Small but significant players in Bihar polls
The five seats won by the AIMIM have invoked great interest in an age when media narratives thrive on a Hindu-Muslim binary. The wins show that Muslim votes are divided in areas where the community has a large presence. For, some votes on seats won by the AIMIM have gone to MGB candidates.
By Saba Naqvi (Senior Journalist)
Beyond the see-saw battle between the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan (MGB or Grand Alliance), both with similar vote shares, Bihar had other stories to tell. The most significant would be the good show by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), led by Asaduddin Owaisi, that won five seats (out of 20) and by the CPI(ML) that won 12 of the 19 it contested as part of the RJD-led alliance. Both parties operate in the space that makes the conservative middle ground uncomfortable. In the age of quick labelling and stereotypes, one is seen as a ‘Muslim first’ party and the other as the ‘hard left’, to use the language of TV anchors.
The CPI(ML) does have a history in Bihar as part of the land and workers’ struggles, but electorally, the party was fading to insignificance before the alliance made it possible for them to attach their support to that of the RJD and post the best strike rate of all the parties in the Tejashwi Yadav-led Grand Alliance.
It is, however, the five seats won by the AIMIM that has invoked even greater interest in an age when media narratives thrive on a Hindu-Muslim binary. First, the AIMIM wins actually show that Muslim votes are divided in areas where the community has a large presence. For, some of those votes in seats won by the AIMIM have surely gone to MGB candidates, as we see in the Election Commission data. Be it Uttar Pradesh or Bihar — both states with regional parties — Muslim votes splinter in areas where the community has a large presence and multiple choices, while that of Hindus living in such areas, actually consolidates.
Second, the AIMIM’s performance also reflects on the failure of India’s secular project. As citizenship rights, entitlements of the nation’s largest minority community shrink, and their representation in legislatures and Parliament and other elected bodies slides downwards, it should not be surprising that Owaisi, the MP from Hyderabad since 2004, is being able to spread his wings in other parts of the country. The fundamental messaging in his speeches is urging Muslims to hold their heads high in the face of a majoritarian tide.
He is arguably the most forceful and significant Muslim voice in the Indian public life today. The question that continues to follow him, however, is whether he is a vote cutter, an agent of the BJP or the last man standing for India’s Muslims. In the specific context of the recent Bihar elections, however, he was not a mere vote cutter as the LJP’s Chirag Paswan was, which means taking away enough votes of another party to ensure their defeat, but failing to win yourself.
Owaisi was a winner himself and the charge that he helped the BJP win on 10 seats (AIMIM contested 20) can be contested on the grounds that the margin of NDA victory in most of these seats was greater than the votes polled by the AIMIM. But as elections are also about chemistry, there is a counter-argument that his presence on certain seats would have been a catalyst for pro-NDA trends.
The arguments surrounding Owaisi get more interesting if we look at the charge of the Congress that he is an agent of the BJP. Given that the Congress is not the first choice of Muslims in both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it amounts to an astounding arrogance, akin to saying that how dare you enter the arena that we want to be in (even if we are failing). Owaisi’s own smart response has been to say that the Congress wants him to sit at home, serve biryani and attend mushairas.
In other words, he is saying that the Congress sees Muslims as a stereotype, while they fail miserably at representing the community. As the Bihar contest has had splinter caste parties extracting their pounds of flesh and overtly or covertly cutting votes on behalf of the BJP, it is undeniable that Owaisi is put into that special straightjacket within which he is judged.
Equally, he also has bigger ambitions than most caste-specific regional parties. Some of the experiments follow invitations from different states and he does intend to put up candidates in some seats in West Bengal next year and Uttar Pradesh the year after. The AIMIM success in Bihar has also been built on the failure in the 2015 election when Owaisi put up candidates in six seats, won zero and lost deposits in five.
But the AIMIM structure began to take shape in these parts when they kept the ground work going: a candidate from Kishenganj got three lakh votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, they won a seat in an Assembly byelection (although they lost that seat now), became involved in flood relief and helped the returning migrants and also engaged with the anti-CAA protests, where the Congress and the RJD were not seen. There is, therefore, consistent groundwork behind what appears to be a new phenomenon.
The same applies to the CPI(ML) whose cadres have been on the ground for decades, taking up the most tricky issues in Bihar: of oppression, fighting for land rights, right to access water and so on often against organised upper caste landlords in alliance with the famous Bahubalis or Dons of Bihar. In 2020, the cadres were also active during the reverse migration months, helping the poorest on the ground. Many of those elected in the CPI(ML) are also under 40 with a background in student politics. There is also a veteran, Mehboob Alam, a gritty ground fighter who wins a term in the Assembly for a third time, in this round from Balrampur in Katihar. These are campaigns that happen without the razzmatazz of big rallies, but mostly walking house to house.
India is the most complex multicultural, multilingual society in the world to be run by modern democratic structures. The big story from Bihar is fundamentally about caste, the arithmetic of coalitions and one which had a better strike rate and the last mile connectivity in a first-past-the-post system. But the people of India’s third most populous state had many other stories to share.
Some trusted the comrades who came to their aid through the worst economic crisis of recent times. And in another part of the state, Muslim admiration for Asaduddin Owaisi has combined with their alienation from traditional politics to actually start voting for the AIMIM over the legacy parties of India, regional and national, who claim to be the owners of secularism without being able to protect it.
Courtesy : The Tribune