Asaduddin Owaisi’s secret: He embodies the fantasies and aspirations of India’s Muslims

The AIMIM president has brought into public arena the discussions Muslims engage in their drawing rooms. But will he get their votes?

The popularity of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen  president Asaduddin Owaisi is growing because he embodies the fantasy of many ordinary Muslims. In fantasies are expressed our fears and anxieties, aspirations and anger, either suppressed or unfulfilled. All these emotions are expressed in Owaisi’s style of politics and his rhetoric.

This does not necessarily mean he will have Muslims voting for his party. Very few of us enact our fantasy in real life, not the least because we recognise the dangers inherent in such an endeavour. For instance, we suppress our anger because venting it could be inimical to us as well.

Yet fantasies reflect the reality of our inner self, our psychology and emotions in negotiating the real world we live in. Owaisi, undeniably, has articulated these emotions, given them a voice, so to speak. He represents the non-public Muslim self, which is precisely why he has an echo in the community.

The fantasy Owaisi has been playing out pertains, most pointedly, to the feeling among Muslims that the Indian state discriminates, even targets them. He speaks of the poor representation of Muslims in legislatures and services. He castigates a range of parties for taking Muslim support and yet not initiating policies to better their lives.

These points other Muslim and non-Muslim politicians too have raised in the past. But what distinguishes Owaisi from them is the tone of fearlessness and belligerence he adopts. He doesn’t sound as a supplicant. His arguments have the sharpness of the master debater who rebuts the opponent by pointing to the hypocrisy of his or her position. He has brought into the public arena the discussions Muslims engage in their drawing rooms, certain they won’t be branded as communal, bigoted or anti-national.

Insulated from backlash

Thus, for instance, in the days before and after the hanging of Yakub Memon, Owaisi hopped from one TV studio to the other asking why those who demolished the Babri Masjid hadn’t been punished yet. He wondered why both the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena and the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party governments have not acted upon the report of the Srikrishna Commission, which investigated the Bombay riots of 1992-'93. He argued that the killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh weren’t given capital punishment because they enjoyed the backing of regional parties in Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

Owaisi couldn’t have, obviously, left out the 2002 Gujarat riots, which have scarred the Muslim psyche. He asked why the Gujarat government hasn’t gone to the High Court demanding the death sentence for Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi, both awarded life imprisonment for their roles in the Gujarat riots. “Will Sadhvi Pragya, Col. Purohit and Swami Aseemanand, whose name cropped up in connection with Malegaon blasts, get capital punishment?” he asked.

Obviously, several liberal voices have cited these arguments and instances to establish the perceived anti-Muslim or anti-minorities bias of the state. Yet very few from the political class have candidly voiced them, least of all Muslims. It establishes Owaisi’s uniqueness, projecting him as one who doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade.

Owaisi’s arguments are what Muslims make in private conversations. They don’t do it in the public arena because either they don’t have access to it, or they fear such arguments in a mixed religious gathering could invite disapproval and criticism or adversely affect personal relationships. In articulating their arguments publicly, Owaisi plays out their fantasy every second day in TV shows or public gatherings.

Obviously, Owaisi can do so because he is a Member of Parliament, has police protection, enjoys privileges which insulate him from any backlash. He also has his own party and isn’t answerable to any high command. This fact was alluded to by Owaisi in his interaction with the Indian Express journalists, called Express Adda: “After every speech of mine in Parliament, the other Muslim MPs come to me to say bahut achcha bole aap, hum nahi bol sakte (You spoke very well, we can’t speak like this). I ask them why? They say that party naraaz ho jayegi (the party will get angry).”

A symbol of aspirations

What Muslim legislators in other parties and common citizens can’t do, Owaisi can – and does. So does Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan, you might point out. But Owaisi, unlike him, eschews absurdity. It is unlikely you will hear Owaisi claim, as Khan did, that during the Kargil conflict the Muslim soldiers removed the Pakistani intruders from the mountain peaks. You will not hear Owaisi threaten to take the cow-slaughter issue to the United Nations.

Owaisi invokes the principles of the Constitution and history to battle the Hindutva ideologues. He plays out the fantasy of Muslims with panache and flamboyance. Thus, for instance, in an interview to the Frontline magazine, he argued against having an anti-conversion law thus: “…Two anti-conversion Bills were introduced in Parliament when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister and he did not allow them to be passed. Also, during the Constituent Assembly debates on Article 25 [of the Constitution], both T.T. Krishnamachari and K.M. Munshi argued in favour of the right to propagate religion to be included as part of the fundamental right to religion.”

Owaisi went on to cite changes in the Hindu family laws to claim these created, deliberately or otherwise, disincentives for Hindus to convert to another religion. Azam Khan is palpably incapable of such intellectual interventions. It is unlikely he can rebut Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first speech in Parliament as Owaisi did. In his speech Modi had referred to India having lived under 1,200 years of slavery. Owaisi countered, “I would like to ask him whether India was a slave country when Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti came to India, when Tipu Sultan sacrificed his life fighting against the British…”

Owaisi’s persona, too, enables him to play out the Muslim fantasy with aplomb. He prefers the traditional attire (which has otherwise become passé), sports a beard and a topi but also debates with remarkable fluency in both English and Urdu. To many, he represents the possibility of being religious, of flaunting the markers of their community identity, and yet acquiring mastery over modern cultural cues, of combining tradition with modernity. This is particularly the fantasy of the elderly generation among Muslims who feel westernised education alienates children from their religion and community.

This is also why his harping on the educational backwardness and economic marginalisation of Muslims has tremendous resonance. He was schooled in English and was trained as a barrister. The Muslim community, like other social groups in India, has also become aspirational. There is thus a certain authenticity in Owaisi symbolising this aspiration, regardless of his own affluent background.

Challenges in the path

He cites statistics from the report of the Rajinder Sachar Committee, which studied socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in India, to hammer the point: the community must focus on education to pull itself out from the quagmire of backwardness. Owaisi also cites the Sachar report to demand preferential treatment for Muslims, besides wondering why their status hasn’t improved despite them voting for non-BJP parties. In other words, he seeks to harness the disappointment of Muslims to his advantage, but also redefine the agenda for them.

At the Express Adda, Owaisi said, “Sweet talk, wearing a skull cap or not wearing one, sending a chaadar to Ajmer, hosting an Iftar party, they don’t work now.” They don’t work because the Indian Muslim has changed – he or she is no longer content with symbolism, keen to improve his or her living conditions and getting employed.

Owaisi doesn’t have to indulge in such symbolism because his Muslim-ness is not in doubt. He can symbolise their aspiration because he personifies success – that too without compromising his religious identity.

Owaisi can play out this Muslim fantasy effectively because of the context in which he has chosen to try wearing the mantle of the pan-India community leader. For one, despite the community voting tactically against the BJP, it couldn’t prevent the BJP from getting a majority of its own. Two, a series of divisive programmes has stoked the anxiety of Muslims no end. Worse, their representation in the Lok Sabha has plummeted – not a single Muslim was elected from Uttar Pradesh. Might not they experiment afresh, try another strategy?

Some influential Muslims in Uttar Pradesh had, for long, been thinking of emulating the Kanshi Ram model of establishing a social alliance of the Dalits, Muslims and lower backward classes. The only difference between Kanshi Ram’s model and theirs is that the leader of such an alliance would be Muslim. Their wish is echoed in Owaisi’s rhetoric of bringing Muslims and Dalits on a common platform.

There are several challenges Owaisi will have to overcome before he can turn into reality the Muslim fantasy he has come to represent. For one, his graph of electoral triumphs cannot show a dip. Though he is contesting only 24 seats in the Bihar elections, a poor showing there will rob him of the aura he has acquired over the last one year.

Then again, it is debatable whether the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, a constituency he eyes, will rally behind him. Owaisi can, obviously, hope to enter into an alliance with, say, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. But then, unless he proves he has the support of the Muslim community, why would she broker a deal with him?

Despite Owaisi embodying the fantasy of Muslims, it will have to be seen whether they will exchange the importance they place on security before casting their vote for Owaisi’s development agenda. In these days of assertive Hindutva, Muslim voters might find it pragmatic to rally behind a party or alliance capable of coming to power and ensuring their safety. Owaisi simply doesn’t have a chance to come to power on his own – for instance, in Bihar.

Thus, Owaisi might see pragmatism dissuade Muslims from playing out the fantasy of which he is a living embodiment – and vote his party.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.

Asaduddin Owaisi’s secret: He embodies the fantasies and aspirations of India’s Muslims

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