As the politics of “jod-tod” continues in India’s wonderland that is Bihar, an old adage of “vote-katua” has also made its celebrated entry. The term is not for caste-based parties who, as a contractor of the said caste, broker for seats in exchange for votes but for an outfit which has a long way to go before calling itself a player in the state with mercurial allegiance.
The invective is reserved for one party and one party only whenever it tries to cast a place for itself in the political arena outside its current area of influence. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen or AIMIM, led by Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, has been trying for years to make its mark outside Telangana where it has seven seats in the 119-member Assembly. With its decision to contest 40 seats in Bihar, most of which are in the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region, vituperative adjectives like “vote-katua” and “BJP’s B-Team” are being thrown more casually than other parties’ decision to switch allies.
Such accusations are not just derogatory to Indian electoral system which allows anyone (literally anyone) to float a party but also reek of privilege of the so-called secular parties who assume that they have an absolute right on Muslims votes in return for nugatory promises.
In a region where almost all leaders are identified with the caste they represent, and are nurtured by the bigger parties precisely for that reason, how can a party claiming to represent 16-17% of the state’s population be demonised? Muslims in Bihar, as well as all over the country, have trusted secular Hindu leaders to lead them while they go on with their daily lives. Their only demand, and also the condition, for support to these parties, was to keep the BJP-RSS at bay. Let alone work to improve the socio-economic conditions of Muslims (2006 Sachar Committee report said the condition of Muslims is worse than Dalits, which has only gotten worse), not a single one of these parties can come out and discuss this fact in public, lest it be dubbed a Muslim party.
The fact that Muslims voted for the party which was best placed to defeat the BJP-RSS, and were not able to negotiate any other sops for themselves, as other communities did, have put them at a situation where they have lagged far behind others in human development index. And the gain? Besides being demonised by the right-wing, Muslims have to be ignored by these parties who do not even enter a minority-dominated locality for the fear of losing Hindu votes. Muslims are the new untouchables in New India, both politically and socially.
The only option now Muslims have if they want to retain their political agency is to form their own party. It’s not a unique phenomenon in India, neither in Bihar where all communities with a sizeable population have one or the other party representing them. For example, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD is for Yadavs (12% of the state’s population), Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha(HAM) for Dalits (16%, including Pasis and Musahar), Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) for Koeri (8%), Mukesh Sahni’s Vikas-sheel Insan Party (VIP) for Nishad (14%) and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U) for Kurmis (4%). Barring Lalu and Nitish, who created an umbrella alliance of various communities to gain an advantage on the electoral front while keeping their caste identity intact, all the other leaders are exclusively known for their caste politics.
These leaders have been not only welcomed but nurtured by mainstream political parties like the Congress and the BJP. Most recently, Manjhi and Sahni made an exit from RJD-Congress ‘Mahagathbandhan’ and were welcomed with open arms by the BJP-JDU alliance. Kushwaha, who quit the BJP-led NDA last year to join the opposition alliance, has made a quick exit to launch his own third front with Mayawati’s BSP. Contesting alone, these parties are not dubbed as “vote-katua” and are often enticed by the major parties to join hands as they are believed to bring the caste vote with them.
Compare this treatment with what is meted out to Owaisi and AIMIM. While the BJP dubs it a communal party (ironic, isn't it?), secular parties not only distance themselves but also throw generous obloquies. Despite Muslims forming the biggest vote block in the state with 16% of the population, a party claiming to represent them (whether it does or not is a subject of another discussion), is not only ignored but vilified.
My observation is that most of the Muslims do not and would not vote for the AIMIM for two reasons – it rarely has a chance to defeat the BJP and, (or) they do not agree with the politics of Owaisi. This, despite the fact that Owaisi is one leader who has unequivocally echoed the sentiments of Muslims on all platforms, a fact acknowledged by almost every Muslim irrespective of the political affiliation.
Failed by the traditional political system, betrayed by the secular parties, now Muslims are forced to revaluate the options their ancestors chose for them, including the decision to vote for the Congress and likes and not push for a separate political entity. This was due to the promises made by the Congress leaders and the trust Muslims placed in them. Despite being let down, time and again, they have not broken faith.
However, the developments over the last six years, especially of the last year, have forced them to rethink this strategy and many agree that the community needs representation. In a world where Muslims are short of allies, Owaisi finds support among the young Muslims. If secular parties continue the rant against him for the fear of losing Muslim votes, instead of doing something more to retain them, they risk more harm than gain.
Ahamad Fuwad is Assistant News Editor of The Free Press Journal. The views expressed are personal.