Seemanchal, the hotbed of Muslim politics in northeastern Bihar, has been stirred politically by a recent visit by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi ahead of state assembly polls.
Though it was Owaisi's maiden visit to Bihar, it appeared to be a move to create a situation almost akin to the Lok Sabha polls, when JD-U candidate Akhtarul Iman unilaterally withdrew from the contest in Kishanganj to strengthen the hands of the Congress nominee and avert a split in secular votes.
The Congress and RJD candidates won from Kishanganj and Araria Lok Sabha seats, but there was a strong polarisation of Hindu votes across the state, leading to the victory of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 31 of the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar.
This time too, Iman was instrumental in inviting Owaisi to Bihar and organising a rally at Kishanganj just two days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a gathering in Saharsa on August 18.
The huge crowd at Modi’s rally, despite heavy rains, was an indication of the consolidation in favour of the BJP.
But the disturbing potential of Owaisi's visit was acknowledged by Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan, an NDA ally, and Tariq Anwar of the NCP, who threatened to break away from the Grand Alliance led by Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad.
Owaisi's fiery speech to a gathering of some 30,000 in Kishanganj targeted RJD chief Lalu Prasad and chief minister Nitish Kumar, and caused consternation in political circles, especially among leaders of the Grand Alliance such as Mohammad Taslimuddin and Maulana Asrarul Haque, a Congress MP.
It is unclear whether Owaisi will follow up his foray into Bihar, especially in Seemanchal, but he has emerged the new poster boy among Muslim youngsters.
Sources said the AIMIM could field candidates in nearly 30 seats in Seemanchal, which comprises Kishanganj, Araria, Katihar, Purnia and adjoining areas of Kosi region, and has a significant number of Muslim voters.
Muslims make up more than 69% of the electorate in Kishanganj while their presence in other constituencies in Seemanchal is between 20% and 40%.
Bihar has a total electorate of 66.8 million and Muslims make up 16% of the state’s population. The number of seats in the Bihar assembly is 243 and Muslim voters play a decisive role in 50 of them, including 30 in Seemanchal and nearby areas.
Owaisi called for a special package for Seemanchal in order to woo Muslim voters and flayed Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, holding them “responsible for the backwardness” of the region.
A three-term Lok Sabha MP from Hyderabad, Owaisi has maintained he is against the ideology of Hindutva but not against Hindus.
His barbs against Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar created an impact on Muslim voters. “The government's claims on development of Seemanchal region are an eyewash as the area continues to remain the most backward," said Mohammed Asrar of Araria.
Such sentiments are not a good sign for the Grand Alliance, which has pinned its hopes on the votes of Bihar’s Muslim electorate of 17% in its fight against the BJP.
Of the three parties of the Grand Alliance, Owaisi's entry is likely to cause more harm to Lalu Prasad’s RJD, which assiduously courted the Muslim-Yadav combination over the past 25 years.
The RJD polled nearly 22% votes and the JD-U garnered 15% votes even during the strong Narendra Modi wave in last year’s general election. But observers say Owaisi’s entry could lead to a change.
“As Owaisi's party gets stronger, the problems for the Grand Alliance will accentuate and cut into Muslim votes. At the same time, the prospects of a BJP-led NDA will become stronger as it will polarise voters on communal lines," said Anirudh Yadav of Banmankhi.
Yadav voters in the Saharsa-Madhepura region are disenchanted with Lalu Prasad because of his decision to join hands with Nitish Kumar, held responsible for the community’s neglect during the JD-U rule of the past decade.
If the BJP manages to get the support of Yadavs by whipping up Hindu sentiments, the saffron party could get ahead in Seemanchal. But the BJP does not have a Yadav leader matching the stature of Lalu Prasad.
“There is disenchantment among the Yadavs but the BJP does not have a prominent Yadav leader who can channelise anti-Nitish sentiments to its side," said Bhola Yadav of Sikti.
The fear of an onslaught by Owaisi is palpable among leaders of the Grand Alliance such as Taslimuddin, who recently switched sides from the JD-U to RJD and is now a bitter critic of Nitish Kumar.
"It is a larger conspiracy to divide minority votes. Owaisi's party will turn into a 'vote katwa' and eventually help the BJP," he said.
It may be a strange coincidence but Owaisi's presence has always helped the BJP, as it did during assembly polls in Maharashtra. If he decides to enter the Bihar ring, it could help the BJP-led alliance.
Read: After PM Modi's grand package, Nitish announces sops for poll-bound Bihar