After the conclusion of the first two phases of the ongoing Bihar Assembly election, all eyes are drawn to Seemanchal. The first two phases pitched the National Democratic Alliance and the Mahagathbandhan against each other. But the third phase covers Seemanchal, where Asaduddin Owaisi’s party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, is fighting the election with everything it’s got.
Seemanchal area comprises the districts of Purnia, Katihar, Araria and Kishanganj. It has a large Muslim population that has traditionally voted for the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. The AIMIM is contesting as part of the Grand Democratic Secular Front, comprising parties that include the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party.
So, will the AIMIM hurt the hopes of the Opposition’s Mahagathbandhan alliance?
Owaisi himself has been camping out at Daftari Hotel in Bihar’s Kishanganj, addressing campaign rallies almost every day. He’s been targeting the Mahagathbandhan more than the incumbent NDA, accusing the RJD, Congress and others of perennially neglecting the region.
The AIMIM first contested in Bihar in the 2015 Assembly election in six seats in Seemanchal. It didn’t gain much traction at the time. The party contested again during the 2019 Lok Sabha poll but without much success, though its candidates were the runner-ups, or close behind, in some seats.
This year, the Grand Democratic Secular Front’s chief ministerial candidate is Upendra Kushwaha, a former union minister. The AIMIM is contesting in 20 out of 243 Assembly seats in Bihar. Seemanchal has 24 Assembly seats, and the AIMIM is contesting in 14 here.
Supporters of the Mahagathbandhan have accused Owaisi of taking Muslim votes away from them — a move that, they said, will the Bharatiya Janata Party.
This rumour when the BSP, the AIMIM’s alliance member in Bihar, supported the BJP to trounce the Samajwadi Party in the recent legislative council elections in Uttar Pradesh.
As a result, many Mahagathbandhan leaders have brought up Owaisi in their speeches. For example, Tauseef Alam, a Congress candidate from Bahadurganj, had sought an explanation from Owaisi on whether he was with Muslims or the BJP, and why one of his alliance partners had supported the BJP.
Earlier this week, Rahul Gandhi arrived in Kishanganj to address a campaign rally. Before and after his arrival, he had targeted Owaisi in his speeches but gave it a miss this time round. Instead, he cited the difficulties faced by people during demonetisation and the lockdown.
Owaisi in Bihar.
‘Things changed after Mayawati’s support for BJP’
Two sons of veteran RJD leader Taslimuddin are also contesting in this election from the Jokihat Assembly segment of Araria: Shahnavaz Alam for AIMIM and his brother Sarfaraz Alam for the RJD. To many political watchers, it will be a pitched contest between the two of them.
In Prasadpur, which falls in Jokihat constituency, Asad, 24, runs a small grocery store while simultaneously pursuing his BEd. He thinks the excitement over Owaisi has waned.
“In the beginning, people were excited about him, they wanted change. But things changed after Mayawati’s support to the BJP,” he said. “A supporter at my shop yesterday said Mayawati is not part of the alliance anymore. But then why is she still visible on posters, I asked, and he said the posters were printed before she left. He couldn’t convince me.”
He added that whatever votes the AIMIM gets in these parts will be due to Sarfaraz’s efforts. “We’re choosing a chief minister anyway this time, not an MLA,” he said. “MLAs or MPs won’t do anything for us. We have to make Tejashwi Yadav the chief minister. Not just me, most people are voting with this in mind.”
Many people that Newslaundry met in the area echoed the same sentiment.
Mohammad Tabarak Hussain, 32, said, “Owaisi isn’t going to form the government after contesting in 20 seats. Only Tejashwi can form the government so we’ll vote for him. We’re not looking at the candidate on our seat...They [the AIMIM] won’t be able to get more than 10 percent of the vote...Tejashwi is from Bihar and Owaisi is from Hyderabad. In our house of need, would Tejashwi help us or Owaisi?”
When asked about the effect of Owaisi in Seemanchal, local resident Zubair Ahmed said: “Lalu has been here and here he shall remain. Why not stop Owaisi? He is connected to the BJP. During the protests against CAA and NRC, the BJP put so many behind bars...BJP is Owaisi. BJP is not competition in our area which is why Owaisi is coming to fight the election here, so that the Muslim votes get divided.”
Six kilometres from Prasadpur is Bhagwanpur panchayat. The village has only 15 Hindu households.
“We’re not concerned with who is contesting the election here,” said Ibrahim, 70, a resident of Bhagwanpur. “We only have to make sure that Lalu wins. Congress too is with Lalu. If Congress hadn’t taken any action, the BJP would have thrown us out of the country using CAA-NRC.”
The outrage against the citizenship laws had engulfed the country in December and early this year. These protests took place in Bihar too. Bihar has a sizeable Muslim population, but the CAA-NRC have not become big issues this election, rarely mentioned in campaign speeches.
However, Ibrahim said, “CAA-NRC is an important issue for the people here. We will support the people who supported us.”
Greater favour for Tejashwi Yadav
Several youths in Seemanchal accuse Owaisi of promoting communal politics. Just as the RSS and BJP inflame emotions using religion, they told Newslaundry, Owaisi “radicalises” Muslim youths.
Shakil Ahmed, who runs a shop in Araria.
At Turkaili crossing in Araria, Shakil Ahmed, 27, runs a shop. “The BJP and Owaisi are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “Their aim is to keep society divided and gather votes. Had his intention been to win the election or form the government, he would have fought the election all over the state, not just Seemanchal. His aim is to propagate Hindu-Muslim enmity.”
He added: “Lalu is also a Hindu but he doesn’t do such things. That’s why we prefer him over Owaisi.”
In Kishanganj city, Mufassir Alam said: “Owaisi paints himself as a saviour of Muslims. Tell me, if Muslims do it, then why wouldn’t the Hindus do it too? Along with social harmony, any recourse would go down the drain because the Muslim community is not as big...It doesn’t decide the winners and the losers. If it did, the BJP wouldn’t have been able to form a government in Uttar Pradesh without a single Muslim candidate despite a sizeable population of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.”
So, he concluded, “It’s better to vote together. Owaisi is trying to finish this sentiment, which people of this region have understood.”
Alam also called Owaisi a “liar”.
“He is telling people during his travels that he tore the CAA bill in Parliament while the Congress and RJD did nothing,” he said. “This is a blatant lie...People from Congress and RJD played a big part in strengthening the protest in this region. Owaisi wasn't the only one who voted against it, many Opposition parties voted against the laws. People here have seen through this lie of his. Irrespective of anything else, people here want to see Tejashwi Yadav as the chief minister of the state so the people who like Owaisi would also vote for RJD alliance in the end.”
According to Alam, the media is paying Owaisi too much attention. “Please go and check the situation on the ground,” he urged. “His voter has also changed his mind. They see Tejashwi, not Owaisi, now. About the win in the by-election earlier, AIMIM didn’t win the election due to its cadre, it won because of the [Congress] MP Mohammad Javed. When he became an MP, he should have given the nomination to any other but he arranged for his old mother to fight the election instead. People were upset and the AIMIM candidate won.”
‘A drop in the ocean’
In Seemanchal region, Tanzil Asaf runs an online portal called “Main Media”. He told Newslaundry that the AIMIM is contesting in 14 seats in the area.
“Only in six of the seats — Kochadhaman, Kishanganj, Amaur, Bahadurganj, Baisi and Jokihat — has the AIMIM been able to turn it into a three-way contest,” he said. “Although it doesn't mean they are winning. If they are in the race in only six out of 24 constituencies in a region, I can’t say they matter too much.”
He pointed out that the Lok Janshakti Party is enthusiastically contesting the election on an almost similar number of seats. “They have put the NDA out of the contest in many seats which has made people believe they’re going to form the government. If you ask the core voter of the AIMIM who should form the government, they would say Tejashwi.”
He added: “I believe the AIMIM is getting disproportionate coverage from the media when his status in the election is like a drop in the ocean. It is possible that some of his candidates will lose their security deposit in many areas.”
Owaisi’s rallies are attended by substantial crowds, and Asif has seen them firsthand while attending the rallies for work. But he thinks Owaisi has been “consistently lying” in this election, though he “didn’t lie earlier”.
“Targeting the Opposition is a necessity for him and the main opponent in the constituencies he’s contesting in is the Congress,” he added. “So, he is criticising them. He blames the Congress for opening the locks of the Babri mosque...He criticises the local leaders and their performance.”
In an last week, Owaisi had said his biggest opponent in Bihar is “the one who had power for 15 years” while also mentioning “two people from the same family [who] became chief minister”. “These people have destroyed Bihar,” he added.
On being called a “vote-cutter” or a party of the BJP’s “B-team”, Owaisi said that anyone who says this “needs neurological treatment”. “We only fought in Kishanganj during the general elections and who won there? You [Congress] won only one seat out of the 40 and are dumb enough to call us vote-cutters!” he said. “Why didn’t you win on the rest of the seats? People from Lalu’s family fought elections too and lost. Were they also vote-cutters?”
The general feeling about the election is summed up by an elderly man attending Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Kishanganj. “The Muslim community is not a tied-down voter for any party anymore,” he said. “Whoever cared about us, we shall vote for him. It’s not as if we’ll vote for anyone with our eyes closed.”
A version of this piece was first published in NL Hindi. It was translated from Hindi by Shardool Katyayan.