Parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena created a climate where people forgot to think rationally, and the AIMIM made its entry through the path shown by these parties

by Abantika Ghosh

The biggest truism about Muslim politics in India is that the leaders of the community have always been from the outside. Think Jawaharlal Nehru, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad. The reactions to three-time Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s putative electoral foray into Bihar holds some clues as to why that is. Some of the harshest criticis of Owaisi and the politics of his All-India Majlis e-Ittehad ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) have been from within the community itself.

“When one side indulges in a polarising rhetoric, there is bound to be a reaction from the other side. Parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena created a climate where people forgot to think rationally, and the AIMIM made its entry through the path shown by these parties. Owaisi sees there is polarisation and decides to make the most of it. BJP’s gameplan is to play with sentiments of people in seeking votes – indulging in jumlas as Amit Shah has said – in such a condition there will always be smaller parties on both sides that stand to benefit from this lunacy. That is what AIMIM is doing,” said Zafarul Islam Khan, who heads the All-India Muslim Majlis e-Mushwrat.

The irony of the situation is that some of the biggest critics of Owaisi’s firebrand politics are people who have, in the past, been in the eye of the storm on the same charge of making inflammatory speeches.

“Owaisi’s rise has no positive connotations for Muslims. Look at what happened in Maharashtra; the secular vote got divided and look who benefitted. It is now becoming clear that Owaisi has an understanding with the communal forces. Only emotional Muslim youths get swayed by his rhetoric… An outfit without adequate organisation at the ground level that indulges in polarising rhetoric will naturally end up benefitting BJP,” said Jama Masjid Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari.

Bukhari himself has courted controversies many times in the past – including when he was seen to have backed the 9/11 attacks. Last year, he left Prime Minister Narendra Modi out of the guest list at his son’s wedding and chose instead to invite Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, triggering sharp reactions from BJP and its afflliates.

Part of the youth appeal of the UK-educated Owaisi who drives his own SUV in both Delhi and Hyderabad is the fact that he himself belongs to the world that he promises them. Inflammatory rhetoric apart, his speeches are usually big on references on the importance of education and employment for the Muslim youth. At the same time, he wears his religion on his sleeve. He is known to walk into the mosque in any area of Hyderabad that he may be driving through when the call for prayer (azaan) is heard, and pray with the congregation there.

There are dissenters to the “Owaisi benefits BJP” theory. “It think that Owaisi’s counter to the claim that BJP benefitted in 2014 when he was not fighting elections everywhere has weight. Besides, he may get the few lakh Muslim votes, but what happens to the rest? But no one can say he will not affect election outcome. His powerful oratory has an instant emotional appeal. So the Muslim-Yadav vote would inevitably get split,” says Kamal Farooqui, member of All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and former chairman Delhi Commission for Minorities.

Maulana Arshad Madani, president of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, says that no matter what the reasons for its entry into the electoral arena, any party which seeks to accentuate the majority-minority fissures in its poll campaign would only end up benefitting BJP. “I have heard his speeches, they tend to be such that they add to the already heated political climate. Spewing fire is not a viable election strategy… I cannot make an exception to my opposition to polarisation politics for a Muslim party. When BJP does it, it’s bad; when AIMIM does it, even then it is bad.”

What has forced the spotlight on Owaisi’s interventions in politics beyond Hyderabad is the fact that he takes the “paying them back in their own coin” adage a tad too literally. For example, when BJP affiliates launched a ghar wapsi campaign last year for conversion of non-Hindus to Hinduism, Owaisi’s instant repartee was Islam is the “real home” of all. Contrast that sharpness with the long-drawn taqreers (speeches) with Koran references of Muslim leaders who do not venture into politics (but prefer to wield power from behind) and you will realise why Owaisi can’t be ignored today.

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