDF and others are enjoying, could be short-lived. Having tasted success in Bihar and its prospects looking good in Bengal, what is to stop the AIMIM from taking on other Muslim-dominated parties like the AIUDF etc, in the second or third phase of his long term political agenda: to emerge as the undisputed Muslim voice in India, heading the strongest, biggest, most powerful unabashedly Muslim party?
Other more important and disturbing questions than Mr. Owaisi’s political ambitions, also need to be answered.
What kind of a political rhetoric can India look forward to when Mr. Owaisi reaches a high level of success? What would be the extent and defining contours of the new communal polarisation in the national context?
By his own admission, Mr. Owaisi can never be another Jinnah, stoking the fears of a fresh division of the land. Being a Shia, he is aware of the reservations he will face in a Sunni dominated political environment. Hence his scathing attacks on Pakistan and the kind of politics and lawlessness that prevails there. His repeated assertions to stand by and support the Indian Constitution above all, not to mention his loyalty and respect for the Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan, may or may not be designed to assure the majority Hindus. But significantly, he states his views on such issues repeatedly and firmly, which leave hardline Muslims in Bengal (and elsewhere) speechless.
There could be another unexpected silver lining in the context of a new communal polarisation.
Mr. Owaisi’s rise could well split the Muslims in India. Sunni leaders, overwhelmingly in a majority all over India, would simply not agree to his leadership of the large Indian Muslim populace. To take only one example, where would the AIMIM’s rise leave hardcore conservative Muslim leaders like Siddiqullah Choudhury or leaders of the outlawed SIMI and similar organisations and their followers.
Mr. Choudhury, who used to be the president of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind in Bengal, and a minister in the TMC government, has repeatedly avoided answering questions in public as to whether he would abide by the Supreme Court’s verdicts on certain issues. His attitude towards obeying the provisions of the Indian Constitution as an Indian was similarly equivocal, while debating the ‘Teen Talaq’ and other issues in public. Mr Owaisi at least swears by the Indian Constitution publicly.
Further, Mr. Choudhury is rightly or wrongly suspected of arranging support for pro-Pakistan Muslims settled in Park Circus and other areas of Kolkata. They opposed the hanging in Bangladesh, of Pakistani war criminals, warning Dhaka of consequences, at a public meeting allowed by the TMC government. It was the only public meeting of its kind in India at the time.
No wonder Bangladeshi authorities refused Mr. Choudhury a visa when he attempted to visit there in connection with a religious programme. According to unconfirmed reports, he and his followers are deeply anxious about the impending Owaisi visit and the AIMIM’s political agenda for Bengal.
All over India, there are uncounted hordes of hardcore Muslim leaders, regardless of party affiliations, who would be firmly disinclined to accept Mr. Owaisi as a new Jinnah. And they enjoy considerable political support. Mr. Owaisi’s battle to emerge as the new Muslim knight in shining armour in India may take longer than he thinks.
(Ashis Biswas is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. In his long career, he has worked in New Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati for India’s reputed media organisations)
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