Can Skull cap and Beard of Owaisi provide an Alternative to the Dilapidated Existence of Muslim voters?
In the recent elections held for the Bihar Assembly, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won five assembly constituencies in the Seemanchal region. These five seats, in the pool of Bihar Assembly’s 243 seats are nothing but the political upheaval after the elections has intensified the worth of every seat.
This election has unveiled the dark side of Indian politics and political parties all over again. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) under Tejaswi Yadav emerged as the largest party with 75 seats. However, the alliance in the opposition of RJD’s Mahagathbandhan - National Democratic Alliance (NDA) claimed maximum seats crossing the magical number of 122 with a very thin margin of three MLAs.
What surfaces as an interesting factor in the election is the five-seat win of AIMIM and its after effects in the region. The blame game and accusations on the defeat of many candidates from the Mahagathbandhan, especially in the Seemanchal region have been burdened on Owaisi and his party’s candidatures. Congress carried forward the trend of calling Owaisi the ‘vote-cutter’ and the ‘B-team’ of the BJP. The problems in the losing candidates and their weak policy visions, and how to reinvent themselves are not debated in the media with the same vigour as the political discourse focussed on Owaisi and his party-politics.
Caste Politics and Minority Politics
Indian politics has a vibrant history of caste politics being embraced in mainstream politics. If we dissect caste and religion, they both are the ascriptive identities of the population. Different treatments these two identities receive in political secularism is worth an exploration. Why does the Bahujan Samaj Party or Samajwadi Party finds it easier to be a party of major alliances in elections than AIMIM? It is vital to decoding the working of AIMIM in this election where it reflected political maturity and while seeking votes it remained focussed on the developmental issues of the Seemanchal region. The focus in their rallies was on lack of economic prosperity, education, health facilities and so on. Conversely, it is a political congregation where Muslims play a hegemonic role and carefully crafted was the message of the party to the Muslims to get together and give a fight to the ‘others’ in the ‘us-them’ dichotomisation.
Nonetheless, the unacceptability of a Muslim-majority party in the political matrix of the day exposes lack of social and political trust in the community. The acronym MY (Muslim-Yadav) is a fashion icon in the political story of northern India, particularly the central-eastern regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But in this equation Yadavs seem to take the maximum advantage of this political marriage with the Muslims. One of the major reasons for their success is traced to the emergence and acceptance of RJD under Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Samajwadi Party under Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. On one hand, political initiatives of the confident Yadavs are still paying-off in both UP and Bihar. Muslims, on the other hand, have stabilised themselves with the role of supporters or side-actors. In this scheme, Owaisi with his active role in giving voice to the needs of the Muslims, without restricting within the umbrella-package of other distressed communities, was bound to generate a political tsunami in the status-quo.
The reason for the political figures to get uncomfortable with the reality of a minority leader providing a political alternative to the 14% population of Muslims in the present day India can be easily decoded. Being an ‘insider’, he is better equipped in articulating the aspirations of the Muslims and this formulation is to negatively affect the Y-factor of the MY combination. The winning-seat mathematics of this election fails to hide the embarrassing reality in Bihar where Yadavs - comprising 14% of the population are sending 57 MLAs to the Assembly while the Muslims with their 17% population are presently sending only 19 (down from 24 in 2015).
The saddening truth in the story is the portrayal of the growth of a single Muslim-majority party – AIMIM. It is all the more upsetting for the ones favouring the alliance of the suppressed groups against the intimidating upper-caste power politics of the region to now be aware that Owaisi exhibited an interest in being a part of the Mahagatbandhan even before the elections. However, his initiation fell on deaf ears. This exposes the suspicion amongst mainstream politicians to allow a Muslim an equal position when he has learnt to stand without their help.
The question to ask is the actual meaning of secularism in politics. Caste and religions are almost similar ways of expressing and relating to one’s identity. Caste politics takes us automatically to the plight of lower caste people. Similarly, religious politics is not to be confused with encouragement to majoritarian dominance. However, it is to be understood as a means to present problems of religious minorities. Political secularism as a concept needs evolution in order to practise what it preaches so that it ceases to be used as a tactful political tool whose burden is borne mostly by the Muslims when they are manipulated to accept the leadership of ‘others’ and be satisfied with a ‘supporting role’.
Nevertheless, the topsy-turvy reality of political life in the country makes it mandatory for the Muslims to realise the worth of their collective voting. Despite their trust in Congress, their situations have not considerably improved which inspires them to establish a strong political alternative. However, they are not disillusioned that this solo Muslim flight can claim them political majority. What can be expected of such a development is enhancement in their bargaining power in the mainstream political representation. It can elevate their position from being political audience to political actors. Avoiding responsibilities and continuing with their politically apathetic and subservient behaviour can be continued only at their own fatal costs.
In this debate, the importance of Owaisi’s skull cap and beard find a renewed meaning for the Muslim population. The struggle is to find out how well the party can exploit the present-day distressing circumstances to gain maximum benefits. The challenge for the party is also to offer a more inclusive alternative to the oppressed communities, barring the religious divide. The humungous task ahead demands from the party to target those sections which can pay it off well in electoral terms.
Among Muslims, women and youth are the lucrative options that can assist in the development of the party on the one hand, and the power of the Muslims as a whole on the other. Muslim men are mostly co-opted by mainstream politics and they have settled with their secondary positions. However, the energetic youth and educated women can prove a turning point to the community’s success and Owaisi has not been shying away in acknowledging the support he has received from women in the five constituencies where his candidates have won. West Bengal is the next battle ground to assess AIMIM and the Muslim-politics.