True to form, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi had an eventful trip to Uttar Pradesh. On one hand, his visit to Ayodhya sparked protests from Hindutva outfits and on the other hand, strongman Atique Ahmed joined the AIMIM along with his family.
Owaisi vowed to defeat the BJP and accused parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress of "betraying Muslims."
He also asked if other communities can have their own parties, "Why not Muslims?".
"This is the reality of India, that only a community which has a leadership is allowed to progress," Owaisi said.
Owaisi's visit to UP also came on the heels of the party's decent performance in the urban local body polls in Karnataka – it won three wards in Hubli-Dharwad and one in Belgavi.
The AIMIM will be contesting Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh for the second time. It was second-time lucky in Bihar in the Assembly elections last year, winning five seats in the Seemanchal region after having drawn a blank in the previous election.
This piece will argue that Uttar Pradesh will be a very different ball game compared to Bihar and it won't be easy for the AIMIM to repeat its success here. On the other hand, the party also can't be written off and its situation in UP can't be compared to West Bengal where it drew a blank in the elections earlier this year.
FOUR REASONS WHY AIMIM MAY FIND IT DIFFICULT TO REPEAT BIHAR SUCCESS IN UP
1. Difference between Yogi and Nitish
One major difference between the two states is that Muslims in Uttar Pradesh are faced with a far more hostile regime in the form of the Yogi Adityanath government. Be it in terms of lynching cases, communal violence or arbitrary arrest of Muslims, the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar comes nowhere close to Yogi's regime. Even during the anti-CAA protests, Bihar didn't witness the kind of crackdown that was seen in BJP ruled states like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
In both the states, the home ministry is held by the CM and their approach towards Muslims reflects their respective politics.
Due to this hostile nature of the government, the sentiment among Muslims to vote to defeat the BJP and not back smaller parties, is much stronger than it was in Bihar.
2. The Bengal Effect
'Bangaal ka sabak' is an important buzzword among UP Muslims.
Mamata Banerjee's strong victory in Bengal has had an impact among UP Muslims. It sent the signal that there is tactical merit for Muslims to rally behind the strongest anti-BJP force in any state. Muslims in Bengal rejected not just the AIMIM but also the Left-Congress-ISF alliance, despite the fact that the TMC had reduced the number of tickets given to Muslims.
In fact, some of TMC's biggest gains came from Muslim majority districts like Murshidabad and Malda where it was traditionally weak and the Congress was the dominant force.
There is a strong sentiment among Muslims in UP to repeat the Bengal experiment and support the Samajwadi Party-led alliance, that is likely to include the Rashtriya Lok Dal as well.
3. No 'Seemanchal' in Uttar Pradesh
Seemanchal in Bihar is a unique area which has a Muslim majority and also a regional sentiment arising due to neglect by successive governments.
There are districts in UP where Muslims are about 50 percent, such as Rampur and Moradabad and where they are a little over 40 percent: Bijnor, Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur and Amroha. But there's no one district like Kishanganj in Bihar where Muslims are close to 70 percent.
Also, these districts in UP aren't underdeveloped areas like Seemanchal. In fact, the more backward areas in UP like Bundelkhand and East UP have a lower percentage of Muslims. So, while Muslims and Muslim-dominated areas do face discrimination, a Seemanchal-like regional sentiment is missing.
4. Lack of a Strong Leader
What worked for AIMIM in Bihar is the presence of a strong local leader like Akhtarul Iman. Formerly with JD(U) and RJD, Iman was already an influential leader among Surjapuri Muslims when he joined the AIMIM.
The demise of Mohammad Taslimuddin also created a vacuum in Seemanchal, especially among the Kulhaiya Muslim community to which he belonged.
By roping in his son Shahnawaz Alam, AIMIM staked claim to at least a part of Taslimuddin's legacy. Alam defeated his brother Sarfaraz Alam from the Jokihat seat in the Assembly elections.
However, the entry of Atique Ahmed in the AIMIM could give it a chance in his pocket of influence Phulpur.
AIMIM IN UP ISN'T LIKE IT WAS IN WEST BENGAL
Despite 'Bangaal ka sabak', it is also true that Uttar Pradesh isn't Bengal.
In 2021, TMC is said to have secured over 80 percent of the Muslim votes in Bengal.
In Uttar Pradesh, however, SP even at its best has managed to secure about 50 percent, with the Congress and BSP also getting a chunk.
At least in the past couple of decades, Muslims have voted more based on seat-wise considerations rather than back one party throughout the state. So, even if the SP-RLD alliance succeeds in crossing 50 percent of the Muslim community's votes, it won't be easy for it to match the TMC's performance.
This may open up space for the AIMIM in seats where it has strong candidates.
Atique Ahmed has influence in Allahabad district, then AIMIM also has some influence in Sambhal district though the return of Shafiqur Rahman Barq to the SP may harm its prospects.
In Mau, AIMIM had actively participated in the anti-CAA protests and some of its leaders are under arrest, though it is not clear what the political impact of this would be. In the Utraula seat of Balrampur district, the party is projecting Dr Abdul Mannan who was earlier with the Peace Party and has some influence in the area.
There are two other advantages the AIMIM has in Uttar Pradesh in comparison to Bengal.
First, the language barrier isn't there. Though Muslims in UP may speak different dialects, Owaisi's strong oratory in Urdu may have more of an impact than Bengal and he is likely to draw huge crowds.
WHAT DOES OWAISI WANT?
According to Owaisi, he wants to create an "independent Muslim political voice" in Uttar Pradesh. "Our Constitution grants us permission to try and create such a voice," he said during his recent visit to UP.
His main aim seems to be to ensure that 'secular' parties like Samajwadi Party don't take Muslims for granted.
"Why did the SP go silent during the when people were being killed and displaced in Muzaffarnagar?" Owaisi asks.
But what does that entail electorally?
Electorally, this would mean creating some competition in some Muslim concentration seats, where the drive to consolidate to defeat BJP may be weaker than seats where Muslims are less than 30 percent of the electorate.
Through AIMIM's presence, the aim is to ensure that parties like SP, BSP and Congress don't neglect Muslim community's issues or compromise on representation for the community.
"We are aware that a majority of Muslims may vote for these parties (SP, BSP and Congress). But those parties shouldn't get the feeling that Muslims have no option. We want to give Muslims that option so that they aren't taken for granted," said an AIMIM functionary in UP.
The functionary further added that this extends to Muslim leaders within these parties.
"These parties should also treat their own Muslim leaders and cadres better. They should be made to understand that if we don't give Muslim leaders the due respect, they can go to AIMIM," the functionary said.
However, this is easier said than done. The AIMIM is already facing allegations from parties like SP, that it will help BJP by cutting Muslim votes.
Though data suggests that the AIMIM didn't play spoiler to the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, the party is still finding it difficult to brush aside these allegations at least in UP.
The reason for this is largely because Muslims are faced with an extremely hostile regime and are subjected to daily humiliations, much more than in other states. In such a context, the desire to do everything possible to defeat the BJP is much higher.
Given such a scenario, it can't be ruled out that the Muslim support for the SP-led alliance may be more than any other elections in UP in the past couple of decades.
If that happens, it won't just constrict the AIMIM's growth, it may also harm the BSP and Congress, which got a significant chunk of Muslim votes in the past.