As a law student in London in the 1990s, Asaduddin Owaisi paid a visit to Speaker’s Corner, the legendary home of free speech in Hyde Park. “I listened to someone abusing the Queen of England in the choicest words and thought — oh God, there’s going to be a riot now!” But there was no riot: it was an early lesson in political variability. At the same time as studying for the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, he worked at McDonald’s in Wimbledon and sold jeans in Oxford Street. A quiet, cricketloving boy from Hyderabad’s old city was exposed to a whole new world. He liked to visit a friend from Calcutta, Abhishek, who cooked Indian food. “I hardly knew how to crack an egg! In London, exposure to that environment creates a lot of confidence. You live alone, you can take on the world.”
Over the last year-and-a-half, Owaisi has recast Muslim politics in India. He does not play by the rules, or follow the familiar style of the sarkari Muslim leader (hennaed beard, pot belly, compliance with authority). In media shorthand, he is a ‘firebrand’, but that does not fully explain his appeal. He does not care whether a politician wears a skullcap or hosts an iftar party, and he has scant respect for some Islamic scholars.
“There’s nothing extraordinary about an imam, as if he fell from the sky,” he says. “In Islam we don’t have priests, or the brahmin system. It is high time someone says the bitter truth: there’s a problem with the ulema all over India. In Haryana, there’s a communal riot and these johnnies don’t even open their mouths.” Owaisi rubbishes the status quo. “We should remove the haj subsidy and use that Rs 600 crore for a Muslim girls’ scholarship.”
When I met him in Hyderabad in March 2014 during the general election campaign, Owaisi was full of venom about the prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. “A person who closed his eyes to a pogrom of Muslims? It would be like Hitler winning an election.” Today, in advance of the Bihar elections, he is circumspect. “He is the Prime Minister of India. I have the strongest opposition to him, but he’s still the Prime Minister.”
Owaisi’s opponents say this is because he is “an agent of the BJP,” with his All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) mopping up Muslim votes that would otherwise go to a ‘secular’ party. He has local critics too. The Congress leader in Hyderabad, Mohammed Ali Shabbir, says Owaisi and his incendiary younger brother Akbaruddin are the only beneficiaries of their brand of politics. “They have a stranglehold on the old city. These two brothers get bigger, but Muslims don’t benefit. Every hawker in the old city — banana sellers, date sellers — has to take a loan from their agents. To do business, you must get sponsored by the AIMIM.”
Owaisi rejects the idea that Muslims nationally are duty bound to vote for any party that claims to be non-communal and promises to give them protection. “Are we to be the pallbearers of Indian secularism? Our forefathers thought we were having a participatory form of democracy, but only 4-5% of the lower house are Muslim. I’m sorry to use this term, but the community is really pissed off. It’s a real problem: the ‘secular’ parties are not able to transfer their own votes to Muslim candidates. Of the 23 Muslim MPs who were elected to the Lok Sabha last year, 18 or 19 were elected from a constituency with 30% plus Muslim voters.”
Owaisi’s argument, in essence, is that parties like the Congress or the Rashtriya Janata Dal claim not to discriminate against Muslims, but in practice leave them in a ghettoized position, and democratically under-represented in elected bodies. They often give tickets to Muslims only in ‘loseable’ seats. Far better, in his view, to do what minorities like OBCs, Dalits or Yadavs have done, and create your own political force.
“I don’t ask for votes in the name of religion. We’re mistreated, we’re called terrorists — but why should we not build our own leadership, why should we always vote for the so-called secular parties? Are we working on a plantation for Lalu Prasad? Muslims should become masters of their own destiny and fight elections at every level, from panchayati raj to parliamentary elections. Congress wants to dupe Muslims, and the BJP wants to create fear of Muslims and tell us what food we should eat.”
With his evocative Urdu and perfect English, a clipped beard, neat cap and bare upper lip, and a long sherwani in Paul Smith stripes buttoned to the neck, Asaduddin Owaisi evokes an earlier era of Indian lawmakers. His policy of appealing to non-sectarian Muslim identity, but not to the faith, is similar to the strategy that Jinnah used in order to become a ‘sole spokesman’ of the community. Owaisi slaps down the comparison: “It’s absurd. My fight is within the four walls of the Indian constitution.”
In the short run, his national popularity has come in reaction to the renewed confidence of Hindutva voices, but more substantially it emerges from younger Muslims wanting education and jobs. “He’s like a rockstar for youth,” says Mushtaq, a supporter in the run-down old city, which the Owaisi family has controlled for decades. A popular video shows him walking in slowmo and twirling his phone between his fingers to a backing track of Yo Yo Honey Singh’s ‘Boss’.
What does his family think of this? Owaisi guffaws. “I never planned for all this. Maybe it’s because I have a voice… to speak on people’s behalf.” He and his wife Farheen have five daughters and one son; the two oldest girls are twins, and are at college. “Yes, they saw the Honey Singh video and just laughed — said ‘What is this? This is a joke’. Early in my career I used to smoke three-four packets of Marlboro Lights every day. I was very stressed, and I made some blunders. Now I’m more relaxed.”
At the Babu Jagjivan Ram Government College, a girls’ school near Golkonda Fort, Owaisi sits on stage while speeches are made. He has used MPLADS funding to make a new building, but for the students this is not enough. Young women, traditionally dressed, some with only spectacles emerging from their black head coverings, make demands into a microphone. “Respected Asaduddin Owaisi sir, we kindly request you...” And a long list follows: safe drinking water, better lighting, a second bus service, teachers for Urdu, Hindi, political science and zoology. The MP looks nonplussed. “These are girls from poor Muslim families,” he says later, “so eager to learn and to come up in life. They’ve seen that the more educated you are, the more powerful you get. Since the 1990s, the girls here have been wanting to do civil engineering and medicine. That’s what will bring change in the Muslim community. I’m of the opinion that women of all religions should be educated at primary level.”
If Owaisi and the AIMIM have a strong showing in the Bihar elections, and extend their base beyond Telangana and Maharashtra to other parts of India, the party leader will not be short of new opponents. Mohammad Baleeghuddin, brother of the former cricket captain Azharuddin, has known Owaisi since he was a boy. “At Nizam College, he didn’t mingle or talk a lot. He was a fast bowler. If he’d put his mind to it, he would have played in the national team.”