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Owaisi to contest 25 seats in Bihar: does the BJP stand to gain?

N Kumar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:45 IST

The gambit

  • Asaduddin Owaisi\'s AIMIM party is set to contest 25 seats for the Bihar assembly
  • These seats are in the backward Seemanchal region, comprised of the easternmost districts of the state
  • At his speech in Kishanganj, Owaisi took on PM Modi, Lalu, Nitish and the Congress

The suspicion

  • Analysts say Owaisi\'s entry into the Bihar battlefield will benefit the BJP
  • Owaisi has a history of making inflammatory speeches, which will polarise the voters
  • AIMIM could eat into the Muslim vote, which would otherwise go to the Lalu-Nitish-Cong alliance

On a day the mainstream media was busy discussing PM Narendra Modi's visit to a Dubai mosque, Asaduddin Owaisi was trying to make his mark on the political landscape of Bihar.

The outspoken chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) addressed a rally organised by the Samaji Insaaf Front at Ruidhansa ground in Kishanganj on 16 August.

Taking on the heavyweights

In this backward region of Seemanchal, Bihar's easternmost districts between the Nepal border and the Ganga, Owaisi's target was clear. He dared Modi, ridiculed Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar and hit out at the Congress. His attempt was obvious: to try and tap into the huge Muslim population in the area.

He alleged that Lalu and Nitish were trying to take advantage of Muslims by instilling a fear of the BJP in their minds.

Owaisi termed Nitish as a short-sighted leader and questioned his claims of development.

"The public of Kishanganj is asking 'why have you done injustice to us'," thundered Owaisi, to the cheers of the massive crowd.

His political onslaught did not go unnoticed in the political corridors of Patna. The unease in the Janata Parivar camp was palpable, but for BJP workers, even Owaisi's diatribe brought a smile.

The brains behind the operation

Owaisi announced that the AIMIM would contest 25 seats in Seemanchal. He made his intentions clear in the company of Akhtarul Iman, the convenor of the Samaji Insaf Front and the man who invited the Hyderabad MP to Bihar.

Considered one of the most significant Muslim leaders in the state, Akhtarul is also known as an erudite speaker.

He was once an RJD MLA but but parted ways with Lalu to join Nitish's JD (U) just before the last general election.

In his speech in Kishanganj, the AIMIM chief dared Modi, ridiculed Lalu and Nitish and hit out at the Congress

Akhtarul was JD (U)'s candidate from Kishanganj for the Lok Sabha. But, at the last moment, he quit, saying his candidature would help communal forces. This was seen as a jolt to Nitish.

Eventually, the Congress won the Kishanganj seat. But, the JD (U) paid a heavy price in the entire Seemanchal region for Akhtarul's flip-flop.

Political pundits see Akhtarul's fingerprints behind Owaisi's decision to contest 25 seats in the region. Many feel Owaisi's targeting of Lalu and Nitish, in addition to the BJP and the Congress, is also at Akhtarul's insistence.

Glee in BJP camp

Owaisi's last-minute entry into the political battlefield of Bihar was in the reckoning for long. As such, nobody is surprised at the glee in the BJP camp either.

Speculation is rife that Owaisi's arrival will help the BJP, though it is hard to ascertain if Owaisi does have a behind-the-scenes deal with the saffron party.

The BJP's tack was clear from the start - it would invest more energy in breaking the mass base of Lalu and Nitish than on building its own.

The presence of Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi in the NDA fold would also ensure that they would garner some Dalit votes. Even Mayawati's decision to make the Bahujan Samaj Party fight on all the assembly seats was seen as part of the BJP's strategy to divide Dalit votes.

Now, the introduction of the Owaisi factor is being deemed as BJP's masterstroke by some analysts. And this is not without reason.

The Muslim vote bank

Almost all the 25 seats where the AIMIM has decided to contest have Muslims as majority. The Hindu vote bank is most likely to be polarised in these constituencies, whether Owaisi wins them or not. This Hindu-Muslim divide in Seemanchal may have a ripple effect in other parts of the state.

Muslims constitute 16.9% of the total population of Bihar, according to the 2011 census. They are a decisive factor in at least 50 assembly seats. Most of these seats are in the Seemanchal region.

Many people believe the seeds of polarisation that Owaisi would sow in Seemanchal would be reaped by the BJP in other parts of the state through the Hindutva cadre.

To what extent Owaisi will benefit BJP in the elections is a matter of conjecture, but he is almost certain to hamper the prospects of the Lalu-Nitish-Congress combine.

The two leaders are confident of getting Yadav and Kurmi votes. But, perhaps for the first time, Muslims would not have had to choose between the JD(U), the RJD and the Congress in a bid to defeat the BJP.

The infamous Bhagalpur riots of 1989 were a turning point for Muslim politics in the state

This was reason enough for the grand alliance to take a consolidated Muslim vote bank in their favour as a given. They did not even feel the need to project any Muslim face during the campaign.

The alliance assumed that Muslims had nowhere to go, and therefore refrained from harping too much on secularism. According to their calculations, overplaying the secularism card would have worked in favour of the BJP.

Similar calculations prevented the RJD-JD (U) from turning recent communal clashes in Muzaffarpur and Jehanabad into a major political issue. The BJP, on the other hand, used these riots to woo Mallahs, one of the most prominent 'most backward castes'.

Seemanchal's grudge against Nitish

The Muslims of Seemanchal already have a grudge against Nitish. The Bhajanpura firing is still fresh in their minds, even after four years. Six people belonging to the community were allegedly killed due to police atrocities. They also included women and children. The brawl had started over the industrial complex owned by a BJP leader.

Nitish did not even visit the area, forget taking any concrete action. Local Muslims believe the chief minister's indifference was due to pressure from the BJP.

The recently-released report on the Bhagalpur riots has only added to Nitish's woes. Its indictment of the then-Congress government has deepened the disillusionment, in the minds of the Muslims, for the grand old party.

The turning point of Muslim politics

A record 34 Muslim MLAs made it to the assembly in 1985. Of these, 28 won on Congress tickets, signalling just how popular the party was among Muslims of the state.

But the infamous Bhagalpur riots of 1989 were a turning point for Muslim politics in the state. Muslims of Bihar moved away from the Congress and started to look for options like Lalu and Nitish only after these riots.

The complicity of the Sangh Parivar and influential people of a particular caste in these riots is also no secret. Many Muslims are miffed at the way these elements have gone scot-free.

The arrival of Owaisi could act as a catalyst for these simmering sentiments among the Muslim community to boil over. The JD (U)-RJD-Congress combine is most likely to suffer, if that happens.

Only 15 Muslims managed to enter the assembly in 2010 elections - the lowest since independence. The community holds sway over almost 50 seats and possesses the strength to send its own candidate from at least 40 of these seats.

It remains to be seen whether the Owaisi factor will increase the Muslim representation in the state assembly. However, the street-corners of Bihar are abuzz with the rumour that he is nothing but another trick from BJP's sleeve.

First published: 17 August 2015, 8:24 IST
N Kumar @CatchNews

Is a freelance journalist based in Patna. He writes prolifically on politics, caste and economic reforms.