Sunday, 20 September 2015

THE TRUMP CARD

Asaduddin Owaisi - Facebook
Will he jump into the electoral fray, like he did in state elections to the Maharashtra state assembly in 2014 or will he stay away from it, leaving it for the two main coalitions to battle it out for the the all important state of Bihar? And if he does, what impact will it have on the prospects of the NDA and the JD-U led 'Mahagatbandhan' who are doing their best to drum up support in an electorate which as history suggests is divided along the lines of caste and religion, each fiercely loyal to one or the other outfit. The AIMIM president and the Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi put all the speculations to rest last week when he announced that his party would be nominating candidates from twenty four assembly seats in the Seemanchal region. With the controversial Muslim leader making his intentions clear in context of the upcoming state polls, political pundits are busy analyzing how Owaisi's decision would change the electoral fortunes in Bihar where the recent political realignment of forces has made the elections one of the most keenly contested battles since May 2014.

Owaisi - the new Messiah of the Muslims: While it might be extremely difficult to predict the impact of this move on the final outcome at this juncture, it is much easy to see why Owaisi arrived at this particular decision. Muslims, who are the AIMIM's target vote bank comprise of nearly 17 percent of the state's total population, most of whom are concentrated in the four districts in the state's north eastern region, the Seemanchal. Though it may lack grass root organization, the outfit is relying solely on the presence of such large percentage of Muslim voters as well as the appeal of its charismatic leader to open its account.

Of late, the Hyderabad MP has come in for a lot of flake for 'openly playing the minority card' with some even comparing him to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the man who is held responsible by many Indians for the partition of the sub-continent. I personally find a lot of hypocrisy in this argument. Mixing politics with religion is unfortunately one of the dark realities of our times and the AIMIM is certainly not the first party to do it. Right wing outfits including the BJP, the Shiv Sena and the Akalis have been wooing specific religious groups throughout their history. On the other hand, parties like the Congress, the RJD and the SP - the 'self-proclaimed' upholders of minority rights have done very little for their upliftment. The great irony of our political system is that the Muslims are seen as a vote bank that needs to be either offended or appeased to win elections, based on which side of the political divide you are on. As such, they continue to be one of the most neglected communities in the country today.

This is exactly where leaders like Owaisi are trying to pitch in so that they can leverage the situation. In his fiery and often provocative speeches, he also talks about development, elevation of poverty within the community and promises jobs for the youth. This is clearly striking a chord with younger Muslims who are fed up of being over looked by the parties for long.

Set back to the 'Secular' alliance: With the coming together of former rivals - Nitish, Lalu as well as the Congress, it was expected that the Muslim voters would consolidate in favor of the 'Mahagatbandhan' in its fight versus the Modi led NDA. Lalu was the darling of the Muslims ever since he stalled Lal Krishna Advani's Rath Yatra during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in the early nineties. It was on the basis of the M-Y combination that the RJD leader emerged as the pre-eminent political leader in Bihar. So dear was this community to his successor and former foe Nitish Kumar of the JD-U that he jeopardized his own political career in a bid to appease them after Narendra Modi was named the NDA's PM nominee in 2013, breaking off all ties with the BJP. Minority appeasement, even at the cost of hurting the interests of the majority has been a hallmark of the politics practiced by the grand old party for past six decades. As such, the alliance was poised to gain the most of the over 15 per cent minority votes.

This was before Owaisi decided to try his luck in Bihar. With the AIMIM contesting from the Seemanchal, there is no doubt that the Muslim outfit is going to eat into the vote share of the mega coalition, hurting its chances in areas where it was expected to sweep. It remains to be seen what impact the Hyderabad MP will have in a state where his party is debuting. However, the outcome of the Maharashtra state polls should be enough to give nightmares to the likes of Nitish and Lalu. In the elections to the western state's assembly held about an year ago, Owaisi nominated 26 candidates of which only two made the cut. At several segments, AIMIM candidates split the Muslim votes which would have otherwise gone to the Congress or the NCP, thereby helping the BJP. In a close contest like this one where every seat counts, the splitting of the minority votes could turn out to be the game changer, helping the NDA steal a march over the regional alliance.

Will BJP go into the 'Self destruction' mode? The general opinion seems to be that the entry of AIMIM should ultimately benefit the NDA since he will eat into the mega coalition's vote share. Though Owaisi has called Modi, the RSS and the BJP as his primary enemy, there are murmurs of a conspiracy theory suggesting a tacit understanding between the saffron outfit and the Hyderabad MP for mutual benefit. While we may not know the truth behind these rumors for the time being, it is important for the BJP and other elements within the Sangh Parivaar to hold their nerves and not get too carried away after this development.

The BJP and its affiliates should learn lessons from the UP assembly by-polls of 2014 held in the aftermath of the Muzzaffarnagar riots. It is but natural that in wake of making an impact, the Hyderabad MP and his brother Akbaruddin Owaisi are going to make provocative speeches. It will be in the interest of saffronists to stick to the development agenda and not indulge in counter-allegations. Loose canons within the party ranks, particularly the likes of Giriraj Singh who is seen as a potential contender for the post of state's CM in case the NDA wins the polls should exercise constraint. While managing party leaders might be easy, handling those from the RSS and the VHP will be an arduous task within itself. If communal tensions simmer, it is but natural for the Muslims to rally behind the party or the coalition which is most likely to keep the NDA out of power, which in this case is not the AIMIM but the Nitish-Lalu combine.