A familiar criticism has once again been levelled at the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) as it plans to expand its electoral base by making its debut in assembly elections to Gujarat, Karnataka and Rajasthan: that the party is helping the BJP by fragmenting the vote bases of other parties.
In the recent bypoll to the Gopalganj assembly segment in Bihar, the BJP candidate managed to pip the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s candidate by a margin smaller than 2,000 votes. Political observers have noted that AIMIM’s candidate Abdus Salam – a little-known leader – garnered more than 12,000 votes.
Gopalganj district has a Muslim population of 17.02% and the AIMIM – which draws its base almost exclusively from the community – had no chance to win the poll. When the party fielded its candidate, many political observers believe it was to take a share of votes from the RJD’s traditional voter base.
The Asaduddin Owaisi-led party’s decision to contest the Gopalganj bypoll was also in contrast to its strategy in the 2020 Bihar assembly polls. At the time, it contested 20 seats, half of which have either a majority Muslim population or a sizeable presence of the community. Also, unlike Abdus Salam, several of the candidates it put up then are seasoned politicians, some of whom had been elected as legislators from other parties.
In various assembly elections – excluding its home state of Telangana – that have been held since 2014, the AIMIM had fielded candidates in over 500 constituencies. In an overwhelming number of them, the party never had the chance to win because the Muslim community constituted only a small minority.
It won only two seats each in the 2014 and 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections and five in Bihar in 2020 – although four of them crossed over to the RJD in June this year. One AIMIM MLA won the Kishanganj by-poll in Bihar in October 2019.
So out of over 500 seats that the poll outside Telangana, the party could win only 10. In the rest, it lost disastrously and has been accused by parties like the Congress of cutting into its votes and aiding the BJP.
Understanding AIMIM’s strategy
For understanding the political strategy of this Hyderabad-based party, one will have to go back to its history when it even extended an olive branch to the Congress in the post-Babri Masjid demolition years.
In 1993, the party faced a split when some influential leaders parted ways with then-party chief Salahuddin Owaisi (Asaduddin’s father), accusing him of having a “secret understanding” with then-prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. The leaders formed the Majlis Bachao Tehreek, saying Rao’s inaction was just as responsible for the demolition of the Babri masjid as the karsewaks who pulled it down.
As it cosied up to the Congress, the Hyderabad-based party was facing an enormous challenge after the emergence of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), first under N.T. Rama Rao and later his son-in-law, Chandrababu Naidu. In the 1994 Andhra Pradesh assembly election, the TDP won 226 seats out of the 294 on offer and the Congress only 26. The AIMIM’s tally was just one, down from four in the previous election. Incidentally, the newly-formed Majlis Bachao Tahreek did better, winning two seats.
AIMIM’s long friendship with the same secular Congress continued till 2012, that is just two years before the advent of Narendra Modi and hewing out of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh. The arrest of Asaduddin’s younger brother Akbaruddin Owaisi in a hate speech case was one of the reasons behind relations fraying.
The party strongly opposed the creation of Telangana, but suddenly changed its stand. To avoid further embarrassment, it has since supported the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) – which was formed with the sole purpose of achieving statehood for the region.
Why doesn’t AIMIM expand within Telangana?
Although AIMIM has plans to expand across the country, it has surprised many that the party has not attempted to grow within Telangana. For several decades, it restricted itself to eight seats in the Old City area of Hyderabad.
There are many assembly constituencies in districts of Telangana like Nizamabad, Medak, Adilabad, Mehboobnagar and Karimnagar where Muslims form a substantial population. The community constitutes 15.35%, 11.29%, 10.07%, 8.24% and 6.48% respectively in these five districts. In urban centres of these districts, the proportion is even higher. In over one-fourth of the 119 assembly seats in Telangana, Muslims form enough population to make or mar the prospect of any party.
Yet the AIMIM does not field any candidate outside the eight seats in the Old City of Hyderabad. In the last assembly polls in 2018, the party supported the TRS in all 111 remaining seats. The situation is likely to be the same when the state votes again next year.
In contrast, it has put up candidates in assembly elections in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Now, it has decided to fight in 30 seats in Gujarat, almost all considered as strongholds of the Congress party. In many of these assembly segments, Muslims constitute a smaller percentage of the population than they do in Telangana. Muslims are 12.7% of the population in Telangana, which is higher than in Gujarat (9.7%) and Maharashtra (11.54%).
The AIMIM has announced that it would fight in 100 seats in the 2023 assembly election of Karnataka, where Muslims form 12.92% of the population. In 2018, it supported the candidates of Janata Dal (Secular).
Though Muslims constitute only 9% of the population in Rajasthan, Owaisi had in May last year announced that his party will “go all out” in the December 2023 election.
By Owaisi’s logic, the TRS is the biggest champion of the Muslim cause while parties like the RJD, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party and others have “cheated” the Muslim community. That is why AIMIM has fought tooth and nail against them.
A pragmatic decision?
Perhaps the pragmatic reason behind Owaisi’s support for the TRS in Telangana is to prevent a surge in the BJP’s popularity in the state. The saffron party won four out of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana in 2019 and has positioned itself as the principal challenge to chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao.
In the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election held in December 2020, the BJP did exceedingly well to cut the strength of TRS from 99 last time to 56. The saffron party’s figure jumped from four to 48. The AIMIM managed to retain its tally of 44 seats.
In the past too, the AIMIM – as a very small party whose pinnacle was to have two MPs and 10 MLAs – has had to make pragmatic decisions to shift political allegiances for its survival. It had a tacit understanding with parties in power, whether in states or at the Centre.
In March 2022, its Aurangabad MP Imitiaz Jaleel offered to support the Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra – which was turned down.
In Bihar too, its state unit chief, Akhtar-ul-Iman, its lone MLA, misses no opportunity to claim that the AIMIM supports the Grand Alliance government led by Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav – even though the parties do not need his support.
So if the AIMIM is really facilitating the BJP’s victories in many states, as critics and opponents allege, such moves can be seen as part of its long-term political investment. The party wants to send the right signals to the saffron brigade and may cash in on it in the future.
It is natural for Owaisi to come down heavily on the so-called “secular parties” because it is only from these parties that he can expect to get votes and the AIMIM cannot dream of wooing any BJP voters. An argument can be made, however, that the saffron party’s Hindu consolidation agenda drives the reverse consolidation of Muslims towards the AIMIM.
It is another thing that AIMIM has openly allied with the same secular parties in the past and most of its legislators outside Hyderabad had started their political careers in parties like the Congress and the RJD. During the 2019 assembly poll in Jharkhand, the state unit president was the son of a very influential Congress minister of the past. Yet, during the campaign, he was heard hurling all sorts of abuses at the “secular parties”.
Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.