Why Owaisi's growing muscle in Maharastra matters to the rest of India
- Asaduddin Owaisi is a firebrand Muslim leader. His Muslim party, the AIMIM has recently started expanding its area of influence beyond Hyderabad
- It won two Maharashtra Assembly seats & emerged as the 2nd-largest party in Aurangabad civic polls
- It plans to contest 10 seats in the 122-seat Kalyan-Dombivali civic body elections later this year
- Muslims in Kalyan are divided about AIMIM gaining traction
- Some see the party\'s commitment to the Muslim cause as a reason for hope. Others fear party leader Asaduddin Owaisi\'s inflammatory speeches
- Such speeches may polarise votes and create communal tensions
- The AIMIM is beginning to have a national significance. It could split the Muslim votes even in the Bihar elections
It's called the 'All India' Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. And now, it is finally starting to justify the first part of its name.
The Hyderabad-based party has started taking root in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and especially Maharashtra, by playing on its strongest point - its commitment to the Muslim cause.
While this has created hope among the Muslims of the state, there are fears that the divisive and inflammatory speeches of AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi may rake up communal disharmony and ghettoise Muslims further in narrow identity politics.
Read: Suhas Palshikar on Why a Muslim Party can harm Muslims
The AIMIM picked up two seats in last year's Maharashtra assembly elections, and then emerged as the second-largest party in the Aurangabad civic polls. It is seen as a potential wild card in Bihar and UP, which has the Nitish-Lalu combine worried because it might split the Muslim vote. And now, it wants to spread its influence to the Kalyan-Dombivali Municipal Corporation, part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR).
The election for the 122-seat Kalyan-Dombivali civic body is scheduled in October-November. AIMIM is likely to contest 10 seats which, party leaders feel, it may win due to the dense Muslim population in these wards.
Rage against the mainstream
The last decade has seen the emergence of two forces that go against the grain of 'mainstream' political parties. On the regional identity side of things, there's Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS), while on the religious identity side, there's the AIMIM.
They might represent two vastly different - some would say opposing - standpoints, but the MNS and the AIMIM have one striking similarity - their leaders often indulge in inflammatory speeches.
So what is attracting Muslims to the AIMIM?
Partly, the AIMIM is seen to have remained constant on its policies and principles, which has contributed to its rise.
For decades, the Muslim community stood by political parties like the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. But over the years, community members have realised that mainstream parties shy away from fielding Muslim candidates.
"But, when it comes to AIMIM, almost every candidate is from the minority community. This strategy has helped the party make a dent in the Congress and SP's traditional vote bank," political analyst Nilu Damle says.
Even those with nothing but a passing interest in politics find the AIMIM a party with vision and commitment to the Muslim cause.
"Several parties have talked about upliftment of the Muslim community. But no one talked about giving electoral representation to the community members. But, we find AIMIM different from the traditional parties, as it has always given priority to Muslim candidates," says Saleem Sheikh, a fabricator from Bail Bazar area of Kalyan.
Sheikh's family has been residing in Kalyan for two generations, but it has hardly seen any changes in infrastructure or civic amenities in the area, which has a dense Muslim population.
According to rough estimates, Kalyan has a population of nearly 12 lakh, of which over a lakh are Muslims. Nearly 40% are Konkani Muslims, while the rest of them are migrants.
Besides Kalyan, Thane, Raigad and Mumbai too have a significant Muslim population in the MMR. The total population of the region is estimated to be around two crore, of which nearly 30 lakh are Muslims.Poor Muslim representation in the region is evident from the fact that of the MMR's 66 Assembly seats in 2014, only 16 candidates were Muslims, including Independents. The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party did not have any Muslim candidates, while the Samajwadi Party fielded four.
"The Muslim community has hardly got any representation from their so-called 'messiahs' in politics. The AIMIM has been able to strike an emotional chord by fielding maximum Muslim candidates," Shakir Qureshi, a trader from Bhiwandi says.
Kalyan has not seen any major communal riots in the past two decades. But with the AIMIM throwing its hat into the ring for the civic polls, people fear that the campaign could 'spoil the harmony'.
Tanveer Falke, a 61-year-old retired resident of Kalyan, says: "The Shiv Sena and BJP are in control of the civic body for decades. Fed up of the saffron rule, people voted for the MNS. But even their corporators have failed to deliver. Now AIMIM is trying its luck.
"The party may succeed in winning some seats, but people are not so optimistic. In fact, many of them are worried whether political speeches from both camps could lead to communal hatred in the town."
Many feel that with the AIMIM in the fray, minority votes will get divided and even lead to a polarisation of the Hindu votes.
Irfan Sheikh, an MNS leader from Kalyan, says the AIMIM will ensure polarisation.
"The AIMIM has been able to attract more number of Muslim voters than the Samajwadi Party and, at the same time, cause more Hindus to vote for the saffron parties. With AIMIM leaders expected to make inflammatory speeches, there are high chances of a polarisation of the Hindu vote," he claims.
Congress worst hit
In April this year, senior Congress leader Narayan Rane suffered a second Assembly polls defeat from Bandra (East) in six months. But the focus was not who defeated him (Shiv Sena), but on the AIMIM.
Rane lost by over 19,000 votes to Sawant, a novice whose only credentials was that she was the widow of former Shiv Sena MLA Bala Sawant, whose demise necessitated the by-poll.
The AIMIM was not touted to win the poll, but its mere presence is said to have influenced the outcome. Key to Rane's loss were the 15,000-odd votes garnered by AIMIM candidate Siraj Khan. This was higher than what the Samajwadi Party had managed in the 2014 Assembly elections.
Besides eating into the Congress vote bank, the inflammatory speeches by the Owaisi brothers - Asaduddin and his younger brother Akbaruddin - ignited the communal cauldron. This resulted in more number of Hindus turning out to vote for the Sena. Sawant got 52,711 votes, about 7,000 more than what her late husband had polled in 2014.
Love it or hate it, fear it or consider it a beacon of hope for an underprivileged community, the AIMIM looks set to spread its wings further in Maharashtra.