It is not just the rival major formations RJD-led Mahagatbandhan( the Grand Alliance) or the Nitish Kumar-led NDA in Bihar that feel concerned over the prospects of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the ongoing state Assembly elections.
No less worried are Trinamool Congress(TMC) leaders in neighbouring west Bengal, despite having no direct stakes in the Bihar polls. The Telengana-based AIMIM leader Mr Asaduddin Owaisi MP has significantly expanded his party’s political outreach, notching up notable electoral victories in Maharashtra and Bihar in recent times .
He is well on course towards achieving his obvious ambition to become the undisputed national leader for Muslims in India.
Announcing his plans to contest the impending Assembly elections in Bengal in 2021 already, Mr. Owaisi has certainly put the proverbial cat among the ruling TMC pigeons.
For the moment though, public attention remains focused on the prospects of 32 AIMIM candidates who are contesting the first round Bihar assembly elections. Ten out of these 32 seats were won by Muslim candidates in the outgoing Assembly.
The AIMIM, which has often sponsored non Muslim candidates at times, chose to contest areas that had a sizable presence of Muslim voters, not unexpected in the communally polarised political culture in parts of Eastern India.
The most common allegation against the AIMIM and what it stands for originates from what may be broadly described as the secular political lobby/parties in India . It is suggested that by cutting into Muslim votes, the AIMIM eats into the traditional vote banks of pro-minority parties like the Congress, the RJD and the JD(U) in the Bihar context. This helps the BJP to win more seats and strengthen its position in the state.
It is like the AUDF in Assam whose snatch of Muslim votes helps BJP win by weakening the Congress .
There are two problems with such an assertion, regardless of its merits as a political argument. The first is that the familiar propensity of professedly ‘secular’ parties in India to regard especially the Muslims— and nobody else, neither the Sikhs nor Buddhists, etc— as some kind of immutable loyal support that will never, never vote for the BJP or other parties , is itself communally biased . Worse, in regarding a community that is over 200 million strong in present day India as their captive loyalists, ‘secular’ parties confirm their own tendencies towards exercising a brand of political overlordship.
Secondly, as Owaisi once explained, in recently winning the Aurangabad seat in Maharashtra, the AIMIM defeated the Shiv Sena candidate for the first time after 23 years . And who is to deny that the Sena does not stand for Hindutva and has it not been a consistent partner of the BJP in the bigger NDA coalition until recently ?
It is not surprising that both the competing RJD and the JD(U) parties, not to mention the Indian National Congress. are worried that the AIMIM’s foray into Bihar could well impact their prospects in a major, mostly negative way. Especially in seats that are closely contested and fortunes decided by very narrow margins AIMIM candidates could upset many apple carts.
Such apprehensions ignore the fact that the support enjoyed among Muslims by the Mr.Laloo Prasad Yadav-led RJD has proved ensuring over the years, since 1990 onwards. It all started with Mr. Yadav’s bold move to arrest former Union Home Minister and seniormost BJP leader Mr.L.K.Advani then campaigning for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodha and bring his much publicised Rath Yatra to a halt in Bihar. Since then, the consolidation of around 17% of Muslim votes and about 15% of Yadav votes in the state in favour of Mr Yadav had helped the RJD win power repeatedly in the state.
However, in recent times, Mr. Owaisi has also built up something of a following among Bihar voters. The Muslims have been impressed, according to Patna-based news reports, by his spirited opposition to the new CAA legislation passed recently in the Lok Sabha. Most Muslims feel the CAA is heavily biased against their interests, especially in comparison with the facilities promised for the majority Hindus. In addition unlike the RJD and other parties which did not do very well in recent years in improving the living standards of the Muslims, most of whom are compelled to work outside their own state as job seeking migrants , the AIMIM strongly calls for improving job prospects for educated Muslim youths and providing them with institutional support. This strikes a responsive chord among aspirant Muslim youths.
As for West Bengal, where the AIMIM has already announced plans for a mega rally in Kolkata in Jan 2021 to launch its election campaign, Owaisi has served notice that he will attack the ruling TMC more strongly than his opponents in Bihar. It is only in West Bengal that the poorest Muslims in India are found, Owaisi always declares in public meetings. Prevailing conditions in Bengal, what with the lack of new investments in the state and shrinking job opportunities , tend to confirm his assessment of the situation.
More importantly, in Bengal Owais’s criticism of the TMC and especially the shallow symbolism of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who chants “ Inshallah” and wears a hijab for reasons unknown in Muslim gatherings and functions , strikes the right chord not just among the critical voters among the Muslims, but it coincides with the views by middle class Hindus on such matters as well. His criticism is bound to find some resonance among non Muslims as well .
Most TMC leaders have gone on record suggesting that they are not scared of the political challenge posed either by the AIMIM, which is an unfamiliar formation for most people here or by the eminence and popularity enjoyed by Mr Owaisi personally. Over the years, the TMC’s roots among the Muslims who constitute around 28% of the state’s population has gone deep. It would be extremely difficult for the AIMIM or any other outfit to rock the foundations of such solid support, according to TMC Minister Firhad Hakim. His optimism is shared among other party colleagues.
Not everyone agrees. The same factor that bothers RJD or Congress leaders in Bihar, Is also at work in West Bengal . If Muslim votes are consolidated among Muslims, there is no doubt that dominant Hindu votes will go against it in 2021, mostly to the BJP. Between 2016 and 2019, while the TMC has gained additional support among Muslims, it has also lost around i8% of its support from the majority 70% of Hindus voters.
This means that even a marginal erosion in Muslim votes could seriously hurt the TMC”s chances in a razor-edge contest, such as the 2021 polls may well be. And contrary to the optimism expressed in public by TMC leaders, the Bengal police stands accused of arresting and otherwise harassing . district level AIMIM workers and leaders already. The allegedly partisan administration certainly seems to be taking the AIMIM seriously enough, according to Mr Zameerul Hasan ,President AIMIM, Bengal unit.
It is a strange bind for TMC. Target AIMIM and stand accused of harassing minorities but letting Owaisi have a free run is like allowing a defender come from behind and score a goal when all attention is on a Pele or a Maradona.