What Next for Muslim Politics in Bihar as Four AIMIM Leaders Defect to RJD?
The defections are a setback for not just the AIMIM, but also for Asaduddin Owaisi personally.
Asaduddin Owaisi’s efforts to emerge as a pan-Indian leader of Muslims have taken a definite beating with the decision of four of the five MLAs of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Bihar to join the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). This will be the second setback for the AIMIM – as well as Owaisi personally – after a dismal performance in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election earlier this year.
In the Uttar Pradesh election, Owaisi fielded 100 candidates with much fanfare and expectations. But the showing was disastrous, with none of the candidates polling more than 5,000 votes; 99 of them forfeited security deposits.
Although the defection of the four MLAs has bolstered the Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD, rendering it the single-largest party in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha once again, it is unlikely to trigger an immediate political turnaround in the state.
This will be the second setback for the AIMIM – as well as Owaisi personally – after a dismal performance in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election earlier this year.
From 2015 onwards, the publicity that the AIMIM’s presence in the fray got was due to Owaisi’s appeal. However, the performance of the party in the seats it contested was dependent on the political base of the leaders who joined his party.
For the RJD, the entry of four MLAs could not have been more opportune. But the road ahead is long and tricky.
Will the Defections Really Benefit RJD?
To take the RJD anywhere close to the power centre, dramatic political developments would be required. For several months, speculation had been rife over Nitish Kumar’s stance on the presidential and vice-presidential polls. But with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar choosing to avoid a confrontation with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the window for any change appears to have been shut at this moment.
The only major point of contention between the Janata Dal (United) (JD-U) and its alliance partner is the issue of caste census, besides the tricky matter of the continuance of RCP Singh in the Union Cabinet. On the caste census, the BJP had no option but to go along with last month’s all-party consensus on the issue.
Yet, the BJP added a few riders: “no Rohingya or illegal Bangladeshi migrants” were to be counted. Furthermore, the party flagged the need to remain ‘on guard’ against the alleged ‘attempts’ of Muslims to falsely claim OBC benefits in areas dominated by them.
The setback for Owaisi and his party because of the defections will, peculiarly, not lead to any corresponding benefits for the RJD for a variety of reasons. The most important of these reasons is the fact that at least two of the legislators who crossed over won their seats by defeating RJD nominees. Their entry into the party has the potential to rankle the rank and file not only in these constituencies but also elsewhere in the state. In future elections, the RJD will once again be plagued by a dilemma over selections because it will be beset by a problem of plenty. Senior leaders not securing party nominations in the last election was the principal reason behind several well-entrenched and veteran politicians of the Seemanchal region joining the AIMIM.
A Telling Story of Two Siblings
In the October-November 2020 election, the failure to settle nomination issues among veteran leaders was seen most starkly in the Jokihat constituency, where two sons of late Mohammed Taslimuddin, who was a close aide of Lalu Prasad Yadav, contested each other.
Sarfaraz Aalam, the elder son and former MP, was picked as the RJD nominee. The younger son, Shahnawaz Aalam, who was the sitting MLA, was dropped, leading him to join the AIMIM in pique.
The rift between the siblings mirrored the failure of Indian political leaders at resolving succession issues. A former Union Minister of State for Home Affairs (in the HD Deve Gowda government), Taslimuddin had been elected to the Assembly and Parliament as a nominee of several parties. He died in 2017, when he was the RJD member from Araria in the Lok Sabha.
At his passing, the elder son, Sarfaraz Aalam, who was then a JD(U) MLA, quit the party and resigned from the state assembly, and was put up by the RJD for the seat that fell vacant after his father’s death. The assembly seat vacated by Sarfaraz’s resignation was allotted to the younger brother who, too, won in the by-poll. Ties between the blood brothers turned hostile when the RJD nominated the elder sibling for the assembly seat. Sarfaraz was previously defeated in the 2019 parliamentary elections in that constituency by a BJP candidate.
On being denied the seat where he was the sitting MLA, the younger brother, Shahnawaz, crossed over to Owaisi’s party in a fit and got elected, defeating his brother Sarfaraz, who is elder to him by 13 years and defeated him by more than 7,000 votes.
The question now is whether the siblings have reconciled or whether the elder brother and his supporters are looking to explore political fortunes elsewhere. A similar situation exists in at least one other seat.
Owaisi's Appeal Is Not Enough
Owaisi’s first bid to secure a toehold in Bihar’s Seemanchal region was in the 2015 assembly polls when it contested six seats out of 243 in the state. However, the party drew a blank.
The AIMIM chief, however, persevered. Akhtarul Iman, the state president of AIMIM and the only MLA who has not joined the RJD, was the party’s candidate for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Kishanganj, the seat that has elected leaders like Syed Shahabuddin and MJ Akbar.
Although he secured the third position in the contest, what mattered was that Iman polled 2.95 lakh votes, which was 26.78 per cent of the total votes polled. This result highlighted the paradox of Owaisi’s foray into Bihar.
In the previous assembly elections, Owaisi was more strategic in his approach and contested as part of the Grand Secular Democratic Front, which comprised Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and the Samajwadi Janata Dal (Democratic). Although it contested relatively fewer seats than its allies, the AIMIM got more media attention than its share of seats warranted.
From 2015 onwards, the publicity that the AIMIM’s presence in the fray got was due to Owaisi’s appeal. However, the performance of the party in the seats it contested was completely dependent on the political base of the leaders who joined his party.
The scenario was no different in 2020 – while Owaisi garnered media attention, the political support came due to strong local leaders with personal bases.
Traditionally, the Seemanchal region, with a significantly large Muslim population, was the bastion of Lalu Yadav. Although the Kishanganj seat, which borders West Bengal, was frequently under the spotlight because of the presence of star candidates and a high Muslim population (over 65 per cent), the region remained neglected and underdeveloped.
Tejashwi Yadav Faced With a Complex Opportunity
There is no doubt that after these crossovers, the balance in the assembly is tight. The National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) strength is 127, just five more than the majority mark, while the opposition mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) is now pegged at 115, of which 80 is the RJD’s tally.
This development will undeniably boost RJD cadres’ morale and give a push to some restive JD(U) legislators to evaluate their options, especially when Nitish Kumar is being somnambulistic. Several JD(U) leaders feel that not enough is being done to ward off the BJP’s designs to further marginalise their party.
As seen in Maharashtra, the BJP’s ambitions of expanding its political base spell doom not just for opponents but also for allies. Given that the BJP’s grand plans are unlikely to be reined in, it is possibly just a matter of time before Nitish Kumar breaks ties with the BJP.
In such a situation, the RJD’s success in cutting the losses the party suffered in 2020, with the help of AIMIM legislators, will give a big boost to enhance its stature as a party that can harness a large chunk of the minority vote.
Tejashwi Yadav has his task cut out. With the youth in Bihar getting increasingly restive over unemployment issues and with the bubbling discontent over the Agnipath scheme, the RJD leader has an opportunity. Yadav has made a start by demanding a debate on the contentious scheme. With the Speaker not permitting it, the monsoon session of the assembly has been a washout so far.
The entry of four MLAs could not have been more opportune. But the road ahead is long and tricky.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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