Is Bihar a prod from Muslims to Owaisi’s AIMIM? Why Seemanchal is an elephant in room now

13th November 2020

13th November 2020

Proving most exit polls wrong, the National Democratic Alliance of Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal-United regained control of Bihar for one more time with 125 seats against the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led Mahagathbandhan’s (MGB) 110. Results saw Nitish Kumar piggybacking the BJP for the sixth term as chief minister of the state.

One must concede that it was the hectic campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which ensured BJP’s lead and saved the day for Nitish Kumar. He proved that national issues were as much of consequence in state elections as local ones. As he reminded voters of Lalu Yadav’s jungle raj, they found his promise of development more credible than the carrot of 10 lakh jobs dangled by Tejashwi Yadav.

Other than the BJP emerging as JD-U’s senior partner for the first time, the results threw a few other surprises. Among them was the winning of five seats by Asaduddin Owaisi’s All-India Majlise-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal area adjoining Assam. As the MGB did not do as well as it expected in the region its leaders blamed Owaisi for cutting into their votes.

Owaisi denied the charge arguing that the AIMIM won only five of the 20 seats it contested. Defending his decision to contest without being part of the MGB, Owaisi said that of the five only two of his wins were against the Congress. It, however, lost the Kishanganj seat to the Grand Old Party.

However, the charge that AIMIM cut into MGB votes may still hold. Of the 24 seats in the region, the NDA won 12 seats (BJP-8, JD-U-4). On the other hand, the MGB had to be content with 7 seats (Cong-5, RJD-1 and CPI-ML-1). But for AIMIM, the MGB’s tally could have been higher.

It, however, seems unlikely as the Congress has been steadily losing ground. It lost in the by-elections in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh where there was no AIMIM. The party is losing voters more on account of the failure of its top leadership than “vote katuas”(vote dividers).

Nationally, Muslims are looking at their dwindling political options and wondering which party they can repose their trust in. In UP, the Samajwadi Party is a pale shadow of what it used to be during the days of ‘maulana’ Mulayam. So is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Although the BSP allied with AIMIM in Bihar, its leader Mayawati said in UP that she was ready to align with the BJP to defeat the BJP and is thus viewed as a proxy of the BJP. The Congress can’t get a fix on whether it wants to tread the secular/liberal or soft Hindutva line and ever since the Babri Masjid demolition it has been unable to attract minority votes.

Owaisi himself blamed the MGB for abandoning Muslims by ducking issues like the Constitution Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which are important for the community.

So where do Muslims go? In UP, for instance, some Muslims will still vote for the SP, others for the BSP. So far they have not looked at AIMIM as an option in Uttar Pradesh or elsewhere but it may emerge as a better refuge for Muslims than other political parties. The AIMIM winning five seats in Bihar could be an indicator of what the politically marginalized Muslims want. Upcoming West Bengal elections will show if Owaisi has the potential of emerging as a national leader of Muslims.    

Seemanchal (image below), incidentally, is one of Bihar’s most backward regions comprising the districts of Araria, Purnia, Katihar and Kishanganj. The Muslim population here is 47 per cent compared to 17 per cent in the rest of Bihar. In Kishanganj, Muslims are 74 per cent of the population.  

The region which has 24 assembly seats, grabbed headlines when a Jawaharlal Nehru University student Sharjeel Imam identified a narrow corridor called “Chicken Neck”, which connects North-East with the rest of the country, and called for its blockade to force the government to concede their anti-CAA demand. The way he worded his statement, “Agar hamain Assam kee madad karnee hai toh hamain Assam kaa raasta bund karna hoga fauj ke liye…aur jo bhee supply aa rahee hai. Aur hum bund kar sakte hain. Ye chicken neck Musalmaanon kaa hai…wo jo ilaqa hai Muslim aksariyat hai. (If we want to help Assam, we would have to block the passage for Army in Assam. This chicken neck belongs to Muslims. That part is Muslim in profile).”  Chicken Neck’s strategic importance is not lost on the Indian State and the statement was interpreted as secessionist in nature. Sharjeel was jailed.

The AIMIM’s performance in Seemanchal is being viewed in this context despite the allegation that AIMIM is BJP’s B-Team. As Owaisi said that far too long Muslims have been used as vote bank by the Congress and other political parties without the community getting a fair representation. Owaisi would like to posit his party in the north like Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) in Assam and the Indian Union Muslim League and Tamil Nadu.  

Atul Chandra was once the resident editor of the Times of India Lucknow, besides having worked in the Hindustan Times among other publications. He has been a respected political voice for decades. Atul is based in Lucknow.

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