The seventeenth Lok Sabha is off to a testy start. The official oath taking ceremony for newly elected parliamentarians saw avoidable heckling and sloganeering, and the discussion on Triple Talaq bill exposed familiar fault lines with several parties contesting the government’s formulation as discriminatory.
One man occupied much attention on both occasions: All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief and member of parliament from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi. The treasury benches reserved some of their sharpest heckling for him, and his take on the Triple Talaq issue was biting enough for union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to interpret the Congress’s stance on the matter as “siding with the likes of Owaisi.”
Numbers May Be Negligible, Attention Received is Not
All this has little to with the presence Owaisi’s party commands in the house. Owaisi may have been returned to parliament for the fourth consecutive time, but 2019 is the first time the AIMIM’s tally in a house of 543 budged from one, to two. The ruling coalition, on the other hand, has a contingent of over 350, and the Congress, now said to be toeing the Owaisi line, was not so long ago India’s natural party of governance and continues to remain a force difficult to ignore.
The explanation for the attention Owaisi draws lies elsewhere. In what the man has come to represent in popular perception. In the punch he packs, the media attention he receives, the popular mindspace he occupies. Not only are these far more than merited by his party’s (limited) electoral footprint but, importantly, have ensured his emergence as the alpha anti-Hindutva figure in the country’s media.
Savage Criticism of Hindutva And Owaisi’s Persona
For a while now, Owaisi has been the most articulate and savagely critical political voice against the Hindutva project.
Unlike others, there is none of the coyness or calibrating of messages across platforms and audiences – only a fierce outspokenness that television relishes, especially since it comes laced with a felicity with words and an ability to distil complex arguments.
These skills have earned Owaisi wide recognition across the political spectrum. One has even come across Hindutva-leaning individuals who have a sneaking admiration for his guts and consistency.
The other made-for-television aspect of Owaisi is the persona he projects. At a time when ‘Hindu’ symbols, chants and gestures have come to be normalized indeed celebrated in what were considered apolitical and officially secular spaces, Owaisi stands out with his insistence on sticking to visible markers of his Muslim-ness. In terms of appearance, attire, vocabulary. A face off involving a visibly and proudly Muslim Owaisi and a Hindutva spokesperson makes for eye-ball fetching television and makes Owaisi a prize studio guest.
The Obdurate Muslim
Television channels may not be the only ones excited at the idea of seeing Owaisi on their discussion panels. One suspects his in-studio opponents like it too. For Owaisi’s comes across as precisely the kind of individual the Hindutva project seeks to cross swords publically with and ultimately put in place: the obdurate Muslim unwilling to defer to the nation’s overwhelmingly ‘Hindu’ impulse, the orthodox element holding back ‘good’ Muslim brethren from immersing themselves in the mainstream. Sure, Owaisi has increasingly spoken of the bahujan in an attempt to widen his political constituency, but his image remains that of a Muslim leader.
Is Owaisi a BJP prop?
If Owaisi was not around, the Hindutva project would perhaps have needed to manufacture one. For its rhetoric is best amplified and its positions are most resonantly packaged when ranged against an Owaisi-like opponent on the other side of the spectrum, not a waffling one inching close enough to meld. Irresponsibly worded public statements Owaisi’s younger brother Akbaruddin has allegedly made from time to time have only sharpened the contrasts and helped Owaisi’s principal detractors claim an anti-Hindu slant to his politics.
The AIMIM may be too small a player to meaningfully impact the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral prospects anytime soon, but the presence of an allegedly divisive force in the polity enables the BJP to stoke its core vote nevertheless.
Clearly, Owaisi, despite his unambiguous and unapologetic public postures against the BJP and its larger eco-system, serves, perhaps unwittingly, a purpose for the BJP. As a counter-poise against which it can shadow box and potently frame its political stances, as a symbol of the dangerously assertive when ‘assimilation’ is the need of the hour, as a critic of all that the supposedly secular opposition failed to do for Muslims and other minorities when in power.
All this has, of course, sparked suspicion about Owaisi being a BJP prop. Whether that is true is debatable, but the fact that Owaisi’s party’s presence in the electoral fray hurts the opposition’s chances against the BJP is not. That said, in a multi-party system, Owaisi and his party are entitled to pursue their political course without yoking themselves with other political forces. If they choose to expand going forward however, Owaisi may well have to fight his way out a chakravyuh which, counter-intuitively, fortifies rather than weakens his arch political foes with every swish of his blade.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)