A t the height of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi stir, Azam Khan, soon to be popular as a firebrand Muslim leader, became the darling of the Muslim masses with his fiery speeches. A few weeks before the demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992, Khan’s speeches, across many cities and towns of Uttar Pradesh, called for the Babri Masjid to be restored to the community. Faced with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani’s ever-advancing juggernaut, he pledged to protect the mosque, even going to the extent of saying, “If the mosque falls, the first brick will fall on my head…if a dome falls, the first martyr will be my son.” The speeches ended with loud proclamations of “Naar-e-Takbeer…Allahu akbar” from the masses. The audio recordings of his speeches sold in Muslim-dominated towns and colonies for Rs.10, even Rs.20, as many music shops played his speeches instead of the usual music to attract the faithful.
Few, if any, knew Khan’s son Abdullah—now an MLA from Suar in western Uttar Pradesh—was at best a toddler then and unlikely to be seen anywhere near the mosque in Ayodhya. Such details did not matter to the faithful, who thronged to listen to Khan. The community had thrown its lot behind him. Azam Khan, the popular Samajwadi Party leader, had arrived as the face of the Muslim electorate in the State. The mosque fell, Khan’s career rose, his speeches often resulting in the polarisation of the electorate. The BJP gained in direct proportion to his acerbic speeches and the Muslim community remained content counting its members in the Assembly. From being a multiple-term MLA, Khan graduated to member of the Lok Sabha in 2019.
Cut to 2020. Even as Khan cooled his heels in a Sitapur jail following multiple allegations and cases of corruption, Asaduddin Owaisi, the suave orator from Hyderabad, emerged as a contender for the Muslim vote. Unlike Khan, who was born and brought up in Uttar Pradesh and had been a popular student leader at Aligarh Muslim University, Owaisi came with the added package of novelty. He was that articulate barrister the masses had heard on television, seen in the Lok Sabha fighting against the Triple Talaq Bill.
To add to his appeal, Owaisi had the success of Bihar behind him. In the 2020 election to the Bihar Assembly, his party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), contested 20 seats, winning five—a healthy strike rate of 25 per cent.
Owaisi now aspired to be the new Muslim voice, from the Gangetic plains to the Hooghly waters.
By the end of 2021, his futile foray in Bengal seemed to be a little blip as Owaisi serenaded the Uttar Pradesh electorate. The masses were almost hypnotised. The gatherings in his meetings were marked by a preponderance of bearded- skull-capped young men, and not a handful of burqa-clad women. The sentiment seemed to be that 70 years of voting for secular parties had not done the community any good. Parties such as the Congress, the S.P., and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) had taken Muslims for granted. The refrain was: “If we vote for Owaisi, he will at least raise his voice for us.” Owaisi’s comment that Muslims were being used to set out the carpet at S.P. meetings seemed to have struck a chord with the masses.
To the vast multitudes, Owaisi seemed to be the panacea for all ills. A few weeks before the end of 2021, and much before Akhilesh Yadav launched his election campaign with full energy, Owaisi looked all set to replicate Azam Khan’s role of the 1990s.
The polarisation of the electorate seemed inevitable, what with Chief Minister Adityanath himself talking in terms of the election being between “80 per cent and 20 per cent”, a thinly veiled reference to Muslims who comprise 19 per cent of the State’s population.
Adityanath took no chances and made repeated references in his speeches to “Abba Jaan” having been the beneficiaries of many government schemes in the past. “Abba Jaan” is a term of respectful address for father, used by many Urdu-speaking people. S.P. leader Akhilesh Yadav studiously focussed on livelihood issues and talked about hunger, price rise, unemployment, roads and electricity.
Also read: Hard-fought win for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh
Yet there were genuine fears of surcharged masses voting on the lines of religion, much like what had happened in the 1990s with Azam Khan and Advani at opposite ends of the spectrum. Owaisi, it was feared, might well be the spoiler of Akhilesh’s show.
Such fears, although not entirely unfounded, seem grossly exaggerated now. The Muslim masses listened to and appreciated Owaisi’s speeches when Akhilesh Yadav sat at home making plans for his election campaign. Owaisi was the early bird who was likely to catch the prey. Yet, AIMIM alliance (the party was in alliance with the little-known Jan Adhikar Party, the Rashtriya Parivartan Morcha, the Bahujan Mukti Party, the Bhartiya Vnachit Samaj Party and the Kanata Kranti Party) candidates lost their deposits in 99 of the 100 seats they contested.
Not one of the 36 Muslim candidates sent to the Vidhan Sabha in the 2022 election was from the AIMIM. The party’s performance was reminiscent of 2017 when all but one of the 38 candidates lost their deposits.
Muslims back S.P.
Once the S.P.’s campaign gathered momentum, Muslims threw in their lot with Akhilesh Yadav, realising the S.P. had a realistic chance of forming the next government. Mayawati, meanwhile, was found to be a slow starter and struggled to shake off the impression of being the BJP’s “B-team”. It was a new avatar of the community’s tactical voting. In the past, Muslims often voted for the candidate most likely to defeat the BJP. This time, they voted positively for the S.P., knowing the party alone seemed well placed to counter the BJP narrative. The AIMIM, which pitted its candidates in 97 seats in the 403-member Assembly, was pushed out of the race. The party notched up less than 0.5 per cent of the total votes, settling at 0.49 per cent. All those who had regarded Owaisi as the new formidable voice fell silent.
Even the sundry clerics from small madrasas in western Uttar Pradesh, which went to the polls during the second phase of the election, realised that a vote for the AIMIM alliance actually meant a vote less for the S.P’s bid to unseat the BJP. Shan Mohammed, a Baraut-based maulana who teaches in Noida, said: “In the early days, there was great joy among Muslims here with the arrival of Owaisi. But soon people realised, this candidate with the kite [AIMIM symbol] would cut into the votes of the cycle [S.P. symbol].” The result was that Uttar Pradesh repeated not the Bihar experience but that of Bengal for the AIMIM, where Owaisi’s Muslim pitch found no takers.
Also read: The effect of caste equations on voting
The Muslim community voted on everyday issues of sadak, bijli, pani (roads, power, water). It refused to get provoked by repeated jibes of “Abba Jaan” and “Jinnah”, just as it turned a deaf ear to reminders of being used by secular parties to “lay a carpet”. The community realised its future lay in inclusive politics, not in identity politics. Akhilesh Yadav held out a prospect of security that was denied to them by the Adityanath regime and its unabashed marginalisation of Muslims.
Most AIMIM candidates performed poorly. For instance, Imran Ahmed got merely 3,038 votes in Meerut, Rashid got 2,661 votes in Moradabad, Moinuddin won only 1,112 votes in Kanpur Cantt while Salman Ahmed received merely 623 votes in Lucknow Central. Mohammed Rafique got 1,452 votes in Sandila and Yar Mohammed got 7,442 votes in Sirathu. Even in Deoband, the seat of a world-renowned Islamic seminary, AIMIM candidate Maulana Umair Madani got merely 3,500 votes. In and around Rohilkhand. where the Muslim population exceeds 30 per cent, the AIMIM failed to make a dent.
Azam Khan, contesting from jail, still held sway over the masses. He himself got 70 per cent of the votes cast in Rampur, his son Abdullah Azam won with ease from Suar. The consolidation of Muslims behind the S.P.-led alliance propelled it to 44 per cent strike rate in the region, much higher than the rest of the State. As for the AIMIM, it failed to open its account. In many seats with a formidable presence of Muslims, more votes were polled for the BSP and the Congress than the AIMIM. Muslim voters seem to have realised that votes for the AIMIM would only help the BJP. In some cases, even NOTA got more votes, thereby signalling the end of the feeble AIMIM challenge.
In fact, the Election Commission of India notified NOTA’s poll percentage in the State at 0.69 per cent, clearly ahead of the 0.49 per cent notched up by the AIMIM alliance.
Also read: How women voted
The AIMIM’s performance failed to silence the self-appointed prophets of doom who insisted that S.P. candidates lost in many seats because of the handful of votes polled by AIMIM candidates. However, in many of the close contests, some Muslims, though almost negligible in number, voted for the Congress and the BSP. So, to blame the AIMIM for the defeat of S.P. candidates by slender margins of a few hundred votes is to fail to look at the complete picture.
For instance, in Kursi, the BJP won by merely 217 votes. Here, the AIMIM candidate got over 8,000 votes, in comparison with the Congress netting fewer than 3,000 and the Aam Aadmi Party polling fewer than a thousand votes. Likewise, in Nakur, the BJP’s candidate won the seat by 155 votes, ahead of the S.P. Here, the AIMIM got 3,591 votes in comparison with the AAP’s 239 and the Congress’ 1,353. In such close contests there was a little division of the non-S.P. Muslim vote among the contestants from the AIMIM, the Congress, the BSP and the AAP. That dissemination of the Muslim vote in seven seats resulted in a loss for the S.P. In the other 396 seats, the Muslim vote remained consolidated behind the S.P.-led alliance, with Muslims voting enthusiastically for its alliance partner Rashtriya Lok Dal in western Uttar Pradesh, clearly snubbing Owaisi in the region.
After the Bengal Assembly election in 2021, the 2022 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh has proved the Owaisi experiment is unlikely to succeed in the days to come. The AIMIM’s Bihar success may well be a single swallow for what promises to be a long summer in the wilderness for the party.