Can Owaisis give their politics a non-sectarian twist?
By Saeed Naqvi
Unlike the Aam Aadmi Party which overestimated its potential after an outstanding debut in Delhi, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) led by Asaduddin and Akbaruddin Owaisi is expanding cautiously.
During recent state elections in Maharashtra, they ventured outside the confines of Hyderabad. They made measured forays in 26 constituencies which were once part of the Nizam’s state. The experiment succeeded. They won two and in the remaining 24 they performed with honour intact.
This has raised eyebrows all around. Are they planning to expand? Will they contest the elections in Delhi? An editor from Srinagar asked: “Why are they not helping a party in Kashmir they consider more honest than others?”
On being asked, they remain silent. This caution betrays long term planning.
They have, however, decided to take the plunge in Uttar Pradesh where they are in the process of weaving a network. Their calculation is based on simple logic.
The level of polarization the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to affect in the 2014 parliamentary polls, when it won 71 of the 80 seats, cannot be repeated. The soufflé rises only once. This, because communal temperature cannot be kept at boiling point indefinitely. Whatever the degree of religious polarization the BJP achieves, the trick works only when there is simultaneous division of the Muslim vote. This is where the MIM enters the game.
The scattering of the Muslim vote is a function of the community’s helplessness. Muslims had a choice of three discredited parties - the Samajwadi, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress.
The situation in Maharashtra during recent elections was similar. The choice offered to the minority was unappetizing - Congress or the NCP. The MIM provided the ventilator in the suffocating situation.
There is great irony in the fact that in the 67th year of India’s partition, when the nation is being invited to remember Jawaharlal Nehru on his 125th birth anniversary, the Indian Muslim has in desperation been forced to seek political solace in a party which has a religious denomination attached to its name.
There were few in India’s first cabinet whom Nehru admired more for their intellect and grace than Maulana Azad. These two stalwarts of the national movement would never have believed in their lifetime that an avowedly Muslim party would be considered for a role in north India. When the Congress embraced the partition plan, Maulana Azad had repeatedly warned of this possibility. There is no evidence that Nehru ever did.
Whether the MIM will deliver or not is not the issue. The fact is that large sections of Muslims are looking at it for want of attractive options. The so-called secular parties have of course failed the world’s second largest Muslim population. But even more worrisome has been the role of the clergy which has taken upon itself the role of middleman, between the community and ruling class parties.
A classical example is Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid. The first to bestow a political halo on the Imam’s head were Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna. The fashion caught on.
I found myself addressing a packed hall of Imams of mosques who were demanding a greater political role for themselves. I have not forgiven the event manager who had conned me into this congregation.
The need for the clergy to function as political middlemen arose because of growing alienation between the communities. A system of uninstitutionalized apartheid required middlemen whom political parties could contact for the delivery of bulk Muslim votes. The Mullah was the obvious choice.
During the Muzaffarnagar riots, the Samajwadi Party’s point of contact was Maulana Arshad Madani. His advice to the homeless riot victims was priceless: Accept compensation from the state government along with the condition that riot victims would never return to their original villages.
What was the advantage of being internally displaced in perpetuity? The Maulana said: “This way our boys and girls would be shielded from the prosperous Jat boys.” In his book, the ghetto was the panacea of all social evil.
Surely, the MIM promises freedom from strict clerical supervision. But does it not perpetuate the ghetto? Will not the apartheid system derive strength from MIM politics?
The Owaisi brothers are creatures of their social circumstance. They grew up in old Hyderabad, in a family with memories of the Razakars, Deshmukhs and the harsh military action, details of which have only recently become available after the Pandit Sunderlal report was released.
They are both outstanding public speakers. Asaduddin, who studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, is the more sophisticated strategist. Akbaruddin can at times be a rabble rouser. It may have suited their politics in Hyderabad. But as they prepare to step out into the wide world they will, of their own accord, become more circumspect.
They have already taken baby steps into non sectarian, temporal politics by fielding several Hindu candidates in Maharashtra. If they are to survive the rough and tumble of Indian politics they will have to transcend sectarian politics. The word “secular” has been so profaned by the politics of the last six decades that a quest for a synonym would be in order.
(A senior commentator on diplomatic and political affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)