Nobody’s 'B Team': The Politics of Owaisi's AIMIM

As 'secular parties' dial up the attack on Owaisi and the AIMIM, a look at the factors that led to the party's success in the Bihar elections.

Some time ago, most news pundits and Delhi analysts thought that Bihar elections would be a cakewalk for the NDA. However, a sudden wave of support for Nitish Kumar’s young and energetic rival Tejashwi Yadav changed the scenario. This was supported by most exit polls.

A section of the same analysts hurriedly predicted that the underdog grand alliance might clean sweep the polls. Again, things did not precipitate as predicted. The NDA narrowly defeated the grand alliance late in the night of the results day.

A significant highlight of the match was the electoral performance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). This was Owaisi’s second assembly election in Bihar. His party won five out of the 20 seats on which it contested.

He is now being accused of aiding the BJP. A video of Rajdeep Sardesai interviewing Owaisi went viral on Twitter. Sardesai questioned Owaisi on “eating into the secular votes”. During the same debate show, Pawan Khera of the Congress alleged that Owaisi is riding on a wave of “reverse-radicalisation” of minorities. Swaraj Party’s Yogendra Yadav expressed deep worry about AIMIM attracting Muslim support. At a press conference, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary alerted the “secular parties” of his “vote cutter” tactics. Owaisi hit back and said that he is rekindling the hope of minorities in a shrinking democracy.

What AIMIM’s performance says

While there is a massive uproar about Owaisi dividing the Muslim vote and helping the NDA, all these allegations fall flat when we analyse the data. Of the 20 seats that AIMIM contested, NDA was successful in six seats. Only on one of these seats, the votes polled in favour of AIMIM were more than the victory margin for NDA candidates. Raniganj is the only seat where AIMIM got more votes than the victory margin between the NDA and mahagathbandhan candidates. There, AIMIM candidate Roshan Devi got 2,412 votes, 108 votes more than the winning margin (2,304) of the JD(U) over RJD.

In the campaign trail, Congress’ rash attack to discredit AIMIM only seemed to increase his popularity in Seemanchal. In Rahul Gandhi’s presence, Abdul Jaleel Mastan, a Congress MLA, said that he would break the “outsider” Owaisi’s limbs and send him back to Hyderabad. Mastan, a six-time MLA from Amour, received 31,863 votes and stood distant third, and former BJP MLA Saba Zafar, contesting this time from JDU, stood second. AIMIM’s Akhtarul Imam won this seat by a considerable margin.

AIMIM was in direct contest with the NDA in four out of five seats it won. Jokihat was the only seat where it directly challenged RJD. Its candidate Shahnawaz defeated his own brother Sarfaraz (RJD) with 7383 votes. AIMIM also contested Sherghati seat, on which a RJD candidate who is an expelled BJP member became successful. Before this, she was an active member of the fringe Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the VHP. In Aurangabad, another seat with sizeable Muslim population, Congress fielded a candidate accused of inciting communal passion during Ramanavami in 2018. So, how exactly “secular” votes for the grand alliance on such seats were affected?

Also read: The Albatross Around Asaduddin Owaisi’s Neck and Why He Should Disown It

We also need to look at the several strong Muslim candidates fielded by RJD, like Abdul Bari Siddiqui. He could not benefit from the widely talked Muslim-Yadav camaraderie of RJD while non-Muslim candidates reaped the benefit of the Muslim votes.

This is not the first time that the Congress has made such accusations. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when AIMIM contested just one seat out of 40 in Bihar, it was accused of polarising “secular votes”. The lone seat of Kishanganj, where its state president Akhtarul Imam was the candidate, in a close contest finished third with 2,95,029 votes. Congress candidate Mohammad Jawed won that seat with 3,67,017 votes. The argument of Congress alleging Owaisi helping BJP stands null as it did not contest the other 39 seats in Bihar where that time Mahagathbandhan was unable to defeat BJP and allies.

CAA, a polling issue

During the current Bihar elections, the constant attack of the Congress on Owaisi was misplaced. It was posing to be an alternative to the incumbent NDA government in Bihar and not as the sole guardian of Muslim voters. Congressmen like Imran Pratapgarhi, who was not able to save his deposits from Moradabad in Lok Sabha elections, repeatedly attacked AIMIM. On the question of anti-CAA and NRC protests, he asked why Owaisi did not visit Shaheen Bagh. One may recall that Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal did not visit Shaheen Bagh as well.

Meanwhile, Owaisi was the most vocal opponent of the new citizenship law in the Parliament. In fact, he even tore that bill in the house in defiance. Owaisi addressed several anti-CAA rallies and public meetings across India and specifically in Hyderabad. At the same time, leaders of “secular parties” like AAP and Congress preferred a more convenient “strategic silence”.

Also read: Ahead of Bihar Assembly Elections, Owaisi and Bhim Army Forge Dalit-Muslim Unity

In Delhi, Muslims strongly supported AAP to halt the overtly belligerent anti-Muslim rhetoric of the BJP. Despite AAP’s victory, Muslims suffered. In less than two weeks after the election results were announced, New Delhi witnessed the deadliest anti-Muslim riots since Partition. Many critics accused the AAP government of looking away while mobs were shooting and looting Muslim neighbourhoods in northeast Delhi. Some even accuse CM Kejriwal of toeing Amit Shah’s line. Aam Aadmi Party’s official stand on Shaheen Bagh now is that it was a BJP conspiracy.

Owaisi’s stance on CAA has not changed an inch. He has maintained that the law must be repealed and that all political prisoners be released. After the Delhi riots, he poignantly expressed the angst of all Indian Muslims in parliament. In Bihar, his vocal attacks on the anti-minority politics of the BJP forced the mahagathbandhan to break its silence on the CAA.

‘Development’, an unheard agenda in Seemanchal

Seemanchal, a Muslim-dominated area, always fall among the lowest in social development indices. Since Independence, it has mostly been represented by Congress, or in recent years by its allies like the RJD. Muslims in every election were given the responsibility to preserve secularism. They had to keep their developmental needs like school, roads, hospitals, and colleges aside by voting en masse for Congress and RJD. While they successfully rescued secularism, they never received any attention from the successive “secular” governments. The malaise was so bad that the “secular” parties did not even mention development during their campaigns. Muslims of Seemanchal were fed-up with the “BJP aa jayegi” blackmail.

Meanwhile, Owaisi focused his campaign on under-development. His “Seemanchal ko nyay” and promise of a better representation converted into votes, as did the anti-incumbency against representatives from mahagathbandhan. While development was a focal point in his speeches, he spoke in detail about CAA-NRC protests, rampant mob-violence, and the “unjust” Babri Masjid verdict. He frequently questioned the welcoming “soft-Hindutva” stand of Kamal Nath and Priyanka Gandhi on the Babri issue.

Asaduddin Owaisi, Bihar

AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi at a rally in Bihar’s Kishanganj. Photo: Asaduddinowaisi/Facebook

The avant-garde of minority rights in parliament

With the BJP giving an aggressive push to its Hindu nationalist agenda, “secular parties” have struggled to find a potent ideological response in the last six years. At times, they have chosen to strategically keep quiet when their voices were needed the most. Many have adopted their own version of “soft Hindutva”.

With Owaisi, be it chanting of particular national slogans or the issue of Babri demolition, unlike the Congress party, he has vehemently protested all these narrow litmus tests for national belonging. While the Congress supported the draconian UAPA in parliament, Owaisi warned that UAPA will be used indiscriminately against Muslims and political dissenters. In the past six years, many Muslims have faced violent attacks by extremist Hindu mobs on the pretext of ‘love jihad’, cow slaughter, forced chanting of Hindu slogans, and at times for merely appearing Muslim. “Secular parties” failed to stand by the Muslims. However, Owaisi has been consistent in calling out the government for its inability to prevent hate crimes against minorities and abetting them.

Also read: Bihar: What Worked in AIMIM’s Favour in Five Assembly Seats of Seemanchal?

Muslim voters are neither naïve nor radical. They want a sense of belonging too. “Secular parties” have failed to provide that. Owaisi’s passionate speeches and advocacy of minority rights had to sooner or later translate into votes. AIMIM’s exploits in Bihar mark the end of Congress’ monopoly over Muslim voters. This shall broaden the democratic agency of Muslims. They can now bargain more from these parties that have treated them like frightened cattle.

The use of terms like “vote cutter” or “B team” for a legitimate political party by another, is an insult not just to the democratic values but also to the independent agency of the voters. The constitutional right to contest in constituencies of choice is extended to all political parties, not just one.

Owaisi’s alliance with Upendra Kushwaha led RLSP, Mayawati’s BSP, and two other small parties demonstrates his intentions to expand his voter base to non-Muslims. Although AIMIM contested only on 20 seats, 5 out of its candidates were non-Muslims. Owaisi has cleared his intentions to contest in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh elections. If the “secular parties” have learned anything from Bihar, they won’t simply discredit Owaisi. As a party which can get in alliance with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra in the name of “preserving democracy” cannot digest the rise of aspirational Muslims, this reeks of nothing but insecurity and misplaced anger as it marks an end to the politics of “hostage secularism”.

Neel Madhav and Alishan Jafri are independent journalists. Neel, based in Khagaria, Bihar and observes day to day politics closely while Alishan, based in New Delhi writes on communalism and minorities.