New Delhi: Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has announced its plans to contest about 50 seats in next month’s Bihar assembly elections — about one-fifth of the total seats — hoping to make a mark in the state politics despite the drubbing it faced in the previous assembly polls.
But immediately after Owaisi’s announcement, came the response from opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders, who accused the Telangana-based party of being the “BJP’s B-team”, and helping the latter win by dividing the ‘secular’ votes.
This is not the first time Owaisi has been labelled the ruling party’s B-team. Several opposition leaders, including former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, have levelled similar charges against him in the past. Rahul hit out at the AIMIM in 2018, saying its “role is to split the anti-BJP vote”.
The charge only gets magnified every time the AIMIM tries to make inroads into a new state.
However, an analysis of the seats contested by the AIMIM in the last six years across the states of Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand shows there is little substance to the theory that the party eats into the votes of the so-called ‘secular’ parties, or plays a decisive role in BJP’s victory.
The myth of affecting ‘secular’ parties
The first time the AIMIM participated in an assembly election outside of Telangana/Andhra Pradesh was in the 2014 Maharashtra elections, where it fielded 24 candidates in the 288-member assembly.
According to Election Commission data, the party won just two seats — Aurangabad Central, where AIMIM’s Imtiaz Jaleel defeated Shiv Sena’s Pradeep Jaiswal, and Byculla, where Waris Pathan beat BJP’s Madhu Dada Chavan.
The party cut into the votes of the ‘secular’ parties in just two seats — Nanded South and Bhiwandi West. In these seats, the winning margin of Shiv Sena and BJP candidates over the ‘secular’ parties was less than the votes polled by the AIMIM.
In the 2019 Maharashtra state elections, the AIMIM contested on 44 seats — nearly twice as many as 2014. While the party failed to retain its two seats, it won in two new constituencies — Shah Faruk Anwar won the Dhule seat over an independent candidate, while Mohammad Khaleque won from Malegaon Central over a Congress candidate.
The party’s vote share also increased from 5 lakh votes in 2014 to 7.5 lakh votes in 2019.
However, in 2019, the winning margin of the Shiv Sena or the BJP was less than the votes polled by the AIMIM in seven constituencies — Balapur, Nagpur Central, Nanded North, Pune Cantonment, Sangola, Chandivali and Paithan.
In nearly all the other constituencies AIMIM contested, either of these two happened — a non-BJP/non-Shiv Sena party, like the Congress or the NCP, won, implying that AIMIM did not hamper a ‘secular’ party’s victory; or the winning margin of BJP/Shiv Sena was higher than the votes polled by the AIMIM, meaning the ‘secular’ parties did not have a chance to begin with.
The AIMIM also contested the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, fielding candidates in 38 of 403 seats in the state. The party drew a blank in all the seats.
As the BJP secured an overwhelming victory by winning 325 seats, the AIMIM was again accused of dividing the ‘secular’ vote in the state. But data shows the party managed to do so only in four seats of the 38 seats it contested — Kanth, Tanda, Shravasti and Gainsari — where the BJP’s winning margin was less than the votes polled by the AIMIM.
AIMIM impact on ‘secular’ parties in Bihar, Jharkhand
AIMIM also contested six seats in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections — all in the Seemanchal region, which has a significant Muslim population. However, all six candidates lost, with only one managing to save his deposit.
The party did not dent the ‘secular’ parties’ votes here either, as five of the six seats it contested — Kishanganj, Baisi, Amour, Kochadhaman and Raniganj — were won by members of the then Congress-RJD-Janata Dal (United) alliance. The sixth seat where it fielded a candidate, Balrampur, was won by the CPI(M-L).
In December 2019, in an attempt to expand itself in the Hindi belt yet again, the AIMIM contested 16 of the 81 seats in Jharkhand assembly elections, but failed to win any.
While the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress-RJD alliance won a comfortable majority of 47 seats, the AIMIM still drew allegations of showing its “proximity to the BJP” by eating into the votes of the non-BJP votes.
However, data shows the AIMIM was able to get more votes than the winning margin of BJP only on two seats — Bishrampur and Mandu.
Vote-cutting not an obvious byproduct, say analysts
While data doesn’t show that the AIMIM has played a substantive role in any non-BJP party’s loss over the years, analysts caution against seeing vote-cutting as an obvious byproduct of the party’s contest.
“AIMIM cuts into the Congress/NCP votes in some constituencies, but benefits in others due to the vote-cutting caused by the infighting of ‘saffron’ parties — the latter phenomenon is not spoken about as much,” said Dhaval Kulkarni, a political analyst in Maharashtra.
“The BJP and the Shiv Sena could not agree on an alliance in 2014, so both parties fielded candidates of their own. Then, on some seats there was infighting within Shiv Sena too, which led to members of the party to contest as an independent candidate. All this led to vote-cutting of the saffron votes, and the AIMIM was a direct beneficiary,” Kulkarni added.
Five years after the AIMIM made its entry into Maharashtra, the party allied with Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on 48 seats but fielded its own candidate on just Aurangabad seat — Imtiaz Jaleel, the party’s Maharashtra president.
While the VBA lost on all 47 seats, Jaleel defeated the Shiv Sena’s Chandrakant Khaire, who had been the Aurangabad MP since 1999.
“My strategy was simple — for both assembly and Lok Sabha elections. I told Muslims that you have been voting for so-called secular parties like Congress for so long, and yet Shiv Sena has been coming to power for the last two decades (in Aurangabad). Try voting for us and see what happens,” Jaleel told ThePrint.
Jaleel’s victory signalled an important shift — he became the first Muslim to be elected to Parliament from Maharashtra in 15 years, the last had been former CM and late Barrister A.R. Antulay from Raigad in the 2004 elections.
He also became the first Muslim MP to be elected from the Aurangabad constituency since Congress’s Qazi Saleem in 1980, despite the fact that the constituency has over 30 per cent Muslim population.
‘Sense of entitlement’
In January this year, months after the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance came to power in the state, NCP president Sharad Pawar said in a controversial statement that the “minorities decide whom to defeat and they vote only for those (parties) which can vanquish the BJP”.
Jaleel said Pawar’s statement “proves what the secular parties think of minorities”.
According to experts, Maharashtra is ‘fertile’ ground for the AIMIM to grow, precisely because of this growing realisation among Muslims of “being exploited” by parties in the state.
“There is a justifiable perception among the Muslims of Maharashtra that it’s just exploited for votes. This is why a certain section of the community, especially the youth, looks at him (Owaisi) as an aspirational model. This generation is not ashamed of its identity, but wears it on its sleeves and demands accountability from its leaders,” Kulkarni said.
“They look at Owaisi’s credentials as a barrister. They look at him as constantly quoting from the Constitution. Owaisi has become somewhat of an aspirational model,” he added.
Asim Ali, a research associate at Centre for Policy and Research, said allegations of vote-cutting levelled against AIMIM suggests a “level of entitlement” by ‘secular’ parties over votes of religious minorities.
“Such accusations should be an anathema in a multi-party democracy. The only way new parties grow outside their core areas is by contesting elections, which helps the party build their organisation, enhance their ‘winnability’ over time, and emerge as a credible alliance partner in newer states,” Ali told ThePrint.
The Congress party, which often levels such allegations, was criticised for contesting all seats in UP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — and costing the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance a victory on at least eight of them.
“Congress may rightly argue that UP is key to their long-term strategy, and contesting all the seats was needed for revitalising the party organisation. Same must then hold true for AIMIM,” Ali said.
The vote-cutting allegation is sometimes also made against Mayawati’s BSP, which contested and lost recent elections in Delhi, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Haryana.
“But the allegation is particularly sharper when made against Muslim parties. This indicates that while the idea of backward castes voting for backward caste parties has been normalised over several decades, Muslims voting for AIMIM still offends the political sensibilities of many observers,” said Ali.
“Also, this act of voting is not necessarily communal if it is based on material demands of the community for fairer representation and access of resources, rather than exclusionary and religious appeals,” he added.
Owaisi’s appeal in Hindi Belt
According to AIMIM leaders, the party’s confidence to contest the upcoming Bihar elections comes from its surprising Kishanganj bypoll win in the state.
In the October 2019 bypoll for the assembly seat, AIMIM’s Qamrul Hoda won by over 10,000 votes, and the Congress, which until then held the seat, was pushed to the third spot.
Senior political analyst Badri Narayan said the AIMIM will “slowly but surely benefit from the discontent Muslims are feeling in the Hindi belt”.
“A section of Muslims does feel a sense of discrimination and discontentment. AIMIM will benefit out of that. They will try to build their politics out of that discontent against the ruling BJP,” Narayan said. “But it will mostly emerge as second and third on most seats it fields a candidate in. It is likely to win very few for now,” he added.
Narayan attributed AIMIM’s insistence to contest in different states to the same logic BSP founder Kanshi Ram’s slogan would echo: “Pehla chunav hota hai haarne ke liye, doosra chunav hota hai haraane ke liye, teesra chunav hota hai jeetne ke liye. (You fight the first election to lose, the second to help defeat the opposition, and the third to win.)”
The Bihar elections are slated to be held in three phases starting 28 October.