The AIMIM wants a share of Bihar’s Muslim votes, and the BJP stands to gain.
On 16 August, last Sunday, Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), gave another new angle to the upcoming Bihar assembly polls. In a crowded rally at Kishanganj, Owaisi attacked the Janata Parivar coalition – especially “Mr Chief Minister” Nitish Kumar – for deliberately keeping Seemanchal region backward.
Seemanchal is an unofficial name for the four Muslim-dominated north-eastern districts of Bihar, which are close to the Bangladesh border: Araria, Katihar and Purnea districts have 30-40 per cent of Muslim population, while Muslims constitute 70 per cent of Kishanganj.
Last year, the AIMIM made its debut in Maharashtra in the assembly elections and, surprisingly, won two seats. Soon after, the AIMIM website indicated Owaisi’s plan to contest the Seemanchal seats in the Bihar assembly polls.
In his Sunday speech, the AIMIM chief called the Janata coalition – which consists of Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress, all of whom have ruled Bihar in recent past – a bunch of “opportunists” who could not be counted upon to work for the larger benefit of Muslims and Dalits of Seemanchal.
He also made a few categorical attacks on the Narendra Modi government: “If the Centre is indeed serious about development of Seemanchal region,” Owaisi said, “then it could have set up a special development council under Article 371 of the Constitution to speed up development works.” He added: “No government, either in Bihar or at the Centre, has taken any step to uplift the condition of the people of the region”.
The AIMIM’s debut in Bihar is bad news for the Janata Parivar coalition. This is because for the last 25 years, Muslims in Bihar have traditionally voted for either Lalu or Nitish (till the 1980s they voted for the Congress). In the 2010 Assembly polls, the NDA coalition of JD(U) and BJP led by Nitish had won most of the Seemanchal seats.
While Nitish’s fortunes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections declined considerably after he broke-up the alliance with BJP, his party JD(U) still managed to win a seat in Seemanchal. BJP or its coalition partners failed to win any of the four seats in Seemanchal, even though they won a total of 31 out of 40 seats. The Congress, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and RJD won one seat each.
The BJP does not stand much chance in at least 10 of the 24 Muslim-dominated assembly seats of Seemanchal, but AIMIM’s presence might polarise voters there (and elsewhere in Bihar) on communal lines, which could only work in BJP’s favour. In July, the saffron party won one of the two Seemanchal seats in the legislative council elections, and they would certainly look forward to consolidate the gains.
But AIMIM is not the only spoiler in Seemanchal: mafia don Rajesh Ranjan, better known as Pappu Yadav, who won the 2014 Lok Sabha election on a RJD ticket, recently floated his own party Jan Adhikar Morcha (JAM). Pappu Yadav is popular in Seemanchal, especially among Yadavs. He would probably ally with any of Janata Parivar’s rivals and strategically field candidates in selected constituencies to cut into Lalu-Nitish votes.
Then there is Sharad Pawar-led NCP, which walked out of the Janata coalition after the party was given only three out of 243 seats: RJD and JD(U) got 100 seats each, Congress got 40. The NCP leader and Katihar MP Tariq Anwar recently declared that NCP is open to an alliance with any party other than the BJP. According to some sources, the NCP has been in talks with Pappu Yadav and there could be an alliance between JAM, NCP and AIMIM in Seemanchal.
Owaisi, by getting on board the popular local leader Akhtarul Iman, the former RJD MLA from Kochadaman (Kishanganj), has shown that he knows enough about the Seemanchal region to spoil the popular equations. Past examples show that Owaisi shouldn’t be taken lightly: no one took notice when Badruddin Ajmal launced the Assam United Democratic Front in 2006; Ajmal was noticed only after his party grabbed 18 out of the 126 assembly seats in the 2011 assembly elections in Assam. Then there is Mohamed Ayub, an Uttar Pradesh-based surgeon and philanthropist, who founded the Peace Party of India in 2008: his party won four seats in the UP assembly elections of 2012, which came as a shock to the parties seeking Muslim votes in the region.
So far the Janata Parivar leaders haven’t spoken out openly against AIMIM, as it might polarise the Muslim votes in favour of Owaisi, who claims to be the first Muslim leader to give the minorities a political platform. But AIMIM’s debut in Bihar might mean trouble for all parties eyeing Muslim votes – certainly in Bihar, but also the upcoming assembly elections in West Bengal next year and UP in 2017.