Divide and win: Owaisi brothers reap the benefits
The brothers may have cause to celebrate, but not India's Muslims. The rise of a party known for its inflammatory politics only reinforces the worst religious stereotypes, writes Barkha Dutt.
With attention focused on the BJP’s dramatic electoral gains and the Congress’ increasing political marginalisation, the advent of the Hyderabad-based Owaisi brothers in Maharashtra has gone relatively unnoticed. Their unabashedly shrill and strident party — the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) that they say provides a political platform for Muslims — bagged two seats in an impressive debut performance. In Aurangabad Central its candidate, a journalist-turned-inaugural politician, defeated the Shiv Sena by 20,000 votes. In Byculla, the margin was narrower — less than 2,000 votes — but the win still headline-grabbing. Though only two of the 24 contestants delivered wins, the MIM managed 0.9% of the votes in its first assembly election outside undivided Andhra Pradesh, finishing second in three constituencies and a decent third in six other seats. The divisive rhetoric of the Owaisi siblings saw a renewed call to identity politics, with their speeches playing to a victimhood narrative and a siege mentality.
Ironically some of the language used by the MIM supporters and candidates creating a new state constituency of the Muslim-Right mirrored the swipes at “pseudo-secularism” first fashioned by the Hindu-Right on the opposite side of the trenches. Waris Pathan, the advocate-turned-legislator from Byculla, dismissed what he called the performance of the “so called secular parties”. Muslims want a change, he says, arguing that in the name of secularism parties like the Congress and NCP have only taken Muslims for granted. Asaduddin Owaisi, who had been careful to dump the three-decade-old alliance with the Congress in 2012, has now been embraced as “Musalmanon ka Modi” to describe his electoral chemistry with voters. The comparison is exaggerated — and to the PM’s supporters offensive — but after his successful strike rate in Maharashtra, Owaisi is talking of courting UP’s Muslims and opening an office in Lucknow. Other stops include West Bengal and Bihar. The intention is clear: To create a pan-India Muslim party, a modern day variation of the Muslim League.
The Owaisi brothers may have cause to celebrate, but not India’s Muslims. The rise of a party known for its inflammatory politics only reinforces the worst religious stereotypes. The calculations of the MIM ghettoise Muslims as a political entity. Already, religious friction has drawn an invisible line dividing communities in many of our villages and in cities that claim cosmopolitanism for themselves. A party that seeks votes on the basis of religious identity is nothing short of regressive. During the campaign, the speeches of the Owaisis were replete with rabble-rousing references, including exhorting voters to build 1,000 mosques and name each of them after the Babri Masjid. It is legitimate for any leader to raise the issues that beset the community s/he represents and it is not out of line, for instance, if terror cases against young Muslim men that are proven to be false become part of the political discourse. But what makes the MIM brand of politics different is that it is rooted exclusively in the context of religious identity. It encourages grievances instead of aspiration and divisiveness instead of development. Just last year, Akbaruddin Owaisi was arrested for an anti-Hindu hate speech. This year too there are reports that anti-Hindu slogans were raised at MIM victory rallies.
It is of course true that parties like the Congress and the Samajwadi Party must take primary responsibility for failing to provide Muslim voters with an imaginative or modern leadership that doesn’t box them into a corner. The fact that secularism today is increasingly seen to have become a slogan prostituted by cynical politics has only reinforced the absence of options for India’s minorities. Since becoming PM, Narendra Modi has made two very strong statements to reach out, most recently in New York when he said the patriotism of the Indian Muslim would make it impossible for terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to make inroads in India. But the BJP has made no other meaningful effort to build itself as a political option for Muslims. In Maharashtra, where Muslims make up more than 11% of the population, the BJP had only two Muslim candidates in a list of 280; the Shiv Sena had just one. Unthinking comments like the one from BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, who said all madrasas provide an “education of terrorism” haven’t helped matters. Combine this with the disillusionment that most Muslims feel with the status-quoist alternatives could explain the inroads made by the MIM. Speaking on TV on the night of results, BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi dismissed any cause for concern, arguing that those who supported the MIM had to reflect on what sort of politics they were endorsing; not the BJP.
But every single party — including the one in the seat of power — needs to reflect on why a party like the MIM is being able to build a base on communal politics at a time when governance issues and the dream of a better life are driving choices elsewhere. Parochialism as an ingredient of effective politics is on the decline; note the decimation of Raj Thackeray’s MNS. Even the Shiv Sena was forced to abandon its quintessential aggression and re-adapt to the changing times by attempting to present a more with-it face in the form of young Aditya Thackeray. If aspirational India is in search of a polity where economic empowerment transcends all other emotive issues, why should Indian Muslims not be part of that process? If Praveen Togadia and Akbaruddin Owaisi reflect two ends of a spectrum, most Indian voters stand firmly in the middle, rejecting both poles of extremism. The MIM’s successful performance is a warning sign that something is amiss.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV.
The views expressed by the author are personal.