It is never easy for a newbie, much less a “smaller” entity, to find a place in Uttar Pradesh’s crowded, variegated political mosaic. As the elections approach, the players, who spring up like mushrooms after a shower, are showing up, jousting for a place under the sun, singly or in partnership. These parties are region-confined or address certain castes and communities that often undermine their salience because the so-called mainline parties serve as umbrellas for the conflicting interests. There are exceptions.
The Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, helmed by a former state minister, Om Prakash Rajbhar, is courted by the BJP and the Samajwadi Party (SP) because of its hold over the OBC community of Rajbhars that count substantially in parts of east and central UP. Asaduddin Owaisi, the Hyderabad MP, has, so far, not debuted in UP. He wants to build on the success he had in Bihar’s Seemanchal region in the last assembly elections. However, this time expediency got the better of the ambitious Owaisi. Declaring that he will fight on 100 of the 403 assembly seats, Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has become part of Rajbhar’s Bhagedari Sankalp Morcha that includes nine other parties. On the face of it, the move is explicable: Rajbhar needs Owaisi to discard the baggage of being “pro-BJP” because he partnered with the BJP in the 2017 elections and was a minister in the Yogi Adityanath government. Owaisi can’t make headway on the back of only the minority votes.
The Morcha experiment is riddled with complications and uncertainties. It is unclear if Rajbhar wants to join hands with the SP that is assiduously wooing smaller, caste-centered parties to transcend its core Yadav votes. Recently, Rajbhar called on the UP BJP president, Swatantra Dev Singh, an OBC Kurmi. It is still not known if Rajbhar’s call-on was meant to make up with the BJP after a bitter estrangement or—as some media reports claimed—Singh was “unhappy” on being marginalized in the BJP despite holding a top post. If indeed, Rajbhar eventually re-joins hands with the BJP, a strong probability considering the BJP remains the center of gravity in UP—where does that leave the AIMIM? Will it reinforce the perception of Owaisi’s detractors that his larger aspirations are an alibi to help the BJP cut the Muslim votes and harm the “secular” forces? Conversely, Owaisi backers argue that can a party be denied democratic space simply because it makes a play for the same votes other BJP opponents work upon? Was a larger party so vulnerable that it could not stop its core base from being encroached on? In the Seemanchal region, post-poll analyses showed that there was disquiet among Muslims with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Congress or the Mahagatbandhan (MGB) combine for not articulating their concerns and interests, notably the CAA-NRC, forcefully in the public arena, ostensibly for fear of giving the BJP a handle to brand the duo “anti-Hindu”.
It is useful to re-visit the AIMIM’s Bihar breakout success and reflect to what extent Owaisi was a “vote cutter”. A party is accused of being a vote-cutter if it secures more votes than the margin of defeat in a particular seat where its base is similar to that of the defeated candidate. The AIMIM contested 20 seats out of 243 seats, of which 14 were in Seemanchal. Of the five seats the AIMIM won in this belt, in only one, Raniganj (Araria district), it polled more votes than the NDA’s margin of defeat. Of the 20 seats it fought, the MGB won eight.
Kanshi Ram, the founder, and ideologue of the path-breaking Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was similarly accused of “damaging” the Congress’s Dalit base when he started to specifically target the scheduled castes with the line that while the Congress used them as “vote-banks”, he would give them a share in the power structures(bhagedari), proportionate to their population. Success in UP and outside came after a long and hard struggle that entailed making “compromises” even with the BSP’s ideological adversaries such as the BJP to acquire power. Kanshi Ram worked on a single belief: the means justify the ends and the belief was vindicated when his protégé Mayawati was first installed as UP’s chief minister in 1995 with the BJP’s support.
Owaisi had aligned with the BSP in Bihar and the alliance mutually benefitted the parties. He had hoped to sustain the partnership in UP but Mayawati rebuffed him and announced she would go solo. Owaisi was as cold to the SP as the SP was. Underlying the SP and BSP’s attitudes towards the AIMIM is the apprehension that if they align with a party perceived to represent a sectional interest, in this case, the Muslims, their Hindu followers would turn away and drift towards the BJP as they did since 2014. In a make-or-mar battle, the SP and BSP, which suffered colossal reversals for the past seven years, another rout might cost them their survival. Therefore, the SP and BSP are tiptoeing on Hindutva terrain, inhabited largely by the BJP, with circumspection.
Indeed, in UP, “Muslim” parties never secured a foothold because in the post-Congress era—1989 drew the equator line between religious communities—the minorities have gravitated towards the party or coalition best positioned to defeat the BJP. In UP’s case, it was almost always the SP, barring 2007 when Muslims voted the BSP.
In the 2017 elections, the AIMIM on its own fought on 38 seats, won nothing, and had a vote share of 0.24 percent. The Indian UnionMuslim League (IUML) contested three seats, drew a blank and got no votes (0 vote percent). The Ittehad-E-Milait Council, headed by Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, a prominent Bareilly-based cleric, polled 0.6 percent votes while the Peace Party got 0.26 secured a vote percent of 0.26.
The Peace Party, led by former Khalilabad MLA Dr. Mohammad Ayub, has tied up with the Rashtriya Ulema Council and launched the United Democratic Alliance that professed its backing for Amitabh Thakur, a sacked IPS officer who declared that he will face Adityanath in the assembly elections. The Welfare Party, headed by SQR Ilyas and the father of JNU activist Umar Khalid, has tied up with the SP at a low-key event.
UP’s Muslims have been at the receiving end of state repression, which manifested itself in multiple forms, whether it was curtailing and even banning the sale of meat, “love jihad” that was essentially a crackdown on inter-faith marriages and relationships, the protests against CAA and NRC, and so on. Yet the BJP’s opponents never flagged these issues in their campaign and discourse but for anodyne mentions in tweets.
The attack on Owaisi’s Delhi house by Hindu Sena activists doubtless spotlighted him as a target. Whether that will get him traction among UP Muslims is an imponderable.
Radhika Ramaseshan is a consulting editor with Business Standard and a columnist. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.