As the results of elections in the Indian state of Bihar started trickling in last Tuesday, a correspondent for an Indian television news channel in Patna alluded to an interesting quote while referring to the party-pooper role played to near-perfection by Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and its leader Chirag Paswan: “The first election is for us to lose; the second is for us to make sure some people lose; and the third will be the one to win”! LJP, a partner in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), won just one seat in Bihar, but managed to achieve two objectives — one by default, and the other by design.
It was LJP’s presence in the fray that accounted for the defeat of the ruling Janata Dal-United (JDU) candidates in about 39 seats, thereby dealing a severe embarrassment to JDU supremo and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, relegating his party to the third position in the overall seat tally. If that was by design, given Paswan’s animosity to Kumar, then by default, he ensured that NDA big brother BJP win a far larger number of seats than JDU — an outcome that will probably keep Kumar on tenterhooks all through his new five-year term and allow the BJP central leadership to call the shots, keeping Kumar as a figurehead CM only.
Now talking about party-poopers, there’s one other party whose performance in the Bihar elections is quite noteworthy, and that is All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (Aimim), led by its firebrand president Asaduddin Owaisi. Aimim, considered a rank outsider in Bihar politics until the other day, not only managed to win five seats, out of the 20 it had contested, but more interestingly, it made significant inroads into the minority ‘vote bank’ of the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the Seemanchal area, bordering the state of West Bengal, which goes to the polls in April-May 2021. And in a seemingly surprising move, almost immediately after the Bihar poll results were out, Owaisi declared that in next year’s Bengal assembly polls, his party would be fielding candidates.
Seemingly surprising because Owaisi’s Aimim has so far had a zero footprint in Bengal. However, if one considers the niche-politics played by Owaisi and his Aimim, mostly catering to the sentiments of minority Muslim voters and his carefully-calibrated messages by way of raising issues pertaining to that one particular community, then the fact that Muslim voters comprise about 30 per cent of the electorate makes Owaisi’s politics of polarisation all too relevant. And that is precisely the reason why Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee has reasons to worry.
If tomorrow Owaisi turns out to be the ‘Chirag Paswan of Bengal’ and play party-pooper to TMC, don’t blame him because the template for a highly polarised political matrix was drawn up much before he jumped into the fray.
It is still early days, but there is no doubt that if Owaisi’s Aimim finds even marginal traction with the minority vote in the state, then it can turn out to be a decisive factor in about 140 of the 294 seats that will be up for grabs in the 2021 assembly polls. And should that happen, Owaisi may well turn out to be the ‘Chirag Paswan of Bengal’ — party-pooper par excellence, giving Mamata the jitters more than anyone else. There are at least four districts, namely Maldaha, North Dinajpur, Murshidabad and South 24 Parganas, accounting for a total of 74 seats, where Muslim voters have always had a say in the poll results. Owaisi has said it in as many words that Aimim will field candidates in these districts, apart from a few other areas in the state. Add another 65 seats in the mix from pockets across Nadia, North and South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly and Kolkata where the minority vote can make a difference between winning and losing and it is quite likely that the Owaisi brand of politics may help BJP in many of these seats in a highly polarised atmosphere.
Why Mamata needs to worry
The question that arises here is that why does Mamata have to worry about Aimim trying to make inroads into Bengal?
From the time India became independent in 1947 and until the Left parties came to power in Bengal in 1977, the minority vote had always stayed with Congress. After that, for the next 34 years of unstinted Left rule in the state, the minority Muslim vote has staunchly stayed with the Left. This trend saw a massive change during the 2008 Panchayat (local rural self-government) polls when the first signs of a decisive shift in the minority vote from the Left to TMC were noticed, and that reached a crescendo in the 2011 watershed elections in the state when the Mamata-led TMC unseated the Left Front and stormed to power, winning the lion’s share of the Muslim vote.
For the last decade or so, barring the districts of Maldaha and Murshidabad, where the Congress has by and large managed to retain its traditional support base among Muslims, the minority voters in Bengal have repeatedly reposed their faith in Mamata and the TMC for more than a decade now. One major reason behind that is the fact that apart from TMC, no other political outfit has made a serious effort to win over the confidence of the Muslim voter in the state. The Congress influence, as already stated, has traditionally remained restricted within its pocket boroughs of Maldaha and Murshidabad, while post-2011, the Left is no longer considered a credible voice of the minorities in Bengal.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, TMC had garnered an overwhelming 70 per cent of the Muslim vote in the state, winning 43.69 per cent of the total votes polled. In comparison, BJP won 18 seats, winning 40.64 per cent of the votes. Given these numbers, even a 2-3 per cent vote swing away from TMC can turn out to be disastrous for Mamata.
Aimim and the minority vote
Given such a scenario, Owaisi’s forays into Bengal is likely to provide the average Muslim voter with an alternative option — other than what TMC has been propagating for so long. With Aimim winning five seats in Bihar and doing well in the Seemanchal region, despite the presence of tried and tested options like the Congress and RJD in the fray, taking Aimim’s appeal lightly in Bengal can turn out to be disastrous, and the TMC leadership knows it only too well.
And it is not just TMC in Bengal, but the rise of Aimim can send alarm bells ringing among many other national and regional parties including the Congress. For more than 70 years since independence, political parties that claim to be secular in India have time and again been found blatantly pandering to the minority sentiments merely as a poll plank. Treating the minority as just a vote bank without ever making a serious and sincere attempt at addressing the issues that the minorities are hamstrung with and indulging in tokenism have for long been considered par for the course.
Now with Aimim and Owaisi trying to play the same card and ambush the gravy train of these parties in terms of the minority Muslim vote is a direct fallout of this brand of politics of opportunism. So there’s absolutely no point in trying to blame Owaisi for making forays into Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh or the rest of India. As a free citizen of the world’s largest democracy and as the leader of a political party, he and Aimim have every right to fight elections at a time and point of their choosing. That really should be nobody’s business.
If tomorrow Owaisi turns out to be the ‘Chirag Paswan of Bengal’ and play party-pooper to TMC, don’t blame him because the template for a highly polarised political matrix was drawn up much before he jumped into the fray. And one must always remember. ‘If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind’.