Whoever emerged winner or loser in the just concluded assembly elections in Maharasthra, Haryana and by polls in more than fifty seats, a small, regional party seems to have emerged the happiest. The outfit has not just extended its area of influence, but has also broken some new grounds in areas where it was repeatedly rebuffed by electorates over the last many years.
There is no denying that Hyderabad strongman, Asaduddin Owaisi’s, Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen has seen his popularity grow thousands of miles beyond his stronghold, old Hyderabad area. After at least five years of hard work by him and his close band of supporters, he was able to get a foothold in Bihar’s Kishenganj, where by-polls were held along with assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. In Maharashtra too, the party won two assembly seats, becoming almost a permanent fixture in the state assembly.
Besides Bihar, Owaisi’s all Muslim outfit won two assembly seats in Maharasthra. Along with its stellar performance where it snatched a seat from JDU, the performance in Maharasthra has given a newfound confidence to party boss, Owaisi and his diehard supporters who have been rooting for a Muslim political part for the Indian Muslims.
Owaisi and Majlis seems to have benefited immensely from repeated defeats of the Congress party and the fact that India’s foremost opposition party has played soft Hindutva card in different states over the last several years. There is a sort of feeling among Muslims, being spread by some Muslim leaders, that as Congress has been marginalized across the country and there doesn’t seem to be any chance of its revival any time soon, this may be the best time for the Muslims to have a party of their own.
The concept of a Muslim political party is not new and the discussion to have a pan India Muslim political party crops every time the Muslims feel cheated by secular political parties. There have been many efforts to launch a political party of Muslims by different sections in different parts of the country over the last several decades.
Experiments in South India
In South India, two regional political parties have carved areas of influence in two states, Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala and Asaduddin Owaisi led Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen in Andhra Pradesh. After the division of the state, its area of influence mainly lies in Telangana state.
Muslim League was disbanded after the Partition in 1947 by a unanimous decision of party leaders in North India. However, in Kerala, that didn’t see any communal strife in the wake of the partition, the All-India Muslim League was disbanded and a new entity was formed as the Indian Union Muslim League. M. Muhammad Ismail, the then President of the Madras Muslim League (M. M. L.) was chosen as the Convener of the new outfit. The party has remained active in Kerala and has a small pocket of support in Tamil Nadu. It has three MPs in the current Lok Sabha.
Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen, another political venture of Muslims in South had a humble beginning. The party that has its genesis in pre-partition era, was revived in the late fifties and in 1960, the rechristened MIM won a seat in Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. Asaduddin Owaisi’s father Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi won a seat for himself in state assembly in the year 1962. He won from different constituencies from Hyderabad over the next two decades, before winning Lok Sabha seats from Hyderabad Lok Sabha constituency.
The outfit that used to be a party confined to old Hyderabad till the year 2014 saw it expand its area of influence to different states. It fought assembly elections in Maharasthra in 2014 and to everyone’s surprise won two seats in Maharasthra assembly. In the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the party won two seats, one from its citadel, Hyderabad, and the other from Aurangabad, Maharashtra, where the party won the seat with a wafer thin margin. Its success in Aurangabad was largely due to its alliance with Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA. The Hyderabad based party has just opened its account in Bihar state assembly, where it won a by-poll from Muslim majority town of Kishenganj.
North India experiments
The first most important step in this regard in North India was taken by Dr. Abdul Jaleel Faridi who launched Muslim Majlis in the year 1968, after he become disillusioned with the Samyukt Vidhayak Dal, an anti-Congress coalition made up of several political parties in North India. The dynamic personality of Dr. Abdul Jaleel Faridi attracted a large number of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh towards the newly launched platform and in the year 1977 two Muslim Majlis members were elected to the Uttar Pradesh assembly on the Janata Party symbol. But the success of the party was short lived and the untimely death of its enigmatic leader brought curtain to the adventure.
Another experiment was carried out in West Bengal in sixties by some adventurous Muslim politicians. They launched the Progressive Muslim League in the state just ahead of the 1969 West Bengal Legislative Assembly election. The fledgling political outfit surprised many when it won at least three assembly seats, obtaining as many as 208,574 votes. The party would have benefited immensely from joining the government, but it preferred to support the United Front government in the state. This eventually became its undoing and the party soon disappeared from political horizon.
Syed Shahabuddin, a bureaucrat turned politician launched Insaf Party in the year 1989 after getting disillusioned with Janta Party when VP Singh aligned with the Bhartiya Janta Party. But the mercurial personality of Shahabuddin, a two time MP from Kishanganj, in Bihar, soon disillusioned his small band of supporters and the organization was soon disbanded. This was a shocking development for the supporters of a Muslim political party as they thought that they had finally got hold of a brilliant leader. Shahabuddin no doubt was a brilliant bureaucrat, but being short tempered he was not suited for the politics where a leader needs to have a cool head to attract and not dispel his band of supporters. Being a bureaucrat he was autocrat and not easy to keep his supporters attracted to him.
Latest political experiments
There have been multiple political experiments in recent years. Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an Islamist organization, launched a political party of its own in the form of Welfare Party of India some fifteen years ago, but the party has failed to break ice with the Muslims across the country. This may be due to very limited support base of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the country. Another experiment in the form of SDPI too hasn’t been very successful, though it has been able to win some seats in local body elections in some states.
However, the most important success that a Muslim political party has seen come its way has been in Assam, where All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by cleric turned perfume baron, Badruddin Ajmal, has been able to create a huge block of support for itself. Launched exactly fourteen years ago in October 2005, the party has become a major political force in the state. It won 18 of 126 seats in the 2011 Legislative Assembly election and in 2016 it won 13 of 126 seats. With a bypoll win in the just concluded by-elections, the party has 14 members in the state assembly right now. Its vote share despite coming down compared to the 2011 assembly elections is still more than 13 percent.
Is Muslim political party a panacea?
Many Muslims have started believing, after being repeatedly ditched by different political parties, and the soft Hindutva, being increasingly practiced by the Congress party, that a Muslim political party of their own may be able to help their cause. Many so-called Muslim intellectuals argue that the secular parties have failed to highlight the community’s grouses, their issues and problems at different levels and that this can be done only through a Muslim political platform.
Given his and his brother’s penchant for rabble rousing, many Muslims, especially youth in different parts of the country have started idolizing Asaduddin Owaisi. His supporters argue that the an exceptional public speaker, Owaisi, not just highlights the community’s issues, but also puts forth their views succinctly. There is no denying that he is an exceptional speaker, but his rabble rousing along with that of his brother, coupled with Akbaruddin Owaisi’s theatrics, plays in the hands of the Sangh Parivar. In the just concluded assembly elections in Maharasthra, Owaisi’ whose party fought on around 45 assembly seats, directly or indirectly caused the defeat of the Congress and NCP candidates in as many as 25 constituencies. There are also allegations that the rabble rousing by MIM leaders in different parts of the country helps in reverse polarization of votes in favor of the BJP.
However, this seems to have failed to cut any ice as Muslim intellectual believes there is already so much polarization and overt use of communal sloganeering by the BJP and its sister organizations that MIM cannot add further to the fuel. Another aspect that must be kept in mind is that till now a very minuscule part of Muslims support Muslim only political outfits despite the failure of the secular parties to take care of Muslim issues and give them representation based on their numbers.
Indian Muslims still look towards mainstream secular parties to do their bidding and take them along. But they have very disappointing experience over the decades. Congress, instead of developing a strong, assertive Muslim leadership in its fold, has suppressed the emergence of strong Muslim leaders in recent decades. Recently Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Congress stalwart, expressed his agony when he said that now he is not called by party’s Hindu candidates to campaign for them. Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, while expressing his anguish, said "Since Youth Congress days I have been campaigning across the country from Andaman Nicobar to Lakshadweep. Ninety-five per cent of those who used to call me were Hindus. However in the past four years the percentage has dipped from 95 to 20…This means that there is something wrong. Today people are afraid to call me because it might have an adverse affect on votes”.
Azad’s words crystallize the fact and leave very little to imagination. Due to soft Hindutva card being paddled by the Congress and other so-called secular parties, Muslims are getting disillusioned by them. Owaisi and Ajmal are exploiting this disillusionment that is largely caused by willful disregard of Muslims and their issues.
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a New Delhi based author and commentator. His forthcoming book 'Ulema's Role in India's Freedom Movements with Focus on Reshmi Rumal Tehrik will be out in October