For more than seven decades, the choice of leadership for our independent nation has been a game of musical chairs—most part between the Congress and ‘others’, and lately between the BJP and Congress. Every five years, the chair was grabbed, expectedly, by either of the two, while the country, not spoilt for choice, accepted the results as a clear victory of good over evil.
With a third player now making room for itself, the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has changed the face of Indian politics with a new set of rules framed by its inimitable party leader, the outspoken and eloquent Asaduddin Owaisi. The party’s stunning performance in the recent Bihar elections marked its debut in northern India, though winning five seats, where the assembly has 243 MLAs, may sound insignificant. But after the November 10 results, it is these five seats that have made the biggest waves across the nation. These unprecedented results in the north have shaken and woken parties that for more than 70 years claimed ancestral rights over Muslim votes.
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It was in 2014 that I resigned as a journalist with a leading television network after being in the profession for 24 years to join Owaisi’s AIMIM. Almost everyone around me couldn’t fathom why I would want to join a ‘communal’ party. Countless efforts were made to convince me to join a secular party, if at all I was to join politics. But as a journalist for far too long I had seen, often too closely, the plight and sorry state of affairs of the Muslim community, for years how we were played at the hands of secular parties, and time and again paid the heavy price of accepting this distorted brand of ‘secularism’.
I observed that community representation had boiled down to political iftars with token Muslim leaders, and skull cap-donning secular leaders. Perhaps, we as a community set the bar very low for our representatives; our expectations were so low at some point we decided not to keep any. But that narrative changed ever since this 6ft 4-inch shervani came as an answer and went on to become a competent opponent in this game of two. The third-player void was finally filled.
The AIMIM was never a communal party. Representation is crucial in a democracy and there is nothing wrong in representing communities that have been sidelined over the years by their leadership. Before joining the party I did my due diligence, I studied their work for months and spent time not just with the leadership but party workers as well. What stood out to me the most about AIMIM was their approach to accountability. It was both intriguing and impressive to learn about the system of daily darbar—where the general public had daily access to AIMIM’s MPs and all seven MLAs and corporators at Dar us Salam in Hyderabad. These transparent interactions and being answerable to people in your constituency, open to brickbats and bouquets regardless of caste, gender, religion, cemented my faith in my decision.
Within the region, the Owaisi Hospitals and Research Centre provide state-of-the-art medical facilities, free ambulance services and affordable healthcare to all. At the same time, Owaisi schools of excellence provide education for all, that is both high quality and free for the underprivileged. Nearly 18,000 children not just get free education, but free uniform, books, and even breakfast. And this is all handled by Akbar Owaisi, the younger sibling of Owaisi who commands huge following among the young.
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It is then ridiculous to label the AIMIM’s contribution towards inclusion and empowerment of minorities as division or radicalisation. Parties that have made tangible efforts, have stood up against the ongoing persecution of minorities and worked towards building communities, don’t need to fear us. The ‘vote katua’ tag is a carpet under which our secular parties can brush its failure and lack of effort. Not one seat of the Mahagathbandhan (MGB) was affected by AIMIM, and that’s factually correct. How did the BJP manage to win the rest, while the Congress secured just 19 of the 70 contested? At the same time, there were byelections in MP and Gujarat. The BJP won both, and we didn’t contest there. In Kishanganj, Bihar, we had a sitting MLA, so by this logic, the MGB shouldn’t have contested on that seat. Well, anyway, the Congress won that seat.
If the MGB had won the majority, then prince charming would have taken all the credit. The truth is that the Congress leader deemed a three-day visit to Bihar was enough when the party was contesting 70 seats, whereas a small party from Hyderabad had its entire cadre positioned in Bihar for more than a month. I leave it to you to decide who took voters— in this case Muslims—for granted.
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The people of Seemanchal were aware that the AIMIM was contesting only 20 seats. In the previous Bihar elections, the AIMIM contested six seats and lost all, but they came out shining this time, simply because of effort, and Seemanchal, the most backward Muslim-dominated area in this region recognises that. The truth is, Muslims in India see no hope in the Congress to tackle the BJP, a party with a crystal-clear agenda—there is no space for Muslims.
In 2014 too, when I won the assembly seat from Aurangabad along with advocate Waris Pathan, who won Byculla in Mumbai, the AIMIM made news for its grand debut in Maharashtra, shocking the state by bagging a seat more than Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Then too, the Congress and NCP top leadership in the state accused us of being hand-in-glove with the BJP, not realising that in 2014 and 2019 when I contested the Lok Sabha elections from Aurangabad, we managed to trounce the Shiv Sena, which considered Aurangabad their bastion for over three decades. The irony is that it’s okay for the Congress to be in alliance with the Shiv Sena and yet claim to be secular. The BJP’s vote-bank is derived from its shared intolerance of Muslims in India, while Owaisi has given voice to the community, its due place in Indian politics, and strengthened our democracy by encouraging the Muslim youth to participate in the electoral process to bring about the much-needed change.
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Aurangabad now has a functioning passport office, plus an airport was revived from the dead, while the cost of cancer screening at the government hospital has gone down because as an MLA these are the issues I had raised in the assembly. We will soon have a highway connecting Aurangabad to Shirdi, thus benefitting thousands of worshippers as well as boosting the tourism sector. As Owaisi has often said, the goal is not to have our own CM or government. Rather, it is to focus on equal representation. Why is it that when the Yadavs get together and form the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujans form the Bahujan Samaj Party, nobody raises an eyebrow? But it’s only when a few Muslims get together and talk about their representation on a mere five-six seats in a state that the noise gets louder.
When people call Asaduddin Owaisi the second Jinnah, I go back to a panel discussion held in Pakistan some years ago where he—sitting next to Congress’s Mani Shankar Iyer and BJP’s Kirti Azad—gave a curt riposte to Pakistani media, saying they needn’t bother about Indian Muslims. I have worked closely with Owaisi for over seven years and I can say this with conviction that Indians who believe in equal rights for all citizens, in fair representation of minorities and oppressed communities, in inclusion and empowerment of marginalised groups, should stand by him. Five seats in Bihar may finally be the beginning of achche din in India!
(The writer is an AIMIM Lok Sabha MP from Aurangabad, Maharashtra, and a former journalist. Views are personal)