Talks of change shroud AIMIM bastion of Hyderabad after Cong finds space
Hyderabad has always been central to Telangana’s identity. It is a city that saw the most strident protests for the creation of the new state in 2014.
It is 7pm, and the streets of old Hyderabad are abuzz. Every narrow lane is twinkling with lights, every square inch taken up by an amorphous crowd; families shopping, some out for an evening snack, or people just returning home after work.
Syed Alam Shah, 28, is part of this third group, but in many other aspects, his life is one of firsts. For three generations, his family has packaged and sold itr; he was the first to go to Australia to study engineering. His family has always lived and worked in the old city; yet every day he drives his car, past the Charminar, navigating the jewellery stores in Shalibanda, to the expressways and glass facades of new Hi-tech city, where he works as an IT engineer. There is only one thing that he has never done different from the rest, until now. He points to the unique sign that hangs above Purana Pul Road, the outline of a kite in fluorescent green.
“I have always voted for the AIMIM. This time, I’m thinking about it,” he said.
Hyderabad has always been central to Telangana’s identity. It is a city that saw the most strident protests for the creation of the new state in 2014. It is by far its largest urban centre, a bustling metropolis in its own right, nurtured by multiple chief ministers. It is a symbol for syncretism, with more than 40% of its population Muslim. It is perhaps the most important district politically; it has 15 of the 119 seats in the state.
In those 15 seats, for the last 15 years, there has been one constant. Everything else has changed; in 2018 the TRS won 7 and the BJP 1; in 2014, the BJP won 4, TDP 3, the TRS 1; in 2009 (undivided Andhra Pradesh), the Congress won 7 and the BJP won 1. But over all these three elections, the AIMIM won 7 seats in Hyderabad’s biggest city and always the same seats -- Malakpet, Nampally, Karwan, Charminar, Chandrayangutta, Yakutpura, and Bahadurpura. Still looking at the sign, Syed Alam Shah said, “It has always been the one political constant in our lives.”
Alam has voted twice in his life, both times after the formation of Telangana in 2014. In his mind, they were both times of turbulence. “In those ten years, we have seen communal hatred grow everywhere else. But in Hyderabad, there has been none because the AIMIM looks after our community and the TRS doesn’t allow it. It is a combination that works,” he said.
But this time, there are the beginnings of doubt. For one, in the first time in his voting life, it is unclear if the TRS will emerge frontrunners like they have in the last decade. And two, he now wonders if there is a third corner to that “political friendship”.
“The AIMIM says openly that they have a friendship with the TRS, and that is clear on the ground. The AIMIM win in the city, and the TRS outside among the Muslim voters. But I have started to believe that there is some truck with the BJP. Why does the TRS always help the BJP in the Lok Sabha? Why do they never fight Goshamahal, the seat of Raja Singh seriously? There is only one party that has always been, unequivocally opposed to the BJP, and that is the Congress. More than that, why should we always vote as Muslims? I am tired to see KCR as chief minister and want change,” Shah said.
A little distance away, with the Charminar looming behind them, a group of four men are having their daily evening debate over Irani chai, and opinion is split down the middle. One of them, a local Congress leader who only wanted to be identified by Irfan, his first name, is trying to convince the other three. “I think we have to look at this from a 2024 lens. If the Congress win Telangana, they become stronger for the Lok Sabha elections. If there is a chance for a non-BJP government, then it begins from here.”
He is interrupted quickly. “But we have to think carefully. In Telangana, KCR and Owaisi have kept away communal riots when everywhere else has seen a problem. If the Congress comes to power, the BJP will push even harder to enter the state. Even if they support BJP at the Centre, how does it matter to a common man as long as there is peace?” said the man next to him.
The third man, Mohammad Hanif, who owns the grocery store next door steps in, smelling a heated argument on the horizon. “Both these things can be true at the same time. But imagine, we are actually talking about this. Even a year ago, we wouldn’t even have entertained the possibility of voting for anyone other than the AIMIM.”
Syed Aminul Hasan Jafri, former member of the legislative council and former pro term chairman of the Telangana state legislative council from the AIMIM says that the “narrative” that the Congress is gaining momentum, like the one that the BJP was rising a year ago, is simply political messaging. “I don’t think those are true. From where the AIMIM can see the election, the situation will stay the same,” Jafri said.
For Hyderabad, Jafri’s argument for why there is unlikely to be any wholesale change in the AIMIM bastions on the ground, is the difference in the way that it operates; a methodology that means it always has influence in the civic body, always has a presence in the legislature, and has not lost the Hyderabad Lok Sabha constituency since 1984.
“Look at the party offices. In the Congress, TDP, or BJP offices you will only find leaders inside, and no common people. At the AIMIM headquarters in Darus Salam in Hyderabad, there are always people inside. Legislators are asked to meet their people twice a day, morning and evening in their camp offices, and meet the rest in the party office. If people have issues in our constituencies, they call the politicians and not the government agencies. We are connected to the ground, and to people’s issues like no other party. That is why the support has been constant,” he said.
Back at the tea shop in Charminar, the fourth man has begun to speak. He is the oldest, 59 years old, and on the verge of retirement from public service. In many ways, he says, the story of the Telangana election is always the Hyderabad seats outside the AIMIM bastions. In 2009, as YS Rajashekhara Reddy retained power in undivided Andhra Pradesh, the Congress won 7 seats. Five years later, there was churn, and in a city that has a big Andhra presence, the TDP won 3 seats and the BJP 4. By 2018, as the TRS consolidated, it won half the seats.
“So the question is if the Congress is doing well in the other seats. Because if it manages to do the unthinkable and win in the AIMIM bastions, then the broader verdict looks to be very clear to see,” he said.