Is Owaisi doing a Bihar in Uttar Pradesh Assembly election?

By | February 7, 2022

What applies in Bihar holds true in Uttar Pradesh. So goes the election wisdom in the region. History backs this political belief. Both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had a Muslim as their first chief minister in British India in 1937. Both have been dominated by the Congress since Independence. Both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar a non-Congress government for the first time in 1967. The governments were short-lived in both the states.

The Congress regained dominance for a while only to be replaced by the Janata movement in 1977 in both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Congress returned again. In Bihar, another Janata movement brought Lalu Prasad as chief minister in 1989, ending Congress’s rule.

Next year, Uttar Pradesh saw Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav take over the mantle. The Congress has been on the margins ever since in both the states. The BJP’s rise in recent years has followed similar patterns in the two states.

Now, Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi is living the same experience.

SIMILARITIES WITH BIHAR

Asaduddin Owaisi began reaching to voters in Bihar more seriously from 2015 assembly polls. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) won a bypoll in Bihar before earning ire from the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress-Left alliance which held Owaisi responsible for their defeat at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ) in Bihar Assembly election 2020.

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Owaisi had focused on areas in districts with sizeable or majority Muslim population in eastern Bihar, loosely known as Seemanchal, which borders West Bengal. These included constituencies in Kishanganj with about 70 per cent Muslim voters, Araria 45 per cent, Katihar 40 per cent and Purnia 30 per cent.

Of 24 assembly seats in Seemanchal, Owaisi’s party contested 14 and won five. But more importantly, in an election that was closely contested between the BJP-JDU alliance and the RJD-led coalition, Owaisi emerged as the factor that eroded Muslim support for the RJD and gave the BJP-JDU majority by a narrow margin.

The same fear appears to be haunting the BJP’s rivals in Uttar Pradesh. Owaisi has been branded as BJP’s “B-team” by the Samajwadi Party and the Congress leaders in Uttar Pradesh, where the AIMIM made an electoral debut in 2017 contesting 38 seats.

Like in Bihar, it did not achieve success. The closest the AIMIM came to the winning candidate was finishing third behind the BJP nominee in Sambhal. But Owaisi’s continued campaign in Uttar Pradesh saw crowds swelling at his public meetings just like Seemanchal of Bihar.

OWAISI IN UTTAR PRADESH

The recent gun attack at Asaduddin Owaisi has revived the AIMIM debate in UP. Besides being a serious security matter, the firing incident has become an election issue. The BJP-led central government immediately offered Owaisi Z-category security — one grade below that of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Owaisi rejected the offer.

Those who fired shots at Owaisi were promptly arrested. Their links with the BJP were established. This is already part of the election narrative in Uttar Pradesh.

Owaisi’s continued political investment in Uttar Pradesh election has earned him the same criticism as he faced in Bihar being a B-team of the ruling BJP by talking of Muslim identity and thereby sharpening vote polarisation.

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Owaisi’s party is eyeing 100 of 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh Assembly election coming on February 10. Most of these seats are in constituencies where Muslims make up 20-70 per cent voters. Muslims overall make up about 19-20 per cent of voters in Uttar Pradesh, comparable to 17-18 per cent in Bihar.

Muslim-dominated Lok Sabha constituencies such as Sambhal (over 75 per cent Muslim population), Rampur (over 50 per cent) and Moradabad (about 50 per cent) have been the Samajwadi Party strongholds. But the entry of Owaisi in these areas poses a threat to Akhilesh Yadav’s Muslim-Yadav social engineering.

IS OWAISI HELPING BJP?

Of about 65 candidates that Owaisi has announced for Uttar Pradesh election eight are Hindu nominees. Owaisi has been trying to win over Dalit Hindu voters. This again is a problem area for BJP’s rivals.

To his critic, Owaisi recently said the Samajwadi Party did not want “an independent leadership of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh” signaling that despite minority voters favoring first Mulayam Singh Yadav and then Akhilesh Yadav, they remain under Yadavs in the pecking order of UP politics.

He said, “Had [then Chief Minister] Akhilesh Yadav expedited trial against accused of the Muzaffarnagar riots [in 2013], the Yogi Adityanath government would not have been able to withdraw 77 cases.”

It appears that if Owaisi makes serious inroads in Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the Samajwadi Party-led coalition may be at greater risk of losing votes. Owaisi’s emphasis on Muslims asserting their political identity in UP polls is bound to see greater polarization, a factor that has been found to benefit the BJP.

IS MAYAWATI EXTENDING A HELPING HAND?

While Owaisi brings focus on Muslim voters in the Hindi heartland, far from his Lok Sabha constituency in Telangana, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief appears to be experimenting with a new social engineering. She is working on a Dali-Muslim formula for UP polls.

Of the first 220 nominees that he had announced till last week, Mayawati named 85 Muslim candidates. This is similar to ‘Jai Bhim Jai Meem’ slogan that Asaduddin Owaisi has been raising since 2015.

Owaisi and Mayawati are in UP election fray separately but they together pose a bigger challenge to the Samajwadi Party-led alliance than the ruling BJP. With more Muslim candidates in UP polls, the Samajwadi Party looks worried about division of Muslim votes. This could be the reason why Akhilesh Yadav made an appeal to Ambedkarites (Owaisi often refers to Constitution and BR Ambedkar in his speeches) to join hands with him in the electoral fight against the BJP.

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