India has traditionally had Muslim politicians who attempt to carve careers within the big political parties like the Congress and the BJP or in the Left and regional parties.
They gain attention through their ability to deliver the Muslim vote for parties but do not usually attain national prominence owing to the competitive field within the community that they operate in.
Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeem (AIMIM), represents a remarkable shift from the norm. The fluent, English-speaking politician has, through his sharp, unflinching observations on Indian society and politics, gained a national audience and is now developing an ambition for his party to match it.
The AIMIM won two of the 25 seats it contested in the Maharashtra assembly elections last year; it won half the seats in Aurangabad’s municipal elections and has now set its sights on civic bodies in Bengaluru as well.
But it is Mr Owaisi’s presumed interest in the Bihar assembly polls that has caught everyone’s attention.
He recently addressed a huge rally in Kishanganj and called for a ‘special package’ under Article 371 for the Seemanchal region, which includes Araria, Kathihar, Purnia and Kishanganj districts, where Muslims comprise 30-40% of the population.
This had added an unexpected pixel to the Bihar elections that has been projected as a straight contest between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar chief Nitish Kumar. JD(U) leaders have accused Mr Owaisi of helping the BJP by threatening to split the minority vote.
Implicit in their argument is the expectation that Mr Owaisi must staunch his ambition for now as the Bihar elections are of national significance, in view of their potential to stall Mr Modi’s momentum.
Mr Owaisi would argue differently saying that political parties who speak for minorities have long played the BJP bogey card, while actually doing very little for Muslims — implying that the issues facing minorities everyday cannot slip as a priority owing to other calculations.
There are few better than Mr Owaisi in making the case about the condition of Muslims, who are vulnerable to State pressure and severely lack access to a range of public services including education, health care and sanitation.
He is not averse to controversial remarks, and liberals are not always comfortable with him, but he owes his appeal to the steadfast demand that Muslims ought to be granted rights and entitlements guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
His electoral success is by no means assured, but the potential of Mr Owaisi’s influence is immense.