Apart from the National Democratic Alliance, another political formation was celebrating its performance in the Bihar elections, results of which were declared in the early hours of Wednesday. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen managed to win five seats in the heavily Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region of Bihar.
The win is, of course, a small one in the absolute: the AIMIM will only be the sixth-largest party in the Bihar Assembly. But it does point to some larger trends for Indian politics.
The AIMIM has attracted media attention for some time now, driven to a large extent by its charismatic president Asaduddin Owaisi. However, till very recently, the party was tiny, limited to the Hyderabad region in Telangana. Starting 2014, the party become a serious contender in the Urdu speaking parts of Maharashtra, tapping the same Deccan Muslim identity that forms its Hyderabad core.
It was only in 2019 that the party broke through, winning its first seat in the Hindi belt, wresting an MLA seat in Seemanchal during a bye-election.
A new pan-India Muslim politics
Even though the party is still quite small, with five seats in Bihar now, the party has firmly illustrated its pan-India capabilities. State borders are difficult to transcend in Indian politics. Notice how, say, the West Bengal’s ruling party, the Trinamool struggles to even attract Bengali votes in neighbouring Assam, Bihar or Jharkhand – much less win elections. In this scenario, a Hyderabadi party winning five seats in a region 2,000 kilometres away is a significant development.
To add to this is the fact that while there have been numerous attempts at building national Muslim parties in modern India, none of them have succeeded. Part of the reason for this is the small population of Muslims, which make it unlikely that Muslim parties will ever be able to dispense state patronage (for example, getting a road built). As political scientist Kanchan Chandra has shown, in a democracy like India’s, voters back ethnic parties based not only on psychological attachment but also on the state patronage they will be able to garner. A party based on Hindu identity like the BJP can often offer both. But smaller communities like Muslims often choose patronage over a singular ethnic focus, thus choosing secular parties which attract votes from multiple communities.
This calculation means that even Seemanchal, where around half the population is Muslim, has chosen not to back Muslim parties and elected multi-ethnic “secular” parties instead.
To add to this is the special status of Muslim identity in India that makes a Muslim party very different from, say, a caste-based Dalit or Jat party. Unlike most other ethnic parties, a successful Muslim party tends to precipitate a counter-consolidation, helping to spur on Hindu identity politics.
The Hindutva age
However, some of these calculations have been upended by the sharp rise of Hindu nationalism under Modi. Earlier the prospect of a counter Hindu consolidation was a check on Muslim ethnic parties. But at present, massive Hindu consolidation has happened anyway. In many places, the Muslim fear of dividing votes which would make the BJP win is now moot, since the BJP became hegemonic anyway even without the presence of Muslim ethnic parties.
To further add to this is that massive dislocation caused due to BJP’s threats around religion-based citizenship with the Citizenship Amendment Act and promises to bring in a National Register of Citizens. In the face of what many Muslim perceive as an existential threat, the day-to-day politics of patronage loses some of its importance. This trend is further spurred on by the remarkable Muslim activism that spanned the country under the anti-CAA protests earlier this year
Owaisi has in fact pointed out, post the Bihar results, that the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal “did not talk about CAA, NPR or NRC”. Owaisi, of course, pushed the issue hard. As he himself put it: “The results are there in front of you”.
Outbidding ‘secular’ parties
The increased marginalisation of India’s Muslims in a largely majoritarian political climate therefore allows Owaisi to potentially “outbid” multi-ethnic parties for the Muslim vote by sharply raising Muslim issues (like the CAA). In a 2018 paper, political scientists Rochana Bajpai and Adnan Farooqui explained how this would work:
“Asaduddin’s embrace of the mantle of Muslim spokesman, at a time when other Muslim leaders are unwilling or unable to raise Muslim concerns, can be seen as an instance of non-extremist outbidding. His insistence on the recognition of Muslim identity devalued or rendered invisible in dominant Hindu supremacist as well as secular-liberal narratives, contrasts with so called moderate nationalist Muslim representatives, who seek either to minimize their religious identity, or otherwise align it to secular parties. His rhetorical style of identification with the community as a whole serves to project a singular community that is defined by its religious identity and united by its experience of violence and discrimination at the hands of state agencies.”
While their explanation precedes the CAA protests, the Muslim mobilisation during 2020 provided even more favourable conditions for this outbidding to take place. Owaisi with his exclusive Muslim focus was able to be far more stridently anti-CAA-NRC than the multi-ethnic Congress and RJD could have been.
From Bihar to Bengal
Could the AIMIM repeat its Bihar performance and get a toehold in the neighbouring state of West Bengal as the state goes to polls early next year? After the Bihar results, Owaisi has made clear that he intends to fight in Bengal.
He is helped by the fact that Seemanchal is contiguous with north Bengal, with the two regions sharing cultural links. Like Seemanchal, North Bengal also has a significant Muslim population. In fact, Muslims are a majority in the Malda division of North Bengal (comprising the four districts of Malda, Mursdhiabad, North and South Dinajpur).
To some extent, Owaisi will also be able to outbid the Trinamool on the issue of the CAA-NRC. While the Trinamool has taken a strident line on the issue, much more than the RJD and Congress, with its significant Hindu vote base – many of them themselves migrants from Bangladesh looking for citizenship under the CAA – it will not be able to match Owaisi’s rhetoric given that he has the freedom to concentrate only on Muslim sentiments.
To add to this is the fact that right-wing Muslim elements within Bengal have also signalled their unhappiness with the Trinamool. Most prominent is South Bengal cleric Abbas Siddiqui who has now stridently attacked Banerjee for allegedly not doing enough for Muslims.
With the rise of the BJP, the Trinamool is now heavily dependent on Muslim votes and any attempts to set up exclusive Muslim parties that would cut away votes could be damaging for the party in India’s first past the post system.
Muslim politics in Bengal
Unsurprisingly, the Trinamool has already attacked the AIMIM. “Extremism is coming out among the minorities, just as there are extremists among the Hindus,” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in November. “There is a political party and they are taking money from the BJP, they are from Hyderabad, not from West Bengal.”
However, where Owaisi will find the going tougher than Bihar will be that Bengal’s Muslims are far more well-knit into networks of state patronage than their coreligionists in Bihar. For more than a decade now, Mamata Banerjee has made it a point to woo Muslims as a community. This finds reflection with large number of Trinamool cadre, functionaries and panchayat officials being Muslim. Muslims in both rural Bengal as well as Kolkata have also seen significant development work compared to the previous Left regime. While still sharply underrepresented compared to their population, Bengali Muslims are a far more prominent part of patronage networks than Muslims in Bihar.
It would thus take a much more heightened attempt at outbidding for Owaisi to attract Muslims in North Bengal the way he did in Seemanchal. And at least part of this dynamic would depend on a third party, the BJP and how hard it decided to push the issue of CAA as part of its election campaign.