The elections to the Bihar assembly this year and Uttar Pradesh 18 months later will have major implications for Muslim communal politics in post-independence India. These two elections will decide if there is space for the emergence of new mini-Jinnahs to compete for Muslim votes against the allure of so-called “secular parties.”
Bihar and UP are where the bulk of Indian Muslims live, and their relative poverty skews the entire picture in official statistics of Muslim deprivation relative to Hindus. Muslims outside these two states (and West Bengal and Assam, where Bangladeshi Muslims skew the picture again) are not far behind their Hindu counterparts is education and socio-economic status.
The “secular” parties – Congress, the Communists, and various regional parties in states – have so far walked away with the lion’s share of the Muslim vote purely by offering them “protection” against “communalists”. Thus while the other castes and communities offered votes for economic benefits, the Muslims got “protection” for votes, but little economic benefits. Despite the failure of this protection from Bhagalpur to Nandigram to Muzaffarnagar to Assam – where anti-Muslim riots happened in “secular” zones run by “secular” parties – the “secular” parties still assume that Muslims should be happy with the leaky umbrella of protection given to them.
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh could change all that. In Bihar, the only logic of the “secular” alliance between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar is the old protection logic – which allows them to reap the Muslim vote en bloc. But in the recent legislative council elections, it was the BJP-led alliance that fared better. Worse, three of the four Muslim candidates put up by the Lalu-Nitish alliance lost. While there is no point presuming that this is what will play out in the more important assembly elections due in three months’ time, one question is important to raise: are all these attempts to harvest the Muslim vote ensuring a reverse consolidation of the Hindu vote?
The Bihar assembly elections will thus decide whether opportunistic “secular” alliances of the Lalu-Nitish kind can survive in the future when Muslims realise they have been taken for a ride.
On the other hand, the Uttar Pradesh election will decide whether Muslims will invest hopes in the new mini-Jinnahs now arriving on the scene from multiple states: the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) of Asaduddin Owaisi, the Assam United Democratic Front of Badruddin Ajmal, the old Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) of Kerala and scores of mini-Muslim parties. Of the rising mini-Jinnahs, Owaisi’s AIMIM bids fair to become the next polariser, having already announced a plan to contest the next Uttar Pradesh elections on its own.
AIMIM has already met with some success in Maharashtra (especially in Nanded, Aurangabad and Mumbai), and Owaisi is now taking his roadshow to Uttar Pradesh, putting the fear of god into the traditional “secularists”. The BJP will be hoping that AIMIM will split the Muslim vote in UP, giving it the benefit of a divided opposition and a counter consolidation of the non-minority vote – as had happened in 2014.
While the BJP could be the short-term beneficiary of a split minority vote, in the long run we are likely to see the rise of a Muslim party (or parties) that will have to be reckoned with on its own terms. This is what happened in Kerala, where the IUML is part of every UDF coalition based on a consolidation of the Muslim vote. The CPI(M) is more of a Hindu party in Kerala.
Owaisi is, however, playing his cards smartly. He is trying to call his party a a Muslim-Dalit-OBC alliance, taking a leaf out of the same community arithmetic logic that Congress, SP and BSP have tried and benefited from in the past. When the Congress was a factor in UP, its vote combo was upper castes, plus Dalits and Muslims. With Mulayam Singh, the winning arithmetic was Yadavs and Muslims. With Mayawati‘s BSP, it was upper castes plus Dalits, with a minor share of the Muslim vote.
Owaisi is trying the Mayawati combo minus upper caste Hindus, who will anyway not vote for AIMIM. If Mayawati’s vote base of Dalits crumbles, Owaisi can get a chunk of this vote – as he did in Aurangabad. However, the BJP under Narendra Modi has also had some success with Dalits, and so the chances are we will be up against an attempted Muslim consolidation in UP under Owaisi – assuming he gets traction between now and mid-2017 when assembly elections are due.
The loss of the Muslim candidates in the Bihar council elections will have dealt a blow to the Lalu-Nitish kind of “secular” combos. Muslims in neighbouring UP may well wonder what they have to lose by picking a party that at least is manned by Muslims. We will know what Bohar Muslims think by the end of this year.
The stage has been set for the rise of India’s next mini-Jinnahs, with incalculable consequences for communal polarisation, this time precipitated by Muslim politicians, thanks to the failure of “secular” politics of the past 68 years.