Despite being a more than 50-year-old party, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has very little to showcase in concrete statistical terms of the number of MPs and MLAs it has managed to elect, compared to other regional parties. The party had failed to extend its influence outside its home turf of Hyderabad and was also unable to increase the number of MPs in the lower house of the parliament.
However, since Asaduddin Owaisi took over the reins of the party, it has shown considerable progress. In last year’s Maharashtra assembly election, AIMIM managed to win two seats in the state assembly and has won half the seats in the Aurangabad Municipal Election. After this success outside Hyderabad, Owaisi is now eyeing forthcoming assembly elections in West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. While he has expressed his desire to contest the upcoming Bihar assembly elections, it is his plan for the UP elections that appears an interesting prospect.
In Maharashtra assembly elections, AIMIM succeeded in grabbing around 0.9% vote on the strength of a Muslim-Dalit combination. In the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly election in 2017, this Muslim-Dalit combination can assist him to compete with other parties such as the BSP that have worked on similar social engineering before. UP is home to more than 18% Muslims and 20% Dalits. Also, it must be underscored that there are around four dozen assembly seats where this combination can play a major role in winning. The AIMIM knows well that it has much to gain from this combination and that is one of the reasons why Owaisi has put UP on his electoral radar.
As far as the Samajwadi Party (SP) is concerned, its major support comes from the OBC community. Among the different sections of the OBC, the Yadavs form SP’s strongest support base. In addition, a large number of Muslims in the state started backing Mualayam Singh’s party, especially after the demolition of Babri Masjid. The BSP, too, has staked its claims to Muslims votes, while retaining a strong hold over its traditional base of Dalit voters. However, the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 saw these combinations go for a tailspin as electorates voted en masse cutting across caste and, to an extent, communal lines, for the BJP.
Fixing his gaze on 2017 Assembly election, Owaisi has already set up city-wide committees and has appointed functionaries in charge of these committees.
The Muslim community in UP is split over their support for Owaisi. While a part of the community is ready to endorse him whole-heartedly and eager to welcome his party as one more option, another part of the Muslim community is skeptical about him and openly expresses its reservation when they claim that the Owaisi brothers are the RSS-deployed puppets, who will merely benefit the BJP by dividing secular votes. Besides these allegations, some Muslims claim that the AIMIM’s entry would communally polarize the election and can trigger riots in the state. Huma, a resident of Rampur, UP, asked tersely, “What has he done for Muslims even in his own constituency? He will merely split Muslim votes and nothing beside this.” She continued, “Many other Muslims hold the same view and don’t want Owaisi to extend his party here.”
On the contrary, there is large proportion in the community that sees in Owaisi a future leader and doesn’t hesitate to throw their weight behind his political ideology. “What have so-called secular parties done for Muslim? Whenever the community faces any problem, it’s the Owaisi brothers who come to solve them, either by raising them at the national forum or by helping financially. He speaks for us even in the Parliament,” continued Saood, a B.Sc. student, “When the constitution grants freedom to the minorities to form their own political parties, what’s wrong with the AIMIM?” These supporters of Owaisi further claim that he is often misquoted in order to project him as anti-Hindu. The reality is, they add, that Owaisi has no record of instigating communal violence and, in the past, he has spoken in favor of other marginalized groups such as the Kashmiri Pandits and extended help to the flood victims in Uttarakhand.
The AIMIM has already faced considerable amounts of hardship in the state as around half a dozen of Asaduddin Owaisi’s rallies have been cancelled by the state government. The SP government in Uttar Pradesh is determined to bar him entry to the state because of its fear of losing Muslim votes to a more politically vocal champion of the Muslim community. After cancelling his rally in the city, the Allahabad District Magistrate, Bhavnath Singh, said that the rally was stopped because “the proposed locations have a mixed population comprising Hindus and Muslims. In the past, he (Owaisi) has given inflammatory speeches. Considering the possibility of breach of peace, we can’t give permission for the rally.”
While responding to these bans against him, Owaisi did not disappoint and responded in his characteristic fashion, “When I am allowed to speak in the parliament, so why have I not been given permission to speak in the state?” He accused that there is a deep nexus between the ruling Samajwadi Party and the BJP ruling at centre to keep him out of the state and fool Muslims. He also lashed out at the state government on other occasions and said, “Eleven of my party meetings have been canceled because of lack of permission but we are committed to contest the 2017 assembly election in UP.” His debut in the 2017 assembly elections may make the electoral battle more interesting. The AIMIM’s strategy would be to snatch away as many Muslim votes from the ruling SP as possible.
Few Dalit organizations in Maharashtra have supported his slogans of ‘JAI BHEEM, JAI MEEM” in a show of unity between Dalits and Muslims. However, unlike in Maharashtra, the party has managed to get endorsement from a handful of Dalit groups and intellectuals in Uttar Pradesh. While parts of Muslims are supportive of AIMIM, other communities are not ready to welcome Owaisi’s entry to UP. Even a section of secular forces sees him as a Muslim version of the RSS, which will harm the prospect of secular forces. “Even if he succeeds in performing his best, he will merely secure around 10 seats and benefit the BJP more. What welfare will he do with so few numbers? Owaisi brothers must think from this perspective,” argued Ankur, another resident of Rampur.
So far the Indian media’s attitude to Owaisi has been ambivalent as the mainstream newspapers have oscillated between two poles: sometimes comparing him with other hate-mongers and, at other times, seeking him out as the voice of Muslims.
As far as Asadduin Owaisi’s political career is concerned, it has so far been clean of corruption. His speeches are generally well-received and sometimes sound like a religious sermon to the youth. He has refrained from making provocative comments, unlike his younger brother, Akbaruddin Owaisi. While he has gained acceptance from a part of the Muslim population, his party would be more acceptable to a larger swathe of Muslims if he could position his concerns for Muslims within the mainstream political imaginary. In a recent press conference in Bangalore, Owaisi acknowledged as much when he said that his party has been wrongly identified as a Muslim-only party. In the coming days, he would have to further work on an image makeover to plant AIMIM firmly in the national imagination.
Whatever be the outcome of 2017 UP assembly election, Owaisi’s entry to electoral battle in the state is already scaring the BSP and the SP. It will certainly give Muslims and Dalits in UP another viable option to bank their hopes on.
-SYED KAMRAN ALI (Cafe Dissensus)