Can Owaisi’s AIMIM Emerge as Voice of Muslims in West Bengal & UP?

Asaduddin Owaisi has clearly said that AIMIM won’t contest in Assam and Kerala as AIUDF & IUML are present there. 

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Politics
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Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM has turned its focus towards West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, after its success in Bihar.
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The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen's (AIMIM) success in the Bihar Assembly elections, winning five seats, has generated a great deal of curiosity on where the originally Hyderabad-based party will expand next.

In this context, two statements by its top leaders are important.

  • AIMIM President Asaduddin Owaisi recently said that it has been the consistent stand of the party that it would not contest elections in Assam and Kerala, as Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF and the Indian Union Muslim League are present in the two states.
  • The second statement is a tweet by Aurangabad MP and AIMIM Maharashtra President Imtiaz Jaleel: "Bihar tou jhaaki hai..WB, UP baaki hai" (Bihar is just the beginning, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh are remaining).

This clearly indicates which states are in the AIMIM's radar and which aren’t.

Through his speeches which are widely shared on social media, Owaisi has attained a great deal of popularity, especially among younger Muslims across India. But will this lead to electoral success in Bengal and UP like it did in Bihar?

This piece will look at AIMIM's prospects in these two states and one more which doesn't get talked about much. Since elections in West Bengal are due next year, it will also look at the state of Muslim representation there.

West Bengal

It is in the context of West Bengal that another tweet, this time by senior AIMIM leader Syed Asim Waqar, becomes important. He tweeted:

"Didi hamara aur aapka Siyaasi Dushman ek hi hai.....@MamataOfficial Sahiba agar aap chahti hai ki BJP ko roka jaye, To aapse hazaar guna zyada hamare President Janab @asadowaisi Sahab ki bhi tamanna hai ki BJP ko roka jaye" (Didi, your and our political enemy is the same. If you want BJP to be defeated then Asaduddin Owaisi wants it a thousand times more).

Didi, hamara aur aapka siyasi dushman ek hi hai.
Syed Asim Waqar, AIMIM leader

This is being seen as AIMIM's open invitation to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for an alliance in the 2021 Assembly elections in West Bengal.

The AIMIM has never contested elections in Bengal, but clearly, it seems emboldened about its chances after it won five seats in Bihar's Seemanchal region, which borders Bengal.

Muslim votes are crucial for the TMC. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 57 percent Hindus voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and 32 percent for the TMC, according to the CSDS survey. It was the support of 70 percent Muslims that enabled the TMC to win 23 seats out of 42.

According to a calculation done by The Quint based on the CSDS survey data and census figures, 44 percent of TMC voters in 2019 may have been Muslims. This is how important they are for the party. And it is for fear of losing this vote, that Mamata Banerjee has been attacking Owaisi and denying permission to his rallies.

Focus on Areas Adjacent to Seemanchal

The geographical location is important, as the adjoining districts of Bengal, like Seemanchal, have a high concentration of Muslims – Uttar Dinajpur (49.9 percent), Maldah (51.3 percent), Dakshin Dinajpur (24.6 percent) and Murshidabad (66.3 percent).

AIMIM President Asaduddin Owaisi attracted huge crowds during the Bihar Assembly elections. 
AIMIM President Asaduddin Owaisi attracted huge crowds during the Bihar Assembly elections. 
(Photo Courtesy: Asaduddin Owaisi Facebook Page)

There is also cultural similarity. According to George Grierson, in the linguistic survey of India, Surjapuris form a big chunk of the Muslims in Seemanchal of Koch Rajbonshi origin and speak a dialect similar to the Koch Bengali of Maldah.

In the Bihar elections, the AIMIM got massive support from Surjapuri Muslims. Part of the reason is that Akhtarul Iman, the AIMIM Bihar President, is himself a Surjapuri and has won from the Amour seat in Purnea district. Akhtarul Iman is likely to be a key part of the AIMIM's campaign in Bengal.

The geographical location is also important because being near the Bangladesh border as well as Assam, the fear of an National Register of Citizens (NRC) type exercise is very acute in this region.

However, there is a slight difference here. The TMC seems to have been comparatively more forthcoming about speaking against the NRC and Citizenship Amendment Act. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself led a march against it.

The AIMIM may face another drawback in West Bengal, the absence of a strong local face like Akhtarul Iman.

North Bengal has been a Congress stronghold. The TMC has been making inroads here and expects to do well in the 2021 polls in the area. Anti-incumbency against the TMC is comparatively less in the region. 

Other than the TMC, the IMIM will also have to compete for Muslim votes along with the Congress-Left alliance as well. It must be remembered that Maldah, Murshidabad and parts of Uttar Dinajpur used to be Congress strongholds until the 2016 Assembly elections. But the Congress lost ground rapidly between 2016 and 2019 and now these areas are considered strong for the TMC.

As this isn't traditional TMC territory, the anti-incumbency against the party is also said to be lesser here, making the ruling party confident of its chances.

Muslim Representation in Bengal

Despite being 27 percent of the population as per the 2011 census, Muslims have remained underrepresented in various levels of government in Bengal. According to a 2016 report, the percentage of Muslims in government jobs was 5.7 percent. Although this is an increase of 1 percentage point from the Left Front era, it is still less than one-fourth of the Muslims' share in population.

Muslims account for less than 6 percent of government jobs in Bengal, despite being 27 percent of the population.

Although their representation in the Assembly has increased under the TMC. In 2011 and 2016, 59 Muslim MLAs were elected, up from 46 in 2006 during the Left-Front sweep.

The TMC is also said to be better than the Left in providing representation to Muslims in the party rank and file.

TMC's Muslim Leaders

Two Muslim leaders in the TMC are known to wield maximum clout – Firhad Hakim and Siddiqullah Chowdhury. Hakim, is Minister for PWD and Mayor of Kolkata, which is also his area of influence. In fact, he is Kolkata's first Muslim mayor since Independence.

Trinamool MLA Firhad Hakim
Trinamool MLA Firhad Hakim
(Photo: Facebook)

Siddiqullah Chowdhury holds influence near Burdwan and is an alumnus of Darul Uloom Deoband. Associated with the seminary's political wing – Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind – Chowdhury played an instrumental role in the Nandigram agitation against the Left Front government. He was also critical in sealing the Jamiat's understand with the TMC.

However, despite the presence of leaders like Hakim and Chowdhury and the increasing representation of Muslims, the TMC is facing some pushback from within the community.

Opposition from Abbas Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif

In South Bengal, the pushback is being led by Abbas Siddiqui, the Pirzada of Furfura Sharif, a Dargah in Hooghly district.

In the past, Siddiqui has been targeted by TMC cadres, especially local MLA Saokat Mollah. And as a result of this targeting, Siddiqui had earlier this year announced that he would contest the Bengal Assembly elections.

Furfura Sharif controls a large number of educational and charitable institutions, giving it considerable influence among Muslims of Hooghly and adjoining districts.

Siddiqui has in the past expressed his admiration for Owaisi but it is not clear if the two would join hands.

A lot may have to do with Owaisi's own calculations. It is believed that the party wants to proceed cautiously and restrict itself to a smaller number of seats.

Uttar Pradesh

Unlike West Bengal, the AIMIM has contested elections in Uttar Pradesh before. In the 2017 elections, it contested over 30 seats but managed to do well only in one – Sambhal, where Ziaur Rahman Barq, the grandson of Shafiqur Rahman Barq, was contesting. Shafiqur Rahman Barq has since rejoined the Samajwadi Party (SP) and is presently its MP from Sambhal.

Barq's exit meant that the AIMIM doesn't have a prominent local leader in UP who could play the role Akhtarul Iman did in Seemanchal.

The AIMIM did perform reasonably well in the bypoll to the Pratapgarh seat in 2019, indicating that it has since grown in UP.

The party actively participated in the anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh and a few of its functionaries, including Mau district President Mohammad Asif Chandan, have been arrested by the police.

AIMIM’s Mau district president Asif Chandan has been arrested in connection with the anti-CAA protests
AIMIM’s Mau district president Asif Chandan has been arrested in connection with the anti-CAA protests
(Photo: The Quint)

Like Bihar, the SP, the BSP and the Congress may be more vulnerable to Owaisi's attacks on the CAA than probably the TMC. This could potentially work in its advantage.

There's another possibility in UP – that after its success in Bihar, parties may be open to allying with Owaisi.

In Bihar, the AIMIM was part of the Grand Secular Democratic Front, that comprised two Uttar Pradesh-based parties – the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Om Prakash Rajbhar's Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) – besides Upendra Kushwaha's RLSP and Devendra Yadav's Samajwadi Janata Dal.

Owaisi's party was the best performer in the alliance winning five seats followed by the BSP with one. Interestingly, all 6 GSDF MLAs are Muslims and account for about a third of the Muslim representation in the Bihar Assembly.

But it is not clear if the BSP will be open to tying up with the AIMIM in UP or whether Owaisi would also want to enter into such an alliance given the perception that BSP chief Mayawati is soft on the BJP.

In comparison, an alliance with a smaller party like the SBSP seems more feasible. Elections in UP are due in February 2022.

Tamil Nadu

The third state where the AIMIM could contest is Tamil Nadu, which will go to polls with Bengal, Assam and Kerala in the summer of 2021.

In the 2016 Assembly polls, the AIMIM had contested on two seats – Vaniyambadi and Krishnagiri – both in Vellore district.

But in the Vellore bypoll in 2019, Owaisi campaigned for the DMK.

Vellore is one among two districts in Tamil Nadu, where Muslims have a sizable chunk of the population; the other being Ramanathapuram. However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the IUML won the Ramanathapuram seat.

So, it is not clear whether the AIMIM will contest the Assembly elections or support the IUML, which is likely to be part of the DMK-led alliance.

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