Almost 60 years after its formation, the Indian Union Muslim League has decided to re-position itself as a pan-Indian Muslim political party.
Barring contesting a few local body polls in other states, the party, popularly known as the Muslim League, has never attempted to go beyond its traditional stronghold of Kerala after 1960. But the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election results seem to have convinced its leadership to attempt a change.
The party’s leaders feel that Muslim political outfits have failed to win the confidence of Muslim voters as they thrive on rhetoric and vitriol to confuse voters.
The party announced its decision to go national at its National Secretariat meeting in New Delhi on Thursday. For this, it plans to establish active state and regional committees in other states, and contest Assembly and Lok Sabha elections there. In June, the party will hold a brainstorming session in Goa in which as many as 50 eminent personalities from the Muslim community, including retired civil servants and other professionals, are expected to participate. More details of the plan to go national are expected to emerge after this meeting.
“The Muslim League does not believe in rhetoric or aggressive posturing against political rivals,” said ET Mohammed Basheer, the party’s national organising secretary and Member of Parliament. “Our aim is to bring Muslims into the mainstream by improving their socio-economic conditions. We will replicate the plan that helped us to grow in Kerala. It is a huge task but we will strive to achieve it.”
History in Kerala
The Muslim League has been part of 13 of 22 coalition governments that have ruled Kerala since its formation. The party’s tallest leader, CH Mohammed Koya, even went on to become chief minister, while many of its leaders held important cabinet portfolios, such as education, industry, public works, and local self-government, in various governments.
It has 18 members in the Legislative Assembly in Kerala as of now. It also has one member in the Rajya Sabha. Its leader E Ahamed, who died on February 1, represented the party in the Lok Sabha from Malappuram. The bye-election to Malappuram constituency will be held on April 12.
Since its formation in 1948, the Indian Union Muslim League had made electoral gains in municipal and local body elections in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. In West Bengal, it had won seven Assembly seats in the Seventies, and party leader, the late AKA Hassanussaman, was a member of the Ajoy Mukherjee cabinet. But the party gradually lost its national presence and was reduced to a Kerala outfit starting from the early 1970s.
MIM may face the heat
The Muslim League’s decision to go national might have an impact on the ambitions of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen, led by Asaduddin Owaisi. The party has seven members in the Telengana Assembly and one member in Parliament.
The outfit fancies its chances of emerging as a national Muslim political party after it won two seats – Byculla in Mumbai, and Aurangabad Central – in the Maharashtra Assembly elections in 2014.
Owaisi’s strident posturing against the Sangh Parivar made him an icon for some Muslims, but his lack of political acumen was exposed when his party failed to win any seats in the recently-concluded Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and in Bihar in 2015.
Political observers feel that the Muslim League could easily emerge as a credible political alternative for Muslims as its organisational structure is better than that of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen.
Owaisi put up a brave face when asked about the Muslim League’s decision to go national. “Why should I be worried?” he asked. “I believe that it has every right to expand.”
Owaisi said that he would not consider the Muslim League to be an opponent. “It has worked for the Muslim minority for a long time,” he said. “It has done many good things for Muslims in Kerala. We maintain a good relationship.”
The Muslim League’s Basheer said that the party’s aim was not to decimate Owaisi’s or any other political party. “AIMIM [All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen] is a strong party in Hyderabad,” he said. “We think that it will not encroach on our territory. It is good to see minority political parties growing in different places. Muslims should be empowered politically.”
The Muslim League has dropped enough indications that it will address the issues of livelihood and ghettoisation to make inroads in Uttar Pradesh and other states.
“We have constructed 61 homes for those who have been displaced during the Muzaffarnagar riots,” said Basheer. “The keys of the homes will be handed over on May 14.”
The party also plans to join the broad Muslim-Dalit alliance, which is on the anvil across the country. The Kerala unit of the party has already extended its support to the Jignesh Mewani-led Chalo Thiruvananthapuram movement, which was formed to fight for the land rights of Dalits, Adivasis and other Bahujan communities.
Prior to its announcement of going national, the party tested ground reality by fielding three candidates in Uttar Pradesh. The results were so disappointing that its leaders are not even willing to discuss it. Their candidate Mohammed Ahamed collected 411 votes in Unnao constituency (won by Pankaj Gupta of the BJP), Mohammed Imran got 410 votes in Harchandpur (won by Rakesh Singh of the Congress) and Mohammed Shahajad Khan managed just 270 votes (won by Manish Agija of the BJP).
Challenges before it
One of the biggest impediments for the party’s growth in India seems to be its name. “People often identify Muslim League as the party that divided India,” said Basheer. “We are sure that political opponents will target us for it. We have to make big efforts to change this false notion.”
The dearth of leaders who speak fluent Hindi and Urdu, which is spoken by a significant number of Muslims in North India, is another major problem it faces. “If the party wants to widen its base beyond Kerala, they should communicate with the masses,” he said.
In the past, though the Muslim League has sent stalwarts like the late Ibrahim Suleiman Sait and the late GM Banatwala to Parliament, its lack of leaders of national stature was evident when it had to select a candidate for the Malappuram bye-election.
“The decision to field PK Kunhalikkutty, who is a sitting MLA, indicated the leadership crisis in the party,” said NP Chekkutty, political analyst and editor of Thejus newspaper. “These kinds of organisational weaknesses might hamper the Muslim League’s national aspirations.”