The Mainstreaming of Asaduddin Owaisi

Understanding the Owaisi phenomenon

By Tariq Hasan

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The Majlis-e-Itehad-ul-Muslimeen (MIM) was established in the Southern state of Hyderabad in the year 1927. It’s agenda was limited: to protect the Muslim subjects who were in a minority in the Niizam ruled state, from being swamped over by the resurgent forces of the Hindu Right.

After remaining totally restricted to the city of Hyderabad for more than eight decades, a leader of the MIM is creating ripples in the far off Northern states where most Muslims were not even aware of its existence till a couple of years back.

The recent announcement that Asad uddin Owaisi led MIM would be contesting the forthcoming elections to the State Assembly in Bihar, has set the cat among the pigeons. Till just about a week back, the Nitish – Lalu combination which is taking on Bhartiya Janta Party in this politically crucial state had been confident that with the solid support of the Muslim electorates they would successfully ward off the challenge of the Modi led BJP (Muslims form just about 20% of the total electorate of that politically sensitive state).

Within a span of the few months, Owaisi has managed to scramble up onto the main stage of the Muslim national politics. The speed with which this has happened, has surprised both his friends and foes. The fact is that this suave English speaking politician has managed to capture the attention of the Muslim audience essentially because he is articulating their fears and grievances at a time when the rest of the Muslim leadership is maintaining an ominous silence.

Now, Owaisi seems to have thrown a spanner in the wheels of the ambitions of Nitish Kumar, the incumbent Chief Minister of Bihar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who appeared to be on the defensive regarding his party’s poll prospects till a week back, seems to have received a shot in his arm.

Is the BJP’s optimism on this score justified?

It is difficult to deny that Owaisi’s foray in Bihar is likely to give advantage to the BJP on two scores. Firstly, Owaisi’s entry in the campaign would without any doubt polarise the campaign along communal lines. This naturally would come to the advantage of the BJP which thrives in such surcharged situations. Secondly, even if the MIM secures a very marginal section of the Muslim vote, it would be enough to serve as a spoiler since winning margins in Assembly contests tend to be low.

The question hotly being debated in Muslim political circles is whether Owaisi’s brand of identity politics is harming the broader genuine interest of Indian Muslims or is he just another symptom of the wider problem of the politics of divisiveness? Is he the problem or a product of the deeper malaise?

It is quite clear that by jumping into the poll fray, Owaisi has taken a calculated risk, if when the final score cards are read after the conclusion of the Bihar polls, it is found that Owaisi has ended up nearly as a vote spoiler and has in fact indirectly helped the BJP to gain power in that state, it is bound to dent his image as a champion of Muslim rights.

Already there are strong murmurs within the Muslim intelligentsia regarding the fall out of what they apprehend is going to be a vitriolic divisive and communally polarising election campaign in Bihar in the next few months. They strongly feel that any attempt to inject communal rhetoric in the poll campaign will only strengthen the BJP’s ongoing efforts to harvest the outcome of nearly two years of communal politics of hate.

Reacting sharply to Owaisi’s decision to plunge into the electoral fray in Bihar, former Rajya Sabha member, Mohd. Adeeb, a very outspoken Muslim leader from Uttar Pradesh, in a statement said, “This is a clear attempt to sabotage the janata Parivar’s ongoing efforts to consolidate the anti-BJP forces in the country” Adeeb said that “this is true that the secular forces have yet to deliver on the issue of minority entitlements, but one thing should be clearly understood – extremism can never be checked by counter extremism. It was Mohammad Ali Jinnah who, in the past adopted this strategy and see where it has landed all of us in the subcontinent”.

A few months back, a young upwardly mobile Hindu businessman raised some troubling queries to me. The two questions were:

Firstly, why was the rabidly fundamentalist Islamic state in the Middle East drawing such wide support among Muslim youth the world over including India?

Secondly, why was Owaisi becoming popular among Muslims all over India when he was taking resort to communal rhetoric?

I normally avoid discussions which produce more heat and less light. But this time I proceeded to carefully answer both these troubling questions because the questioner was a friend of my son and was earnestly searching for answers.

I took a deep breath and offered a detailed explanation for these vexed questions.

I pointed out that a majority of Muslims the world over, especially in India, were deeply upset by the senseless destruction caused by groups like the Islamic State. After all, ninety percent of the damage was being inflicted on fellow Muslims themselves. Almost half the Muslim world extending from the borders of Turkey right up to Pakistan was aflame with internal strife.

I further explained that following more than a century of Colonial interventions in the Arab world, the youth there was not only bitterly frustrated but was now consumed by an impotent rage against the west. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 by forcibly ejecting those who had occupied for those lands for centuries something which shook their basic pride as human individuals.

India with nearly twenty crore Muslims was very much on the radar of Muslim fundamentalist groups like the Islamic State. They had still not been able to make any headway not because of any other reason but for the fact that ninety nine percent of Indian Muslims are Deobandis, Barelivis or Shiaites. All these schools of thought are vehemently opposed to the Salafi school of thought which is the ideology of the Islamic State. Ironically, the Salafi – Wahabi school of thought is totally propagated and patronised by the state of Saudi Arabia, the staunchest ally of the USA – Israel Axis.

I however cautioned him by pointing out that if the communally surcharged atmosphere which has been thriving in India for the past couple of years or so is allowed to simmer through the politics of hate then it would provide fodder to the cannon of Islamic fundamentalism. Some recent statements by leaders of Shiv Sena and the RSS were just the sort of medicine which would be prescribed by the ideologues of the Islamic state. They are thrilled with joy when the Shiv Sena calls to Hindus to prepare themselves for becoming human bombs.

The second question however is of immediate concern to us.

My answer was very simple. Trace the popularity graph of Owaisi among Muslims and then compare it with the popularity graph of Narendra Modi over the same period. The picture is startlingly similar. Owaisi’s popularity amongst mainland Muslims has risen in direct proportion to the popularity of Narendra Modi amongst Hindus.

The past three years have witnessed a sharp rise in communal polarisation in the country. The communal riots in Assam in 2012 were followed by a spate of violent incidents in Uttar Pradesh culminating in the infamous riots in Muzaffarnagar.

Following the formation of the Bhartiya Janata Party led Government at the centre in June 2014 for a brief span hopes arose that the communal rhetoric which had marked the run up to the 2014 Parliamentary Elections would fade away. However, within weeks all such hopes evaporated and the political discourse took a turn for the worse. The politics of polarisation became sharper.

Beneath the surface calm, another troubling issue was coming to the fore. The confidence of the members of the Muslim community in the justice delivery system was being sharply eroded. Some of the fears of the Muslim Minority may be perceived and exaggerated but the sum and substance of the matter is that they are growing.

These disturbing developments come at a time when the representation of Muslims in Parliament and the state legislatures is at an all time low. In other words the political leadership of the Muslim community is in a pathetic shape. In the nineteen eighties and nineties when the Ayodhya controversy broke out, there were a plethora of Muslim leaders at different ends of the firmament.

All shades of Muslim opinion found resonance in the legislature. If there were hard liners like Ahmad Bukhari at one end then there was an Arif Mohammad Khan at the other end. The community was under stress but it did have a voice at the national level.

In sharp contrast today there is no Muslim voice worth the name to articulate the genuine concerns of the Community.

At this critical juncture enter Barrister Asad uddin Owaisi. Articulate, urbane, western educated and above all with his hands on the pulse of the Muslim community. There is a political vacuum, an empty space and Owaisi is trying to just slide in.

In recent months, whenever the electronic media needs a Muslim face to articulate Muslim viewpoint- who else do they chose to speak up? In short he has been turned into the “sole spokesman”.

If Hindu communalism has pushed Owaisi to the centre stage of Muslim politics, then the secular parties too cannot escape unscathed. Instead of nurturing grass root level politicians from among their Muslim supporters they choose to prop up dummy leaders who can be used as puppets or showpieces. At the national level, can even the great Congress Party pint out a single Muslim leader who not only has a substantive base vote but also carries the courage of conviction to speak out boldly on all issues pertaining to Minorities. If secular parties fail to be build up a strong Muslim leadership which is able to deliver then who is to blame if Owaisi emerges tall?

At the end of all this, the question remains – will Owaisi end up as a spoiler or will be just a hot air balloon – easy to fly and easier to blow up?

Time and again we have seen that the voter in Bihar, while easy to sway on caste considerations, also displays an uncanny political horse sense. If their political antenna indicates that Owaisi will only end up as a spoiler without securing any substantive number of seats in the Assembly, they are likely to give him a wide berth. It all depends on the way in which the slick operator Lalu Prasad Yadav plays his cards. He is the single leader in the cow belt who knows the pulse of the Muslim voter.

It is quite clear that Owaisi is going to draw large crowds during his campaign speeches in Bihar because of his oratorical skills which always succeed in touching a raw nerve in Muslim audiences. Whether these gatherings would translate into votes, remains a moot question.

On the other hand, it is also true that the BJP is not going to pull any punches in helping Owaisi’s campaign gather momentum.

What is very clear is that the campaign for the Bihar Assembly elections is going to witness a very interesting display in which all the nuances of minority politics in India will be sharply tested.

Tariq Hasan is an Aligarh-based veteran journalist and author of the books The Aligarh Movement and the making of Indian Muslims mind published in 2005 and Colonialism and the Call to Jihad in British India published in 2015.