That the first visit of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul- Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi to West Bengal after announcing his party’s intention to contest the forthcoming Assembly poll in the state on Sunday was headlined by his meeting with Muslim cleric and ‘youth leader’ Abbas Siddiqui at Furfura Sharif in Hooghly is significant.
Equally so was his comment after the meeting: “We will work with Abbas Siddiqui. We will work behind him and support whatever decision he takes.” Leaving the details of whether the AIMIM will form an alliance with Siddiqui (who is considering launching his own party) or if he would be appointed head of the AIMIM in Bengal vague, the impact of Owaisi’s presence has made clear that his model of Muslim consolidation politics is beginning to acquire traction, at least in pockets of the country where the community is present in sizeable numbers. West Bengal is not an exception.
Much has been written about the possible impact on the Trinamool Congress’ minority support base due to the AIMIM’s entry. The fact is that with more than a 30 per cent vote share, Muslims are a deciding factor in at least 90 Assembly segments in the state.
Owaisi has till now been focussing on building his party organisation, participating in community outreach programmes, and scouting for potential candidates in districts of West Bengal that adjoin the Seemanchal region of Bihar where his party did remarkably well in the Assembly election. His forging of a putative pact with Siddiqui given the cleric draws his support mainly from North and South 24-Parganas shows that the AIMIM supremo is working on a gameplan to match his ambition.
It will not be all smooth sailing for him, naturally. The formidable Mamata Banerjee still commands strong support among the largely conservative Muslim community of the state while the progressive elements within it have traditionally tilted towards the Left Front.
The Congress retains some support among a cross-section of Muslims and where it has a strong local leader and a semblance of a party organisation, this is electorally relevant.
Which leaves the BJP, which is just not interested in pursuing a Muslim community-specific agenda as it believes it is the politics of minority religious identity which has led to the community’s ghettoization and radicalisation.
Despite having to fend off constant barbs that the AIMIM is the B-team of the BJP, Owaisi’s rise as a contender – though as yet far from power in any meaningful way – has many worried.
The concern stems primarily from the consequences of his quasi-religious agenda with exclusivist undertones for not only an economically backward community with its fair share of obscurantism but also for the hardening of anti-Muslim sentiment among Hindus.
Forget, for a moment, the electoral dividend or debacle such a development may lead to for the parties in the fray. Think, instead, of how the space for societal inclusiveness, reform, and equality before law would shrink on either side.