Bihar Result Throws Up A New Fact - How To Ally With Owaisi

In Bihar, Trump won.

A Prime Minister who imposed a ruthless lockdown with no provision for the poor, who forced Bihar's migrant labourers to trek back to their home state, won. Bihar's Chief Minister, the BJP's house-broken provincial ally, who kept these starving labourers in limbo by refusing to let them come home, won as well. The Mahagathbandhan lost by razor-thin margins but in first-past-the-post democracies, 'nearly' doesn't matter. Tejashwi Yadav's political task now is to make sure that he doesn't go down in Bihar's political history as its Nearly Man.

To have barn-stormed the state in the run-up to the election in the time of Covid, to have constructed an alliance with the Congress and the Left that plugged holes in his political coalition when he was written off by pundits as a failed cricketer and unworthy inheritor of his father's populist legacy, and then to have nearly won, is not a small thing. Measured by the yardstick of power in the present, it's less than that. It is nothing. You can no more be nearly Chief Minister than you can be nearly pregnant. But as a public display of political muscle, as a platform for future alliances, Tejashwi Yadav made an extraordinary debut.

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RJD's Tejashwi Yadav 

Every state election in India today is seen as a thermometer reading on the political health of the Modi Project. By and large, the BJP has passed these tests consistently, if not always with flying colours. It has lost important elections, but thanks to its stranglehold on the Centre, some provincial defeats have been turned into victories via defections. Madhya Pradesh is the latest example and Rajasthan was nearly another. Opposition victories have sometimes been less than resounding. To win Maharashtra from the BJP at the cost of serving under a Shiv Sena Chief Minister seems more a victory for the BJP's dream of a Hindu Rashtra than a defeat.

This is why Tejashwi Yadav's insurgent campaign sparked such excitement. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a country run by a Hindu strongman is in dire need of a young, Hindi-speaking, non-rabid, BIMARU-belt pol who can fill maidans with adoring voters and win. Tejashwi did all of the above except the last. The saving grace here is that he seems to have designed a political coalition that might (with one important exception) see him over the finishing line the next time round.

The 70 seats he ceded to the Congress seemed twice too many after the election results when his main ally won all of 20 seats, but since these were often seats with strong upper-caste populations that were unlikely to vote for the Rashtriya Janata Dal, it wasn't an unreasonable sacrifice, and it did net the Mahagathbandhan seats it might have otherwise lost to the National Democratic Alliance.

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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi

At the other end of the social spectrum, his alliance with the Left, especially the CPI (ML), yielded a crucial dividend, Dalit support, which in other constituencies was hoovered up by the NDA. The BJP and Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party have, between them, consistently won the lion's share of Dalit votes. This isn't surprising; in the political economy of Bihar, Dalits are likely to see dominant peasant castes like the Yadavs as their immediate oppressors. The RJD, being a Yadav-led party, needs to court Dalits at one remove, through a political formation that has their trust. Luckily for the Mahagathbandhan, the CPI (ML) in Bihar is solidly entrenched in Dalit communities. In a politics riven by caste and communal fractions, the Mahagathbandhan's Left parties bring an old-fashioned class orientation to subaltern politics.

The one section in the Mahagathbandhan's social coalition that hasn't slotted neatly into place are are Bihar's Muslims. This comes as a surprise because since Lalu's heroics over Advani's Rath Yatra in the days when the Babri Masjid still stood, the RJD has been seen as the natural repository of Muslim support in Bihar. Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) used to win some Muslim votes when it was in coalition with the BJP before Modi took over as leader, but since his somersault in 2017, the party has lost much of this support. In the normal course, the RJD and the Congress between them would have won the Muslim vote by default, but the arrival of Asaduddin Owaisi and his party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, has upended that assumption.

After an earlier, less successful foray into Bihar's assembly politics, Owaisi returned in triumph. The AIMIM contested twenty and won five crucial seats in the Seemanchal region which could have been the difference between office and opposition if the Mahagathbandhan had got its tally up to the 117-mark. Through the long moment when the two coalitions hovered under the magic figure of 122, there were reports of Owaisi playing king-maker, but the NDA's eventual majority made that moot. Owaisi doubled his vote share compared to his party's performance in the 2015 Bihar election. It is reasonable to assume that he took crucial Muslim votes away from the Mahagathbandhan, votes that could have carried the opposition over the line.

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AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi

Up to now, parties opposed to the BJP have been able to take Muslim voters for granted on the assumption that they had nowhere else to go. In this period of BJP dominance, Muslims have voted in determined and disciplined ways for opposition parties, guided by the principle of the lesser evil. In the last assembly election in Delhi, for example, Muslims turned out for the Aam Admi Party in large numbers because they saw Kejriwal's party as the most likely alternative to BJP rule in Delhi. What they got in return was unremitting hostility from a party determined to ride the BJP bandwagon on the Delhi riots. Owaisi can see that the concerted move rightwards of most mainstream political parties, from the Congress to the Samajwadi Party to the Nationalist Congress Party, to avoid being smeared as anti-national by the BJP, has opened a political space for him. He can campaign in Malegaon in Maharashtra, in Kishanganj in Bihar and perhaps, next year, in Malda in West Bengal, by simply saying to Muslims in heavily Muslim constituencies that they do have somewhere to go.

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Both in Bihar and elsewhere, the anti-BJP opposition will have to decide if the price of not dealing with Owaisi is politically manageable. Is allying with an explicitly Muslim political party in post-Partition India political suicide? The precedent of Kerala suggests that it is not, but it isn't clear that Kerala's lessons are relevant in the Hindi/Hindu heartland. Whenever the AIMIM ventures outside Hyderabadi politics, it is accused of acting covertly on behalf of the BJP.

Objectively, as old Marxists used to say, it's possible that AIMIM's participation in an election helps the BJP's cause by dividing the anti-BJP Muslim vote. But this is true of every three - or four-cornered contest against the BJP. If, next year, the Trinamool Congress, the CPI (M) and the Congress contest the assembly elections separately in West Bengal, they will similarly divide the anti-BJP vote. Evangelists preaching anti-BJP unity can't duck the responsibility for bringing political outsiders into a broad tent. It is unreasonable to shun the AIMIM and then denounce it for contesting elections as the catspaw of the BJP. There is much in Owaisi's politics to disagree with, but the allegation that he is the BJP's paid agent is a conspiracy theory that should embarrass the people who level it. Owaisi's opposition to the BJP has been principled, eloquent and consistent to a degree that few opposition politicians can match.

The Shaheen Bagh moment, when the vanguard of the resistance to the BJP's citizenship law was made up of Muslims, especially Muslim women, underlined the importance of minority participation in oppositional politics. Joe Biden's narrow defeat of Donald Trump was driven by the party's Black caucus which ensured his nomination and Black voters who turned out in unprecedented numbers to get him and the Democrats over the line. The party's debt to Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, and Stacy Abrams, who led a voter registration drive that possibly won Georgia for Biden, has been publicly and repeatedly acknowledged.

If Indian opposition parties want the votes of Muslim citizens, they need to canvas their support, acknowledge their contribution, speak to their concerns, integrate them into their organisations and elevate them to positions of leadership. If they don't, they must expect Owaisi-like figures to fill the void. And till such time as they do, political leaders like Tejashwi Yadav, fighting make-or-break elections, will have to decide if they want Asaduddin Owaisi and the AIMIM inside or outside their political coalitions. Especially when their support could be the difference between being the laurelled victor and the Nearly Man.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

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