The full-fledged entry of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) into the Seemanchal region of Bihar, for long considered a bastion of the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), turned the electoral dynamics of the region on its head in the 2020 Assembly election. Even as the media attention was focused on how the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and its leader Chirag Paswan spoiled the prospects of Janata Dal (United) candidates in more than 30 seats across Bihar, Owaisi’s party quietly made inroads in the Seemanchal region. The AIMIM contested 14 of its 20 seats in the State as part of the Grand Democratic Secular Front (GDSF) in this region and won five of them: Amour, Jokihat, Bahadurganj, Baisi and Kochadhaman.
The region held great importance for the Mahagathbandhan’s ambition to form the government as both the Congress and the RJD fancied their chances here, confident of retaining the traditional support of the Yadav and Muslim communities.
In the end, the five seats that slipped into the hands of the AIMIM at least partially upset the electoral calculations of the Mahagathbandhan.
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Senior Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury branded the AIMIM as a vote-cutter and alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had used the party to divide the secular vote. It was not just the seats the AIMIM won but also the seats it contested that impacted the results, he added. “The BJP’s tact of using Owaisi sahab’s party in the Bihar elections has succeeded to an extent. All secular parties should be alert about vote-cutter Owaisi,” he told news agencies.
However, the AIMIM refuted these allegations, with Owaisi himself stating: “We will have to face this charge till the time we live. The fact is, we won fair and square from the five seats. And among the other seats where we contested, no NDA [National Democratic Alliance] candidate won because our candidate polled in more votes than the margin of victory.”
The firebrand AIMIM leader was largely right. Among the 20 seats where his party was in the fray, the Mahagathbandhan won nine seats, namely Sikta, Thakurganj, Phulwari, Araria, Kasba, Kishanganj, Manihari, Sherghati and Sahebpur Kamal, while the NDA won six: Raniganj, Pranpur, Barari, Chhatapur, Narpatganj and Sahebganj.
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It was only in Raniganj that the victory margin of the NDA was less than the number of votes polled by the AIMIM. The NDA’s Achmit Rishidev won the Raniganj seat—reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates—by 2,304 votes while the AIMIM’s candidate Roshan Devi secured 2,412 votes.
The CAA factor
The rise of Owaisi’s party impacted both the Mahagathbandhan and, surprisingly, the NDA, whose constituent the JD(U) suffered a jolt. Following its support to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the JD(U) lost support among the Muslim community. Even in the party’s strongholds of Jokihat and Kochadhaman, its candidates paid the price for the JDU’s support to the CAA in Parliament.
In December 2019, there were protests and rallies outside the JD(U) offices in Patna as well as New Delhi against the party’s support to the CAA. This time, during the election, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s rallies in the region were unusually subdued in comparison to those addressed by the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav and Owaisi. While Tejashwi talked of developing the region by setting up a Seemanchal Development Commission and repeated his promise of providing 10 lakh jobs without discrimination on the basis of religion or caste at every rally, Owaisi spoke relentlessly on the minorities’ fears of the CAA, not failing to remind the audiences of the graded citizenship in any of his 65 rallies during the election campaign.
Also read: COVER STORY | Asaduddin Owaisi: ‘It is not Muslims’ responsibility to keep these parties afloat’
Akhtarul Iman, the AIMIM’s Bihar chief who won from Amour, also talked of the economic development of the region. Later, Akhtarul Iman said: “We won five seats because, for the first time, the voters in Seemanchal voted on local issues of development, special status to the region, roads and schools, etc.”
Fearing a shift in the Muslim vote, Nitish Kumar took on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who had spoken in favour of the CAA and throwing out infiltrators at one of his rallies for the BJP.
At a rally in Kishanganj, the Bihar Chief Minister said: “Who utters all this nonsense? No one has the courage to drive people out. It is our religion to take everyone along. This has been our culture.” He reminded the voters of the work done by the government for the development of madrasas and how it had increased teachers’ salaries.
Also read: COVER STORY | Nitish Kumar, the winning loser
Incidentally, much before the CAA was passed in Parliament in December 2019, there was talk in Seemanchal, which neighbours West Bengal, of ‘ghuspetiyas’ (infiltrators), with BJP leaders often arousing passion by talking tough on the subject. During the countrywide anti-CAA rallies and dharnas last year, Seemanchal witnessed the spirited participation of the local residents. It was this latent fear among the minorities that the AIMIM tapped into. The RJD and the Congress steered clear of criticising the CAA during campaigning, leaving the field open to the AIMIM.
For the AIMIM, the 2020 election was a do-or-die situation. It had contested six seats in the 2015 Assembly election but failed to win a single seat; moreover, five of its candidates lost their deposit. Its sole success in Bihar came later, in the by-elections in Kishanganj, where its candidate Qamrul Huda defeated the BJP’s Sweety Singh in October last year.
Also read: COVER STORY | The Congress: Weakest link in the Mahagathbandhan
This time, as Owaisi said, the party was better prepared. The floods and the return of the migrant labourers during the pandemic came as opportunities for the party to make its presence felt. The party organised relief for the flood-affected and often talked of the angst of the migrants, seeking to capitalise on the Chief Minister’s alleged absence from the public arena during the lockdown.
In the end, although the AIMIM can bask in the success of five seats, the fact that it could not retain the Kishanganj seat it won just a year ago should be a sobering thought. For the RJD and the Congress, the competition is poised to get tougher in their erstwhile stronghold.
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