Destined to fail? Why Owaisi’s secular Muslim agenda may not work in Bihar elections
The debut of Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the upcoming Bihar assembly elections — on 24 seats of the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region — has triggered an argument: that it would lead to a polarisation of votes on religious lines, which would ultimately benefit the Bhartiya Janata Party.
This vision is slightly myopic. It seems we haven’t learnt the lesson from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Back then too, the populist appeal of the so-called secular parties — the Congress and its allies, and Left parties — projecting themselves as the sole fighters against the communal forces, looked quite naive and misplaced. For the upcoming Bihar elections, the Janata coalition has similarly been trying to project itself as a grand secular front. The grand narrative of secularism projected by Lalu and Nitish, without any real-life counterpart in actual secularising efforts (or an attempt at inculcating the ethos of secularism in the masses), seems self-defeating.
India never had a clear definition of secularism. And this handicap never got as visible as it did in the last two years. This handicap has led to the politicisation of the idea of secularism. To be sure, the politicisation had begun long back, during Indira Gandhi’s regime, with the formal and deliberate inclusion of the word ‘secular’ through 42nd Amendment Act. Back then, it didn’t look lethal and blended well with the ethos of Indian society. But later, an overdose of rhetoric around it followed by no reflection by political parties in terms of ground realities made it a burden on the psyche of the voters.
The issue in 2015 is not secularism versus communalism, but rather secularism versus secularism: Hindu secularism versus Muslim secularism, to be precise.The voting pattern in the state assembly elections is mostly community-based. When the community-based parties successfully attract Muslim votes, they call themselves secular. The secularism practiced currently – by the Congress, Samajwadi Party, the Nitish-Lalu duo and the like – is basically Hindu secularism. Similarly, when Owaisi claims when he says his grand vision is to bring together Muslims and Dalits, it looks like a claim on another indigenised brand of secularism which could be called ‘Muslim secularism’, as he says that he is not against the Hindus but rather against the communal, divisive forces like RSS and soft-Hindutva forces like Congress party. The common vote-bank in both the cases is either a combination of Muslims and Dalits or Muslims and other backward classes (OBCs).
Owaisi’s entry in north India and his dreams of expansion is no surprise: even during the 2014 LokSabha elections, he claimed that if in India the majority community, Hindus, have their leadership and messiahs, why should Muslims be left high and dry, fooled by false promises and sympathy. The Bihar elections are again being wrongly portrayed as a contest between secular versus communal forces. The coming together of Nitish and Lalu is not a “grand secular front”, but simply the coming together of two community-based local leaders.
The exhortation of secularism by the Janata combine doesn’t seem appealing to the masses; the Janata appears to be indulging in the homogenisation of the identities. The BJP has, on the other hand, of late tried to invoke history in order to glorify and celebrate identity — as they did in case of the Kushwaha community. By associating the Kushwahas with king Ashoka the BJP tried to bestow dignity, sense of pride, leadership and political participation on the community.
The need for identity for a sense of dignity is being missed out by the secular propagandists. Similar has been the problem of the Left parties. Till recently, they had turned a blind eye to caste realities in Indian society; only gradually they are waking up to the ground realities.
As far as Owaisi is considered, his Muslim-Dalit appeal might remain blunted in Seemanchal. This is because apart from the two main coalitions of Janata and NDA, there is also a “third front” of Sharad Pawar and Pappu Yadav: Pappu Yadav is popular in the four districts of Seemanchal; the third front’s chief ministerial candidate, Tariq Anwar of the Nationalist Congress Party, also won the LokSabha election from Katihar last year.
Till the time the Muslim secular politics takes proper shape, the community might prefer being on the side of the Hindu secularists: Janata Parivar in Bihar’s case. Of course, the BJP, with two Dalit parties led by Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi on its side, would be the overall beneficiary from a possible polarisation.
While there is little hope for Owaisi in Bihar as of now, even winning a seat or two will boost his morale and chances of expansion in the upcoming assembly elections in the neighbouring states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh in 2016 and 2017 respectively. In Uttar Pradesh, especially, the SP has been taking Muslim votes for granted in the name of secularism and socialism — as is the case with the Lalu-Nitish duo in Bihar (Lalu especially). If by any chance Owaisi flukes his way to one or two wins in Bihar, it will definitely ring alarm bells in Uttar Pradesh.