In one of the more surprising dimensions of the Bihar outcome, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen — originally a small party with roots in the Old City in Hyderabad — has won five seats in the assembly. Mr Owaisi has been making a concerted effort to expand his party’s base in Bihar’s Seemanchal region, particularly Kishanganj — which has an overwhelming Muslim majority — for over five years now. It won a by-poll in the region last year, but has emerged as a major force this time around.
Mr Owaisi is a controversial figure. While he speaks the language of constitutionalism and seeks rights for Muslims and other marginalised groups, his party has often engaged in extremist rhetoric and even hate speech. But what explains his growing popularity, with his party winning seats in places as varied as Maharashtra and Bihar?
Muslims in India, after the trauma of Partition, have been sceptical of solely identity-based political formations and have invested their lot with secular formations and stuck to the democratic mainstream. But the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has led to greater alienation — the inability of the older “secular” parties to fight the BJP, and increasing disillusionment with these forces, has also led to a search for alternatives. Those criticising Mr Owaisi for “cutting” the votes of other Opposition parties are doing a disservice to Indian democracy, for he is as entitled to participate and contest elections as any other formation. On his part, Mr Owaisi must consistently ensure that his party remains wedded to the plural, peaceful, democratic, constitutional path and doesn’t engage in minority communalism.
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