The Muslim community’s loss of faith in secular parties is fuelling the AIMIM’s rise

The Congress held a rally in Mumbai in the run-up to Maharashtra's assembly elections, which were conducted on 21 October. Yet, the election results revealed that the Muslims community’s growing disenchantment with the grand old party’s soft Hindutva is pushing them to look for alternatives from their own community. Rafiq Maqbool/AP
05 November, 2019

The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s performance in the recently concluded assembly elections in Maharashtra signals a change in the political behaviour of Muslims, who traditionally shunned outfits primarily anchored in their community. Their preference had instead been for parties that commanded a heterogeneous social base, such as the Congress and regional entities. This collective, yet amorphous, strategy had been driven by a specific purpose—to deny the Bharatiya Janata Party an opportunity to capture power. The BJP has attempted to consolidate the Hindu vote by exploiting the majority community’s historical fear of a Muslim party—a legacy of the Partition and the Muslim League’s role in it.

In state assembly elections, however, a significant number of Muslims voted for the AIMIM. This enabled the party to expand the base it had acquired in Maharashtra in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and make inroads into the Hindi heartland in assembly by-elections, held simultaneously with the Maharashtra elections, on 21 October. This could well be a harbinger of Muslims deserting the Congress and regional outfits—such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Nationalist Congress Party—which depend on the community’s support for their electoral heft.

This shift in the electoral preferences of Muslims is evident in Maharashtra, where the AIMIM won two seats, Dhule City and Malegaon Central, and came second in four out of the 44 seats it contested. The party polled 1.34 percent of the total votes cast in the state’s 288 constituencies. In 2014, the AIMIM had fielded candidates from 24 constituencies and won two seats, Aurangabad Central and Byculla, came second in three and polled 0.93 percent of the total votes cast.

The AIMIM’s performance in 2019 has to be analysed in the backdrop of the Congress-NCP and the BJP-Shiv Sena alliances—all four parties had fought the 2014 elections independently. It implies that in this year’s assembly elections, the AIMIM had to neutralise the pull of the Congress-NCP alliance on Muslims as well as cross a higher threshold of votes to notch victories, in what was essentially a bipolar contest.

In this context, the AIMIM’s performance was astonishing. It secured between 30,000 and 40,000 votes in four constituencies; between 40,000 and 50,000 in three; above 50,000 in two and above a lakh in one. In Dhule City, the AIMIM increased its tally from 3,775 votes in 2014 to 46,679 in 2019; in Malegaon Central, from 21,050 in 2014 to 1,17,242 in 2019. It could not retain Aurangabad Central, but polled 6,482 votes more than in 2014. Similarly, the Shiv Sena wrested Byculla from the AIMIM, yet the latter bagged 5,843 more votes here than it did in 2014.

The two alliances seem to have undermined the AIMIM’s chances in Byculla, which prompted Nadeem Nusrath, a former national secretary of the Indian Youth Congress, to quip to me, “Our argument that the AIMIM splits the anti-BJP votes can be flung at us.” He said that the “AIMIM can very well argue that had the Congress withdrawn from Byculla, its sitting MLA could have won the seat.” The Shiv Sena won Byculla by polling 51,180 votes; the AIMIM bagged 31,157 and the Congress 24,139.

The Congress-NCP alliance seems to have cut into the AIMIM’s votes in several constituencies in this election when compared to the party’s 2014 tally. For instance, in Nanded South, the AIMIM’s tally dropped to 20,122 votes in 2019 from 34,590 in 2014. In Parbhani, the party secured 22,741 votes in 2019, a significant drop from its 2014 count of 45,058. In Mumbadevi, the party clocked 6,373 votes this year compared to 16,165 in 2014. Yet, Nanded South and Parbhani suggest that the AIMIM has built a core of supporters who do not vote for parties considered as an alternative to the BJP.

The AIMIM’s performance had other significant features. The party made a stunning debut in Balapur, where its candidate bagged 44,507 votes, well over double of what the NCP polled. Out of the AIMIM’s 44 candidates, 12 were non-Muslim. Although it is often identified as a Muslim party, its president, Asaduddin Owaisi, has emphasised upon building a social alliance between Muslims, Dalits and the Other Backward Classes. In Aurangabad West, a Scheduled Caste constituency, the AIMIM’s candidate, Arun Vitthlrao Borde, bagged 39,366 votes and came third. In the Kurla reserved constituency, Ratnakar D Davare bagged over 17,000 votes.

These results should make the Congress and regional outfits nervous about the AIMIM. Increasing Muslim consolidation behind the AIMIM could well inspire the disempowered groups among Dalits and OBCs to flock to Owaisi. The party won its first-ever seat in Bihar in the assembly by-election to the Kishanganj constituency. This win marked the AIMIM’s debut in the Hindi-belt states. Jitan Ram Manjhi, the former Bihar chief minister, has already set the ball rolling by hailing the AIMIM’s victory as conducive for Dalit-Muslim unity.

The AIMIM’s performance in Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh assembly by-election was even more significant than its victory in Kishanganj. The party had polled nearly two lakh votes in the Kishanganj Lok Sabha constituency in May and always stood a fair chance of winning the Kishanganj assembly seat. In Pratapgarh, though, the AIMIM was making an electoral debut. Yet, its candidate, Israr Ahmad, bagged 20,269 votes. The AIMIM secured around 3,000 votes less than the Samajwadi Party, which took the second spot behind the winner Apna Dal, a BJP ally. The Congress and the BSP, too, were in the fray.

Ahmad joined the AIMIM in January 2018. Forty-eight years old, he had been an avid Congress supporter in his college days. His disenchantment with the grand old party began with the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. He told me, “I joined the AIMIM because I have seen, over the years, that all secular parties are reluctant to stand up for Muslims and, therefore, indirectly help the BJP.”

Ahmad echoed Owaisi’s criticism of secular parties. Owaisi has often accused the secular bloc that it exploits the Muslim community’s fear of the BJP to garner votes and then forsakes them until the next election. On multiple occasions, Owaisi has said that secular parties take the Muslims for granted because they know the community will not vote for the BJP. In popular discourse, Owaisi’s critique has been interpreted to mean that secular parties must be denied Muslim votes to disabuse them of their presumption.

This discourse, however, caricatures Owaisi’s model of politics, which exhorts Muslims to pursue self-representation through their own party. In their 2018 academic paper, “Non-extremist Outbidding: Muslim Leadership in Majoritarian India,” Rochana Bajpai and Adnan Farooqui wrote, “Owaisi’s exhortations … has an anti-paternalist thrust similar to arguments associated with the emergence of lower caste political parties in the 1980s-1990s.” The AIMIM is needed, Owaisi argued, also because Muslim representatives of mainstream parties have been weak and ineffective.

There is a neat fit between Owaisi’s politics and his persona. Farooqui, who teaches political science at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, told me, “Owaisi’s appeal for Muslims lies in the fact that he wears his identity on his sleeve, but resorts to constitutionalism to raise issues that are essentially secular in nature.” He added that Owaisi “represents modernistic impulses as well, his team is savvy with social media; his speeches are watched and heard from Azamgarh to Hyderabad on Facebook.”

Owaisi has always drawn massive crowds at his rallies, particularly the Muslim youth who are besotted with him. But they did not vote for the AIMIM because of their propensity to vote for the party that may have the best chance to vanquish the BJP. The recent assembly elections’ results suggest that Owaisi’s following is now translating into votes for the AIMIM, largely because political parties have vindicated his charge—that they secure the community’s support but abandon them. Muslims are stunned at the reluctance of secular parties to mobilise public opinion against lynching, and threats by the centre to pursue the National Register of Citizens project nationwide. They were shocked to hear young Congress leaders support the reading down of Article 370.

“Muslims see that regardless of how they vote, the Hindu consolidation is taking place anyway,” Mohammad Sajjad, a professor of history at the Aligarh Muslim University, told me. “Since the Congress and regional parties are reluctant to speak in defence of Muslims, they think they should at least vote for a party which is speaking for them.”

Sajjad said Muslims are supporting Owaisi because they instinctively comprehend Owaisi’s importance in the era of majoritarian politics. “Owaisi is cataloguing Muslim grievances,” Sajjad said. “Without the cataloguing of Muslim grievances, even the victimisation of Muslims will cease to exist in public consciousness.” The AIMIM, in this sense, has become the community’s device to establish the reality of their existence and record their suffering.

Husain Dalwai, a Congress member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha, got a glimpse of the “catalogue of Muslim grievances” during his election campaign in Maharashtra. “Wherever I went, Muslims said they don’t get izzat in the Congress. I found very few Muslims on the podium at Congress rallies,” Dalwai told me. It is presumptuous of the Congress to expect Muslims to support them when they are not accommodated in the party. “Muslims constitute about 11.5 percent of Maharashtra’s population, but only 13 of them”—just 4.5 percent—“were assigned tickets by the Congress-NCP alliance,” Dalwai said. He thinks the Congress has diluted its ideology of nurturing the interests of Muslims and Dalits. He said, “We did not even organise morcha against lynching and the Bhima Koregaon violence targeting Dalits. Did we have to endorse Savarkar, who inspired the killers of Mahatma Gandhi?” This was perhaps a reference to the senior Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi who had called the Hindutva ideologue an “accomplished man who played part in our freedom struggle, fought for Dalit rights.”

Muslims are shifting to the AIMIM, even though they know it cannot come to power on its own, because of the lesson they have drawn from national parties tying up with sub-regional outfits representing a caste or two. Even with their relatively small base, these local parties make a crucial difference between a national or regional party winning or losing an election. The Muslim community’s hope is that the AIMIM’s expansion will similarly have others vie for an alliance with Owaisi and provide them a share in governance.

This is why the Congress’ projection of the AIMIM as an entity that could split anti-BJP votes did not wash with Muslims. As Nusrath, the former Congress youth leader, explained, “Muslims have seen the Congress portray the BSP and All India United Democratic Front as vote-cutters. However, it is willing to do business with the AIUDF in Assam and pleads with the BSP for an alliance in Uttar Pradesh.” It is only natural for Muslims to think that a strong AIMIM is politically advantageous for them.

This sentiment has been further bolstered because non-BJP parties tend to blame their defeat on Muslims not voting for them. Asmer Baig, a professor of political science at AMU, told me, “Have you ever heard of the BSP ascribing its loss to non-Jatav Dalits not voting for it; or the SP to non-Yadav OBCs; or the Congress to the upper castes?” This only angers and alienates Muslims, who increasingly feel they are not beholden to parties who do not support them in this era of Hindutva domination. The Muslim community now seems willing to overlook the political risk inherent in supporting Owaisi, who courts them even when they do not vote for the AIMIM.

The jury is out on whether the growing inclination of Muslims for the AIMIM augurs well for their interests. According to Arshad Ajmal, who runs Sahulat, a Patna-based NGO in the microfinance sector, “The millennials are voting for the AIMIM because they want a share in power.” But Ajmal said that the AIMIM could only win in constituencies where Muslims are numerous. “What about Muslims in constituencies where they are, say, ten percent or 20 percent of the electorate?” He said that the Muslim community’s political behaviour today will likely have the same repercussions that the community encountered during the Partition. “Provinces having Muslim majority became a part of Pakistan. They did not suffer, in sharp contrast to provinces where the Muslims were in minority,” he said.

The community is also worried about what the AIMIM represents. Owaisi may adopt the language of constitutionalism, but his brother, Akbaruddin, is perceived as a rabble-rouser who divides people along sectarian lines. As Bajpai and Farooqui point out in their paper, based on interviews with those who attended his rallies, “Some suggest a division of labour between the Owaisi brothers that allows the AIMIM to pursue a dual strategy, with Asaduddin presenting the party’s reasonable, moderate, national face, and Akbaruddin … known for his incendiary speeches to Muslim audiences, keeping a check on political rivals, often through violence.”

Zaheer Ali, a retired professor of political science at the University of Mumbai, cited the AIMIM’s dual approach and told me, “The AIMIM can never come to power but will only undermine the electoral prospects of national and regional parties.” Ali said that this was “a suicidal alternative for Muslims.” Psychologists interpret suicide, when employed as a means to achieve a social goal, as a cry for transformation. Muslims are sacrificing their interests by opting for a collective electoral suicide, to register their dissatisfaction with the equally hypocritical duality of non-BJP parties. These political parties invoke secularism to garner the Muslim community’s votes during elections, and then pedal a less malignant version of Hindutva. The AIMIM’s rise, in the end, is the Muslim community’s rejection of the opposition’s brand of secularism.