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Asaduddin Owaisi addresses a public rally in Nalgonda of Telangana (File) Image Credit: IANS

India has two obsessions — cricket and politics and both ensue huge debate about the moves of the top players. Currently the political player who is ensuring the maximum buzz around his power play is Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis e Ittehad ul Muslimeen.

The 52 year old, four time member of Parliament from Hyderabad, is also a trained barrister from Lincoln Inn’s in London. Yet Owaisi is derided by the so-called secular bloc of political parties as being the “B” team of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

They say Owaisi works to queer the pitch of the opposition and literally helps Amit Shah, BJP’s chief strategist, by being a “vote katua” — a delicious, self-explanatory Indian political term, which means somebody who helps the BJP by cutting the votes of its rivals.

The charge made by Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, where Owaisi also put up candidates in the hotly fought assembly elections, was that he was helping the BJP by fielding candidates and cutting into Banerjee’s minority vote.

Owaisi, however, failed to win a single seat in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where he had also put up candidates.

Damaging the secular vote

Similar allegations were made by India's principal opposition party Congress and also the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), when Owaisi put up candidates in the Bihar assembly elections, predominantly in the Seemanchal region which has a significant minority vote presence.

Owaisi won five seats in the minority dominated region — a large figure given that the NDA led by the BJP won just 15 more seats than the grand alliance of the Congress and the RJD.

Owaisi had put up candidates in 44 seats in the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections and managed to win two seats, surprising poll watchers.

Tall and strapping, Owaisi often leads these poll campaigns from the front and is the boldface of his party. An impressive, eloquent speaker, he manages to attract huge crowds in his public meetings. Till date the crowds have not been fully converted into votes for his party.

Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of UP has remarked, “BJP accepts Owaisi’s challenge”. That virtually makes it Yogi versus Owaisi. An ideal contest for Yogi since Owaisi has no stakes in UP unlike regional heavyweights like Akhilesh Yadav, chief of the Samajwadi Party, which has traditionally attracted the minority support.

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I spoke to a bunch of top Indian politicians - cutting across party lines - for this column and they were unanimous about the role Owaisi and his party play to help the BJP.

The point nearly a dozen leaders made was that Owaisi jumps in to the fray and makes extreme remarks, which simply polarises the majority voters in favour of the BJP.

Says one top policy chief of a major political party, “Owaisi and his party are separated at birth twins of the BJP. Why does he stand for elections far away from Hyderabad, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh — places where he has little or no stakes? All politics is first local. How is UP, Bihar and West Bengal local for Owaisi?”

The tag of BJP’s “B” team has gained much traction in recent months as Owaisi has announced that he will put up candidates in 100 seats in the big battle of Uttar Pradesh, where assembly elections are slated for February next year.

Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of UP has remarked, “BJP accepts Owaisi’s challenge”. That virtually makes it Yogi versus Owaisi. An ideal contest for Yogi since Owaisi has no stakes in UP unlike regional heavyweights like Akhilesh Yadav, chief of the Samajwadi Party, which has traditionally attracted the minority support.

It benefits the BJP to pitch the UP elections as contest between Yogi and Owaisi specially since Owaisi has already started upping the ante with his spokesmen saying that Akhilesh Yadav should give in writing that he will hand over the Deputy Chief Minister post to a minority candidate.

Significantly Owaisi has not seen much electoral success in his forays in other states, yet seems to have no dearth of funds to put up a huge number of candidates in West Bengal and now the promised 100 candidates in UP.

A dry run for battle of 2024

Indian elections now are all about spending mind boggling sums of money. The BJP spent lavishly on the West Bengal elections, virtually as if money was going out of fashion, says a Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader wryly.

The upcoming polls in UP will possibly be the most expensive elections fought in the history of India given that it is crucial for the BJP to win since it is considered a dry run for the battle of 2024 parliamentary elections.

Yet as the BJP opens its war chest, Owaisi has no funding troubles. Most leaders say this is a huge factor which exacerbates their suspicions about Owaisi and his brand of politics.

Currently the biggest red herring, which is talked about in hushed whispers among the topmost echelons of Indian politics, is the unleashing of the central investigative agencies — the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Income Tax (IT) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) against the opposition by the ruling party.

Every senior leader of the opposition has had cases filed against them. This includes Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati among others, yet despite the war of words between Owaisi and the BJP, not a single central agency has filed a case against the Hyderabad MP.

Most senior leaders make this a central pillar of their case against Owaisi. Says a senior NCP leader, shrugging his shoulders, “yeh Noora kushti hai (this is a fixed fight). Soon people will see though it.”

Ask Owaisi and he firmly denies the allegations saying it is not his job to help the secular opposition. An effective communicator, Owaisi has always held that the minorities in India have been let down by the 'so-called' secular parties and he is only giving voice to them.

Sakshi Maharaj, BJP MP from Unnao, went public and stoked a huge political controversy when he said in January this year that “Owaisi had helped the BJP in Bihar elections and would do so in the West Bengal and UP elections too”.

Yogi Adityanath has upgraded Owaisi, who has no stakes in UP, to the status of a preferred political rival while Sakshi Maharaj publicly calls him the BJP’s “B” team.

Owaisi, with his powerful oratory, elite education and terrific star quality is — on paper at least — an ideal representative of a beleaguered minority in India today. Sadly he may be enabling the BJP. Coincidence or design?