Asaduddin Owaisi's Uttar Pradesh gambit and why it has left the BJP chuckling in delight

SP realizes that Owaisi wishes to make inroads into UP by playing the Muslim card even as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress are keen on doing the same.
Asaduddin Owaisi (L) seen with BJP MPs Virendra Singh Mast and Ranjith Reddy at Parliament House in New Delhi in this file photo.
Asaduddin Owaisi (L) seen with BJP MPs Virendra Singh Mast and Ranjith Reddy at Parliament House in New Delhi in this file photo.PTI

The year was 2015.

For Sanjarpur, a small village in Azamgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh, an offer for its "adoption" by a political leader could well have helped it shun the image of being a "terror nursery" after its two residents, both Indian Mujahideen operatives, were eliminated in Delhi’s Batla House encounter in 2008.

However, the fact that the offer came from the All India Majlis Ittehadul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi from distant Hyderabad made the village people realise quickly that it was nothing more than an attempt by him to win over Muslims in UP. Owaisi, also an MP from Hyderabad in Telangana, reportedly applied to the government for adopting the village under the Sansaad Adarsh Gram Yojna, but nothing further is known of the fate of that application.

Asaduddin Owaisi (L) seen with BJP MPs Virendra Singh Mast and Ranjith Reddy at Parliament House in New Delhi in this file photo.
Hyderabad: Despite anti-incumbency, Owaisi is frontrunner

The Owaisi initiative caused sleepless nights for Samajwadi Party leader and the then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav who was into the third year of his term: his comfort zone of the Muslim-Yadav (MY) support was jolted.

Long confined to his state, Owaisi had turned to UP (and subsequently Bihar) in the same year. He visited Lucknow during the month of Ramzan (corresponding to July) in 2014 and met, among others, Maulana Saeed Athar Qasmi of the Tehreek Umar Society, an outfit ostensibly dedicated to welfare projects for the Muslims. Qasmi was entrusted with the task of strengthening the membership drive and Mohammad Shaukat Ali of Azamgarh was made the party convenor in the state.

In the following year, Owaisi visited the state in January, April and July and brothers Asaduddin and Akbaruddin established a line of contact with the community through a couple of local Muslim leaders in Lucknow and Azamgarh.

A rattled Akhilesh Yadav did what he could to check Owaisi's inroads and denied him permission to hold a public meeting in the state as long as he remained the Chief Minister. As per Owaisi’s own claims, made in a rally in Azamgarh on January 12, 2021, Akhilesh had stopped him from visiting UP 12 times.

PDM versus PDA

A lot has changed since then.

For the 2024 election, Owaisi's party is in alliance with Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), besides two smaller outfits Pragatisheel Manav Samaj Party and Rashtriya Uday Party. The alliance thus formed is named PDM, standing for Pichhdaa (backward), Dalit and Muslim.

It came into being after Pallavi Patel's party separated from the INDIA bloc after its demand to be handed the Mirzapur, Phulpur and Kaushambi Lok Sabha seats was not met. Incidentally, PDM seeks to counter Akhilesh's favourite phrase PDA - Pichhdaa (backward), Dalit and Alpsankhyak (backward.)

The combination of a Kurmi-dominated Apna Dal (K) and a Muslim-oriented AIMIM may pose a serious threat to Samajwadi Party as both have a score to settle with Akhilesh Yadav. Already, PDM has announced candidates for seven Lok Sabha seats, which includes a Muslim candidate from Rae Bareli and OBC candidates from Bareilly, Hathras, Firozabad, Fatehpur, Bhadohi and Chandauli.

SP realizes that Owaisi wishes to make inroads into UP by playing the Muslim card even as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress are keen on doing the same.

Asaduddin Owaisi (L) seen with BJP MPs Virendra Singh Mast and Ranjith Reddy at Parliament House in New Delhi in this file photo.
The importance of being Akhilesh Yadav in this Lok Sabha election

Interestingly, despite having a substantial Muslim population, Uttar Pradesh has not seen a Muslim community-oriented political outfit achieve electoral success in the last several decades. On the other hand, caste-oriented parties as SP and BSP have done much better to achieve dominance in the state. Muslims preferred to support either of these parties after the Congress lost its appeal a few decades ago.

The AIMIM has had some success in Bihar, though. In the 2020 Bihar elections, Owaisi's party had won five seats (but in June 2022, four of the MLAs joined the RJD). In this Lok Sabha election, AIMIM has decided to contest 11 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar.

Maulana Mulayum and the Azam Khan factor

In the past, there was a notable attempt to form a Muslim-driven party when the Peace Party, launched by Dr Mohammad Ayub Khan, a medical practitioner from eastern UP in February 2008, contested the UP Assembly elections in 2012 and won four seats. Although it professed to espouse the cause of Dalits and Muslims, its approach was to offer an alternative to Muslims as 'their' party.

Interestingly, the past three decades have seen very few leaders emerge from the community itself.

Mulayam Singh Yadav held sway over the community, earning the sobriquet of Maulana Mulayam with his strident statements favouring the community especially during 1989-1991.

It was in the SP that Muslims saw a tall leader in Azam Khan of Rampur, who wielded considerable influence in western UP. He did help SP consolidate their hold among the community but Akhilesh's arrival in 2017 saw him being marginalised.

In the words of S Abbas, a senior lawyer in Lucknow, "the SP was considered a well-wisher of Muslims only until Mulayam was alive, but Akhilesh does not care for the community. His disregard for Azam Khan when the latter was hounded by the present government is not unnoticed by the community."

The Owaisi plan and its impact

Senior Muslim politicians such as Ahmed Hasan, Shafiqur Rahman Burq and ST Hasan did emerge but could not find place in the core team of Akhilesh Yadav.

Incidentally, the criminals turned politicians from the community such as Atiq Ahmad and Mukhtar Ansari, only had a limited and local appeal.

Asaduddin Owaisi (L) seen with BJP MPs Virendra Singh Mast and Ranjith Reddy at Parliament House in New Delhi in this file photo.
Mukhtar Ansari: End of a don of many states, many parties

In the 2022 Assembly elections, Bahujan Samaj Party gave tickets to 88 Muslim candidates, followed by the Samajwadi Party, who gave it to 64 candidates, and the AIMIM, who gave it to 60. Of these only 32 from SP and 2 from Rashtriya Lok Dal were elected.

In some constituencies, AIMIM got more votes than the margin by which the SP candidates lost. If the SP had got those AIMIM votes also, it would have won easily.

AIMIM aims to specifically target Muslim-dominated regions, as is evident by Owaisi's recent visit to the family home of late Mukhtar Ansari in Ghazipur and his meeting with local leaders. Incidentally, for some reason Akhilesh visited Ansari household much later.

Zia-ul-Haq, a native of Basti, notes that "Owaisi has a limited appeal among UP's Muslims primarily because he is a Shia from southern India. His brand of politics has so far not appealed to the community but some educated young Muslims have been drawn to his arguments and statements. His being a lawyer obviously helps."

Even though the so-called Muslim vote bank appears to have lost its ability to sway elections in the last 10 years, Owaisi is obviously attempting to rise as the community's go-to leader by playing upon their fears.

For the BJP, it means a further fragmentation of the Muslim votes, as the BSP, too, has chosen to field a large number of Muslims this time. Owaisi is widely seen as a polarising figure and if he engages in frequent campaigning, it might lead to further polarization, helping BJP's prospects.

"It is not for nothing that Owaisi is termed as the B-team of the BJP," observes Abbas.

(Ratan Mani Lal is a senior journalist based in Uttar Pradesh.)

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