Spoiler turns benefactor: why Nitish & Lalu need to thank Owaisi
- AIMIM has fielded 6 candidates in Bihar
- Party chief Asaduddin Owasi has urged voters to vote for secular candidates in the remaining seats
- This will help the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance
- AIMIM\'s Bihar unit chief says the aim is to defeat the BJP
More in the story
- Why did Owaisi scale down his ambitions in Bihar?
- Will this help the AIMIM in the long run?
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi has scaled down his ambitions in Bihar. His party had earlier announced that it would contest 24 seats in the Bihar Assembly elections. It has finally decided to field just six candidates.
Owaisi's decision is good news for the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance, which had feared a split in Muslim votes because of the AIMIM's entry.
What will further embolden Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad is Owaisi's open appeal to "vote against the BJP".
"Where the AIMIM is not contesting, we request the people of Bihar to defeat BJP and to vote for any secular candidate or secular combination," Owaisi posted on his Facebook page. In effect, this is an appeal to vote for the Grand Alliance in the 237 seats the AIMIM is not contesting.
What triggered this change in plans?
Defeating the BJP
The main reason seems to be that the AIMIM doesn't want to be accused of helping the BJP in any way. Soon after the AIMIM announced that it would be contesting 24 seats in the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region, the Grand Alliance began accusing Owaisi of being a "BJP agent".
The narrative also changed significantly after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh on 28 September. Apparently after lynching, defeating the BJP became the main imperative for Bihar's Muslims. And the only way to accomplish this was by backing the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance.
Even the AIMIM's Bihar unit president Akhtarul Imam stressed that defeating the BJP is the party's main priority.
"We have two elements to our core agenda: resisting the BJP and the development of Seemanchal. The decision on the seats has been taken keeping these two aims in mind," Iman told Catch.
Owaisi was caught in a Catch-22 situation. Had the AIMIM's presence caused the defeat of the Grand Alliance, it would have harmed the party's chances in Uttar Pradesh, which is its main priority. And if the Grand Alliance wins the state and defeats the AIMIM in Seemanchal, the party would no longer be seen as a viable option.
Contesting a minimum number of seats was the only way out.
Caught between two giants
Another reason was that the Bihar election is boiling down to a contest between the NDA and the Grand Alliance, with smaller parties getting marginalised. So Owaisi's decision is driven by practical concerns as well.
"We are a young party. This is our first election. There are many constraints - logistics, finances, manpower. These have to be kept in mind," said Iman.
It's fight has now become largely symbolic. The 6 seats it is contesting are Kishanganj, Kochadhaman, Rani Gunj, Baisi, Amour and Balrampur. Interestingly, the AIMIM candidate from Rani Gunj is a Dalit Hindu, Amit Paswan, a decision that is in line with Owaisi's agenda of Dalit-Muslim unity.
The party hopes to do well in the seats it is contesting. Additionally, it hopes to set the agenda in the Seemanchal region.
The narrative changed for Bihar's Muslims after the Dadri lynching. Now the main aim is to defeat BJP
"We are getting very good response in the seats we are contesting," said Iman, who is contesting from the Kochadhaman seat in Kishanganj district.
Iman points out that even though the AIMIM is contesting six seats, these are spread out across the 4 districts in Seemanchal. Despiting contesting less seats, the AIMIM wants to establish its presence across the region.
A very important factor in the AIMIM's partial withdrawal from Bihar's political battlefield is RJD supremo Lalu Prasad. The SP government's timid response to the Dadri lynching made many Muslims recall how Lalu had arrested LK Advani during the peak of his rath yatra 25 years ago.
That Muslims are consolidating behind the Lalu-Nitish alliance is acknowledged by every single pre-election survey. The CNN-IBN-Axis survey predicted that a whopping 72% Muslims are likely to vote for the Grand Alliance. The Zee News-JanataKaMood puts the estimate at 58%.
Incidentally, Owaisi is known to share a good equation with Lalu Prasad. In an earlier interview to Catch, Owaisi recalls that he had gone to campaign for Lalu in 2005 on his own accord.
Choosing the right battle
This is not the first time Owaisi has recaliberated his strategy mid way. A few months before the Delhi Assembly elections, there were reports that the AIMIM was considering putting up candidates in Muslim-dominated seats. But once it became evident that Muslims were overwhelmingly voting for Arvind Kejriwal's AAP, the AIMIM supposedly decided against contesting.
Owaisi's strategy is clear. He seeks to represent the interests of the Muslim community in places where secular parties have failed. AIMIM's success in Maharashtra was largely a result of the Congress and NCP's failures. Uttar Pradesh also seems to be going in the same direction, with the Samajwadi Party government failing to protect Muslims. Bihar, like Delhi, isn't as conducive. Far from resentment, there is significant goodwill among Bihar's Muslims for Nitish Kumar and more importantly Lalu Prasad.
Owaisi is playing for the long haul.