Indian state elections have always been a kaleidoscope of bitter contests between competing groups based on identity, ideology, and interests. Group alliances are formed, the interplay of accusations and counter-accusations occur. Each party, typically a national party, within a specific alliance aims to canvass more votes than their peers and rise in stature and influence in the eventual scorecard of the state elections. In late 2020, the Indian state of Bihar held its elections for state assembly, which were meant to follow a similar pattern of the ballot.
However, to everyone’s major surprise observing state elections, Bihar state elections represented a key divergence from the set pattern. Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majilis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) excelled far more than their peers in their group alliance as well as their competitors on the other side expected them to excel. Trouncing their allies and foes in state elections, in a major surge in its stature as a Muslim-representative political party, AIMIM fielded 20 candidates, amongst which five candidates won, a victory which may be marginal to anyone who is not familiar with the dynamics of Indian elections and political order.
This article will explore why Owaisi’s AIMIM Bihar victory was hailed as a very important event in the context of Indian political dynamics and the rising power of Hindu nationalism. AIMIM, first, was started as a Hyderabad-centric party, confined to the Muslim-majority populated areas, contesting elections marginally. Bihar state election significantly changed the electoral thinking of AIMIM, allowing the party to punch above its weight and win the contest in the context of its outreach to voters received positively by them.
A Muslim-representation political party scoring 5 out of 20 seats in which it fielded its candidates is a feat of worthy-praise and importance as in India’s highly-combustible political system where ethnic, economic, caste, or national concerns typically supersedes Muslim political identity and whose interests represented by large, and sometimes monopolistic, political parties such as Indian National Congress (INC). So, in this context, entering a new power broker for the representation of Muslim interests by a Muslim political party breathes a new life into Muslim identity politics within India, especially during the rising tide of Hindu nationalism on a national scale.
Secondly, AIMIM is accused of being a B-Team of Hindu-nationalists Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and vote-cutter of Muslim votes by the INC. The claim, however, was debunked repeatedly as we take into account the margins of canvassed votes and margins of victory. In truth, INC is more concerned about the dilution of its attractiveness to the Muslim note, especially as it dalliances with softer Hindutva to appeal to the voters on the right of the political spectrum. While rhetorically claiming to be representative of minorities voice, particularly Muslims, the INC adopted silence or expressed a very muted response when it comes to contentious Muslim issues such as marginalization of Muslims in Indian administrative and political structures, curtailment of their political liberties, and economic disempowerment expressed in actions upon such as less representation of Muslims in assembly elections, the verdict on razing of Babri Mosques and enactment of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
While these actions of INC represent politically-expedient political choices for a party seeking to reestablish itself with all constituencies in the Indian electoral map, it also does not fail to represent mere rhetorical importance given to Indian secularism by INC, whose one of the primary pillars is the protection of minorities. The regression of Indian secularism in word and deed is a consequence of INC abandoning its founding principles and adopting soft Hindutva. In this state, the potential of the emergence of a pan-India Muslim political party could have a great influence on India’s electoral map and identity representation politics.
With the advent of Hindu nationalism and its continuous triumph in Indian electoral politics, the nature of the political order and context in which Indian politics takes its form is changing in fundamental terms. Before the rising force of Hindu nationalists in Indian politics, INC enjoyed a near-monopoly on political power in India. However, enjoying such a monopoly has its own cost. INC had to compromise its principles to appeal to voters on all sides, including people belonging to the ideological right. It was where the soft Hindutva of INC had its roots. The BJP thrived on Congress’s compromises and corruption, leading to its subsequent displacement in the Indian political structure by canvassing a majority in the 2014 elections and repeating its victory with a greater majority in 2019 national elections. These back-to-back majority winning enabled BJP to roll out its ideological programming to reshape India, a nation where minorities, particularly Muslims, are second-tier citizens with less protection and rights. In the background of this radical political shift, AIMIM’s electoral performance in Bihar and its willingness to contest upcoming state elections to build its political power outside Hyderabad. Moreover, in national issues of Muslim identity politics, such as the verdict on Babri mosque and citizenship acts, the party leader – Asaduddin Owaisi – came out strongly against these acts. Even on citizenship acts, Owaisi did not withhold its ambition for an all-India pan Muslim, and minorities, a representative party by terming the acts as an assault on all Indians, not just Muslims.
While AIMIM still has a long way to go in establishing itself as a national political party representative of Indian Muslims, as well as all Indians, and becoming a bearer of Indian secularist principles, the progressive outreach of AIMIM to other Indian states is indicative of its ambitions to play a larger role in Indian national politics. The more the political fray move towards the right with BJP and INC both canvassing for more votes by appealing to hard and soft Hindutva concerns, the likelihood of an emergence of an all-India pan-Muslim political party, advocating the preservation of secular India, cannot be ruled. If Owaisi’s AIMIM continues to a progressive winning streak in state elections and scores big in the next national election in 2024, it could emerge as a stronger force to compete with BJP as a representative force of Indian secularism and minority rights.