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In fact: The importance (or lack of it) of Asaduddin Owaisi in Bihar

The criticism of AIMIM helping the BJP is something the party has faced several times before. In fact, at several forums, Owaisi himself has answered questions about his entry being beneficial for the BJP.

Written by Abantika Ghosh |
September 15, 2015 12:16:27 am
Bihar elections, AIMIM Bihar polls, Asaduddin owaisi, owaisi Bihar, Bihar polls AIMIM, Asaduddin Owaisi

With 24 seats, the Seemanchal region accounts for less than 10 per cent of the seats in the Bihar Assembly but the political importance of the region can be told from the vehemence with which parties on both sides of the political divide have reacted to the decision of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) to contest from here. Their reaction is also a grudging acknowledgment of the ability of AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi to kick up a divisive storm, which, at its most potent, could end up disrupting the very caste equations that have for long been the backbone of election strategy in Bihar.

Once the religious divide gets firmed up, caste tends to become a secondary consideration and that is what is worrying the “secular forces”.

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BJP has mostly been dismissive of Owaisi and his politics though in a rare and candid admission, MoS (independent charge) Commerce and Industries Nirmala Sitharaman recently said at an Idea Exchange session that Owaisi contesting Bihar is good for the BJP because his identity politics would make the BJP’s promise of good governance stand out.

She was essentially saying what her opponents have been saying for long — that Owaisi’s entry benefits the BJP — though their logic is far removed from the BJP’s election war cry of “good governance”. They say that Owaisi will end up splitting the Muslim votes and that’s just what the BJP would want.

Whether or not Owaisi sticks to his style of politics — delivering firebrand speeches like he and his brother, AIMIM legislator Akbaruddin Owaisi, do in public meetings in the party stronghold of Hyderabad — his entry will certainly put pressure on the mahagathbandhan or the Grand Alliance of JD(U), RJD and Congress. (Akbaruddin, the younger of the Owaisi brothers has in the past been arrested for his hate speech. Soon after the NDA victory last year, Owaisi had slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his “anti-Muslim” sentiments.)

The criticism of AIMIM helping the BJP is something the party has faced several times before. In fact, at several forums, Owaisi himself has answered questions about his entry being beneficial for the BJP.

On the AIMIM website, the post announcing the party’s Bihar plans is headlined: “In Asaduddin Owaisi’s Bihar War Cry, A Worry For Anti-BJP Alliance…!!!” It goes on to say: “This could turn out to be a spoiler for the anti-BJP ‘Grand Alliance’, comprising the JD(U), RJD and Congress, for whom the Muslim vote forms a critical part of their support base. Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), for instance, rode to power thrice on the consolidation of what was referred to as the ‘M-Y Factor’.”

That Owaisi is bad news for Lalu is an axiom. For the former Bihar chief minister whose rustic one-liners are as much a crowd-puller as his caste calculations, this is a make or break election — one last attempt to remain relevant in Bihar politics or risk fading into oblivion. With his political clout dependent on a Muslim-Yadav consolidation, an electoral incursion from far off Hyderabad, almost out of nowhere, is threatening to upset the Muslim applecart that the Grand Alliance had hoped to ride on.

As per the religion data of Census 2011, this is how the Muslim population in Seemanchal stacks up — Araria has 42.95% Muslims, Purnea has 38.46%, Katihar has 44.47% and Kishanganj, the only district in the area which shares an international boundary with Bangladesh, 67.98% Muslims. The 24 Assembly seats that the four districts together account for include Katihar, Barari, Pranpur, Manihari, Kishanganj, Bahadurganj, Kochadhaman, Araria, Forbesganj, Raniganj, Purnea and Kasba. Had Owaisi not been in the picture — and even with SP and NCP walking out the alliance – the mahagathbandhan had been cautiously hopeful of making some gains in the region. That is not a certainty any more and even if AIMIM’s own kitty remains small, or even empty — in Maharashtra last year, it won two seats — its effect on Bihar elections will be disproportionate to its organisation on the ground.

It will not be easy for Owaisi, though. In fact, it is believed that one of the reasons he took so long to announce his Bihar outing is his concerns about whether he would be able to straddle differences in culture and language. But now that he is in, the Grand Alliance will have to watch out.

Ironically, the AIMIM campaign in the state will be spearheaded by a man who had once withdrawn from the poll fray, saying he didn’t want to cause a division of Muslim votes. Days before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, then JD(U) candidate Akhtarul Iman had withdrawn his candidature from the Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat in favour of Congress candidate Asrarul Haque, saying that the need of the hour was to defeat the BJP and division of “secular” votes would not serve that purpose.

Haque won the election, one of only two Congress MPs from Bihar. As president of the AIMIM’s Bihar unit, will Iman preside over a whole organisation that will end up helping the BJP?

abantika.ghosh@expressindia.com

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