Outside Kishanganj’s Sadar Court, the buzzing hub of this small Bihari town, Shahid Rabbani is hanging out with his friends in the middle of the day. He is an enthusiastic fan of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and, specifically, its president Asaduddin Owaisi. “I like him because he speaks his mind. When no one could point out the hypocrisy in the hanging of Yaqub Memon, Owaisi did. He is a dabang, bold, leader.” His friend, Rais Ahmed agrees: “It's no use supporting secular parties who only fob us off with lollipops such as the Sachar report even as Muslims become worse off everyday.”

Banking on sentiments such as these, on September 12 Asaduddin Owaisi announced that his party would fight the upcoming Bihar Assembly elections, contesting only in the Seemanchal region of northeast Bihar. Consisting of four districts – Araria, Purnea, Katihar and Kishanganj – the area has a large proportion of Muslim. It is also desperately poor and underdeveloped. Kishanganj district – the epicentre of Owaisi’s campaign due to to the fact that almost 70% of its population is Muslim ­– is one of India’s most backward districts, with shocking levels of deprivation.

Star Muslim neta playground

Due to its religious demographics, Kishanganj is sort of a star Muslim politician testing ground. Journalist MJ Akbar from the Congress, bureaucrat Syed Shahabuddin from the Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Muslim face, Shahnawaz Hussain, have all represented Kishanganj in Parliament.

Owaisi is, therefore, one in a long line of Muslim politicians who have parachuted into the district. In this endeavour, the MIM got off to a rousing start, when Owaisi’s rally in Kishanganj on August 16 was a massive success, pulling in a crowd of around 30,000 people. Local commentators said that this was one of the biggest such gatherings in recent times.

Unlike other entrenched players in the region, the MIM has no experience whatsoever when it comes to Bihar politics, being a party limited to Hyderabad city. How then did Owaisi attract that capacity crowd in Kishanganj, 2,000-km from his home turf?

Identity + development politics

At least part of the answer is obvious: Owaisi’s appeal to a Muslim vote block as an ethnic party. For the past year, the MIM has attempted to expand out of its pocket borough of Hyderabad city. In electoral terms, till now, the expansion has actually been rather modest. It won two seats in the Maharashtra Assembly and had some success in towns across the Deccan region that have a high proportion of Muslims.

More significant is his capture of the “Muslim” space in Indian public discourse. For example, Owaisi won a lot of supporters when he alleged that there was a communal bias in India’s criminal justice system in the wake of Yaqub Memon’s hanging. This is a widespread perception amongst India’s Muslims but had been left unarticulated by their traditional politicians from multi-ethnic or “secular” parties such as the Congress. Owaisi simply tapped into this vacuum and its effect was felt all the way in faraway Kishanganj.  Using this same ethnic platform, Owaisi is also able to make a forceful case for Muslim backwardness. His August 16 Kishanganj speech focused sharply on the deprivation of the area, in terms of education and livelihoods. These points have no doubt been raised before; however, Owaisi’s strategy of tacitly pointing to a communal bias that leads to Kishanganj’s backwardness is a dog whistle that adds an emotive edge to the discourse that other politicians would find difficult to match.

Ethnic politics in India

What is also immensely helpful in creating an environment for the MIM’s ethnic politics is the substantial delegitimisation of so-called secular or, more accurately, multi-ethnic parties with the rise of caste-based formations and, especially, the Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party. “Can anyone explain to me what is secular and what is not? Because I don’t get it,” remarked local Kishanganj businessman, Naefees Anwar, sarcastically. “Every caste has their own party. Hindus have their own party. What is wrong if Muslims want their own party in order to develop?”

All of this means a sharp drop in the way the MIM's supporters look at the so-called secular parties; formations they would have automatically voted for earlier without Owaisi in the fray. In a curious turn of events, it’s almost as if the Bharatiya Janata Party’s cry of pseudo-secularism, or some version of it, has been accepted by at least some Muslims. Many Owaisi supports in urban Kishanganj waived off the frequent charge that supporting the MIM would help the BJP since, as 28-year old Shahid Rabbani put it, “the BJP and the Congress are all the same”.

This phenomenon of existing ethnic parties in the system legitimising and encouraging the rise of other ethnic parties is a common one and has been termed the “outbidding effect” by political scientists. When asked if the frequent invocation of “Allah” and other symbols of “Muslimness” by Owaisi was justified, the Bihar president of the MIM, Akhtarul Iman, first hid behind personal religiosity. But when pushed a bit further about whether personal religiosity in itself has a place in public politics at all, he immediately retorted and said, “Ram Ram Shree Ram is chanted everyday by big politicians. Why these double standards if we do it?"

MIM marketing channels: television and Internet

Much of the MIM’s ethnic politics in Kishanganj is currently disseminated not via the old patronage systems that Indian politics would normally work by, where local leaders would cultivate support bases on the promise of a later disbursal of rewards. In fact, since the MIM is barely a few weeks old in the area, this is obviously not even a possibility. Support for the MIM then comes via modern methods of communication, most discernibly television. Asaduddin Owaisi might have had no ground presence in Bihar before this, but, for the past year or so, he has been a permanent fixture on television, holding forth in both Hindi and English on all matters “Muslim”.

In this, Owaisi is ironically much like the man he most likes to attack in his speeches: Narendra Modi. Like Modi in 2014, Owaisi has built up personal support for himself using modern communication methods such as television and, also, the Internet. Owaisi’s Kishanganj speech has already been viewed 1.3 lakh times on YouTube and purported excerpts from it are doing the rounds on WhatsApp in urban Kishanganj.

A combination of this ethnic Muslim appeal and his spread via television and the Internet means that in Kishanganj, Owaisi is especially popular amongst the youth.

Entrenched patronage politics MIM's weakness

Of course, battling this new electronically-spread ethnic Muslim politics is the entrenched caste-based patronage system of the last seven decades. Whilst Owaisi’s speeches and TV debates aim to target a vertical Muslim community, horizontal caste and community divisions in Kishanganj work against that. The MIM’s Bihar president, Akhtarul Iman, for example, has the support of the largest biradri (community) in Kishanganj district, the local Surjapuris. But for the same reason, Iman is disliked by the more prosperous and urban Pacchimis (Westerners), called so because their ancestors migrated here from western parts of Bihar or even Uttar Pradesh.

The fact that the MIM is a new party in Bihar and has no hope of capturing power in Patna is its biggest weakness in an area where patronage politics rules. Voting calculations in Kishanganj are often local and micro, based upon the cold arithmetic of how much the local representative can materially help the voter and his community. Can he get my tola (caste cluster) a tube well? Will he get my community more “Below Poverty Line” cards? Can he get the road built so that it’ll pass by my tola? These are the factors that have mattered historically.

In Gaachpaada village, 60-year old Mohammed Tajibur Rahman from the Shershahwadi community dismisses Owaisi’s candidature out of hand: “What can Owaisi do for us? He has just come here. He will not stand a chance in the dehaat [countryside]. I will vote for Master Mujahid [the Janata Dal (United) legislator]. Nitish has helped us a lot and we love him.”

Mohammed Tajibur Rahman, 60, (left) supports the JD (U) for the work they've done. Parvez Alam, 24, (right inset) is also a Shershahwadi like Rahman from a neighbouring village, but supports Owaisi because "he speaks up for Muslims". Alam regularly watches Owaisi on TV and had even gone to listen to his August 16 speech.

Nitish Kumar’s record

This seemed to be a popular sentiment amongst the people of Kishanganj: appreciation for Nitish Kumar, who seems to enjoy a significant amount of goodwill. Khalid Hussain, who runs a hosiery and undergarments shop in Kishanganj town, is hugely appreciative of the change “Nitish Raj” has bought. “I now get 20 hours of power in my shop. It takes me 2 hours to reach Purnea when it would earlier take 5. The Sadar Hospital has greatly improved. Kishanganj town has been transformed in the past 10 years.”

But then why did so many people go to listen to Owaisi on August 16? Hussain smiled and said, “So what? I went too. He is a good speaker and I like what he says, but I know Nitish can help me, so I will vote for him.”

Rural-urban split

As compared to urban Kishanganj, support for Nitish over Owaisi spikes hugely in the villages. Crucially dependent on political patronage, many villagers cannot afford to experiment with the MIM, which has no patronage networks to offer.

The psychic benefits of voting for an ethnic Muslim party also drop off sharply, simply because many people out in the countryside have a very hazy view of Owaisi and what he stands for. In Pothia block, one of the poorest parts of Kishanganj district, many villages consisting of 100-200 households would only have a single television set, if even that. Without television to market him, naturally electoral support for Owaisi is low here.

It is this nature of the patronage state in India that restricts ethnic parties from spreading quickly across regions. Since voters look to legislators for direct assistance, and most ethnic identities are too small to propel themselves into power on their own, parties in India either form cross-ethnic alliances or remain insignificant.  As Kanchan Gupta’s research shows, the Bahujan Samaj Party, for example, could only become a major player in Uttar Pradesh since it had a chance at forming the government, given the large population of its core ethnic supporter group, the Chamars. In Punjab, BSP founder Kanshi Ram’s home state, the party was largely a failure because the Chamars were too small to ever prop up the BSP as major contender for power. Without this threshold being crossed, other Punjabi Dalits did not even bother to hitch their wagon onto the BSP, preferring to stick with traditional parties who now had a better chance of offering them patronage.

Ethnic parties fail to offer patronage benefits

This might be the reason why Muslim parties have consistently failed whenever they have stepped outside their home states. In 2007, the Assam's United Democratic Front fielded 54 candidates in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections but won only a single seat. Earlier, in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, the Kerala-based Indian Union Muslim League had also made a foray into Uttar Pradesh as well as Seemanchal itself. It didn’t even win a single seat.

The one exception to this failure of ethnic parties is, of course, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has used a Hindu identity to even propel itself into power in the Centre itself, going far beyond the BSP’s relatively modest success in Uttar Pradesh.

In spite of this feat, how much of a model that is for other ethnic parties is unclear given, of course, the massive difference in size between a potential Hindu vote bank and, say, a potential Muslim vote bank. Given that a well-organised Hindu party, since it will be in contention for power, can always sell identity without compromising on patronage, its success is somewhat easier, as compared to the MIM, which will have to force upon its potential voters a bitter choice between the two. Till now, Muslim voters have pragmatically always chosen patronage, voting for “secular” parties which can bring them whatever modest benefits that come their way by virtue of being in power. If Owaisi’s ethnic appeal to Muslim identity can change that, it would be a paradigm shift in India’s political history. But, right now, that seems an uphill task.