A week before assembly elections were announced in Bihar, I asked an elderly man in Kishanganj’s Bahadurganj who he thought was deserving of an All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) ticket there, given that there were many contenders. The man replied, “Why would I care, I only know Asaduddin Owaisi and Akhtarul Iman. I will vote for AIMIM, no matter who is the candidate.”
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi and the party’s state president Akhtarul Iman had become personality cults in most areas under the Kishanganj Lok Sabha constituency well before the Bihar elections. There are six assembly constituencies under the Kishanganj parliamentary constituency, and the AIMIM won four of them – Amour, Baisi, Bahadurganj and Kochadhaman. The party lost the Kishanganj assembly segment, which it had won in the 2019 by-polls but it gained the Jokihat seat under the Araria Lok Sabha constituency, taking the party’s tally to five.
The AIMIM won all five seats comfortably. Akhtarul Iman won Amour by a margin of 52,515 votes, the second-highest margin of any candidate in this election. Similarly, Anzar Nayeemi won Bahadurganj by a margin of 45,215 votes, Izhar Asfi won Kochadhaman by 36,143 votes, Syed Ruknuddin Ahmed won Baisi by 16,373 votes and Shanawaz won Jokihat by 7,383 votes.
A meteoric rise
When the AIMIM made its entry in Seemanchal during the 2015 Bihar elections, the party contested six seats. It could not win a single seat and stood second only in one. Four years later, when Iman contested from the Kishanganj Lok Sabha constituency in the 2019 general elections, the party took the lead in two assembly constituencies – Kochadhaman and Bahadurganj. It stood second in another two – Amour and Kishanganj. Later that year in October, the party won the Kishanganj assembly segment by-poll.
Kochadhaman is the only seat where AIMIM had unofficially announced its candidate a year in advance. Mohammad Izhar Asfi ventured into politics as panchayat mukhiya in 2002; he unsuccessfully contested assembly elections from Kochadhaman in February 2005 and October 2005 against the then RJD candidate Akhtarul Iman. Later, when Iman’s confidant Mujahid Alam joined the JD(U) to contest against him, Asfi supported Iman. Izhar Asfi joined the AIMIM during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and it is said that Iman had promised him the ticket from Kochadhaman, which Iman represented as an RJD MLA between 2005 and 2014.
What made the election easy for Asfi was that his main contender was the sitting JD(U) MLA Mujahid Alam and not a Mahagathbandhan candidate. Kochadhaman has a record of not electing an NDA candidate. When Mujahid Alam won in the 2014 by-polls, the JD(U) was not with the BJP. When he won in 2015, the JD(U) was part of the Mahagathbandhan. That Mujahid Alam would lose the election was a foregone conclusion the day that the JD(U) went back to the NDA and he did oppose the move.
The AIMIM was able to project the contest as a direct contest with the BJP. Asfi supporters would call Mujahid a “Bhajpa ka ummeedwaar (BJP candidate)”. The JD(U) failed to counter this narraitve and the best they could come up with was “sarkar tou NDA ki hi banegi, phir sarkar mein aapka kaun hoga (It’s going to be an NDA government again, who will represent you in government then)”.
The RJD lacks leadership in Kochadhaman. When Akhtarul Iman left in 2014, Intekhab Bablu led the party as the district president. He met an unfortunate death in a road accident in 2018. It fell upon his wife Seema Intekhab to make the party prominent in the area. Later, the RJD gave the command to a young face, Sarwar Alam, whose wife is Kishanganj’s Zila Parishad chairman. When it came to ticket distribution, the party tried to lure the sitting JD(U) MLA Mujahid Alam. He told me in an interview that the RJD promised him “money, ministry and even a Lok Sabha ticket”. When Mujahid did not join the RJD, the ticket was given to Sarwar Alam’s father, Shahid Alam, who stood third with just 16.18% of the votes.
Amour, where Iman won, is constantly devastated by flood and migration and keeps looking for a ray of hope. In 2010, Saba Zafar became the BJP’s first-ever Muslim MLA in Bihar.
Congress stalwart Abdul Jalil Mastan, a six-time MLA known for his humble lifestyle, was already facing anti-incumbency in Amour. Mastan put the last nail in his coffin when he addressed Owaisi as ‘maweshi (Cattle)’ and threatened him in Rahul Gandhi’s presence. Mastan had said, “I don’t call him Owaisi, I call him maweshi (Cattle) who has come to graze… We will break his teeth and waist and send him back to Hyderabad.”
The AIMIM also succeeded in uniting different Muslim sects in Seemanchal. The five seats where the party won are dominated by Surjapuri and Kulahiya Muslims. In Amour, AIMIM candidate Akhtarul Iman and Congress candidate Abdul Jalil Mastan are Surjapuri Muslims, while the JD(U)’s Saba Zafar is a Kulahiya.
The AIMIM feared that if Kulahiya Muslims vote for Zafar, he could easily win with help of well-guarded NDA voters. Luck favoured the AIMIM and the son of the tallest Kulahiya Muslim leader, late Taslimuddin’s son, Shahnawaz, joined the party at the very last moment. Shahnawaz, who contested from Jokihat, also campaigned in Amour and Baisi along with Owaisi.
Apart from Amour, the AIMIM also gained from Surjapuri-Kulahiya unity in Jokihat and Baisi.
In Baisi, the AIMIM fielded Syed Ruknuddin, a former independent MLA who had later joined the JD(U). Ruknuddin is neither a Surjapuri nor a Kulahiya Muslim and was contesting against a six-time RJD MLA Abdus Subhan, a Surjapuri. Abdus Subhan no doubt was also facing huge anti-incumbency. Like Amour, Baisi’s Muslims were also looking to vote for change.
The AIMIM’s lead in Bahadurganj during the 2019 Lok Sabha election drew many contenders for a ticket here. Former JD(U) candidate Musawwir Alam, former RJD candidate Anzar Nayeemi, former NCP candidate Mansoor Alam, everyone who wanted to unseat the four-time Congress MLA Tausif Alam joined the AIMIM. Interestingly, Tausif Alam is the son-in-law of AIMIM’s Kochadhaman candidate Izhar Asfi.
The Congress tried to counter the AIMIM by attacking Owaisi. The party’s leader and Urdu poet Imran Pratapgarhi held many rallies for Tausif in Bahadurganj to counter Owaisi. Pratapgrahi would ask Owaisi to show a photograph of him from Shaheen Bagh protest and question him about his ‘friend’ Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao’s alleged proximity to the BJP. But, none of it worked.
What I have gathered is that even anti-AIMIM Muslim voters in Seemanchal accept Owaisi as someone who always stands up for the community. Attacking Owaisi only backfired for the Congress in Bahadurganj and Amour.
A different scenario
But the scenario in Jokihat in Araria district was different and its win came under unlikely circumstances. One would have to go back to 2017 to trace the origin a series of events that saw the AIMIM win.
Late RJD MP and former Union minister Taslimuddin died in 2017, leading to a by-election in the Araria Lok Sabha seat. His second son Sarfraz Alam, who was an MLA, won the poll. Consequetly, a bypoll was held in the Jokihat assembly seat. Taslimuddin’s youngest son Shahnawaz won the seat as an RJD candidate in 2018.
But, Sarfraz lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 and now wanted the Jokihat seat back from his brother. Shahnawaz claims that Tejashwi Yadav had assured him of the ticket but gave it to his brother instead.
On the other hand, the AIMIM had already announced former JD(U) candidate Murshid Alam as its candidate for Jokihat. Just a day before the last day of the nomination, Shahnawaz joined the AIMIM and the party changed its candidate.
The AIMIM had already developed a following in Jokihat under the leadership of Maulana Abdullah Saleem Chaturvedi. Shahawaz got a team of workers ready for elections; he cried injustice at the hands of the RJD and Owaisi’s two rallies did the rest.
A setback in Kishanganj
Despite, the AIMIM’s five successes, its defeat in the Kishanganj assembly is a setback. AIMIM’s Qamrul Hoda had won this Congress bastion in October last year, making the grand old party lose its deposit. A year later, the Congress took the seat back, pushing the AIMIM to third position.
A week before polling, I saw an old-time party worker from Kishanganj assembly in Owaisi’s Kochadhaman rally. He told, “We will be with the AIMIM till Akhtarul Iman is in the party. But, this time, we can’t work for Qamrul Hoda.”
Not just workers, even leaders seemed unhappy with Hoda’s performance in just a year. Senior party leaders wanted Hoda to meet the people every day for two hours at the party office in Kishanganj. He didn’t oblige.
A day before voting, I asked a poultry seller in the Kishanganj town market which way he saw the constituency go this time. He showed his palm (Congress symbol) and explained, “The MLA didn’t do anything during the lockdown.” I asked, “Did Congress MP Jawaid help?” He nodded his head.
The Congress was helped by the fact that its rebel leaders came back to help its candidate Izharul Hussain, an old-time party worker.
On the other hand, there were rebels in the AIMIM and BJP camps. AIMIM’s 2015 candidate Tasiruddin contested as an independent, although he did not impact the result. Outraged by the BJP’s decision to not field a Rajbansi candidate, the community rebelled against the party. Their candidate Manoj Singh took away 1,419 votes from the BJP. That the Congress’s margin of victory in Kishanganj was just 1,381 shows that the saffron party could have won if it had the support of the Rajbansi community.
Tanzil Asif is an independent journalist based in Seemanchal, Bihar. He runs a hyper-local news platform Main Media in the region, and tweets at @tnzl.