POLITICS
17/06/2019 8:52 AM IST | Updated 19/06/2019 10:17 AM IST

Asaduddin Owaisi Is Much More Than A 'Muslim Politician'

The AIMIM chief says national political parties are not interested in representing minorities or any socially disadvantaged groups — making it crucial for these communities to ally with each other.

HYDERABAD, Telangana — When the first session of the 17th Session of the Lok Sabha opens for business on June 17, the All India Majis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) will be represented by two members of parliament for the first time in a storied history dating back to 1927.

One face, that of Asaduddin Owaisi the AIMIM president and four time MP from Hyderabad, shall be no surprise. The other face, Syed Imtiaz Jaleel from Aurangabad who won by a narrow margin of 4,492 votes thanks to an alliance with Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, is the first measurable victory in Owaisi’s attempt to broaden his party’s appeal beyond the Muslim community in Telangana.

Earlier this month, the AIMIM which has seven MLAs had become the de facto opposition party in the Telangana state legislature after 12 of the Congress’s 18 MLAs defected to the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS).

These developments were the first concrete steps in Owaisi’s ambitious plan to chart a national course for the AIMIM — one that leverages the party’s following in the Muslim community to build alliances with other socially marginalised groups like the Dalit and Bahujan communities.

The AIMIM’s gains come at a time when the Muslim community is amidst a crisis of political representation. With national and regional parties wilting in the face of the BJP’s orchestrated politics of religious polarisation, only 22 of 543 members of Parliament were Muslim; five years later their numbers have increased marginally to 27.

In this crisis, Owaisi, a London-educated Barrister of Law, sees an opportunity for the community to evolve a broad-based politics of its own.

“The Muslim community will have to actively participate in making alliances with socially disadvantageous groups whether they are the Dalits or Other Backward Classes,” Owaisi said in a recent interview with HuffPost India. “That is the only way forward because we must realise and come out of this comfort zone that the so called secular parties are there. They are not.”

Owaisi’s Quotable Quotes

On any given day, a phalanx of reporters and television cameras park themselves outside the sprawling AIMIM party office at Darussalam, Hyderabad, eager to ask Owaisi his views as the go-to man on all things Muslim: lynchings; the gruesome rape and murder of a Muslim child in Kathua, Kashmir; the Triple Talaq Bill, and sundry religious diktats prescribed by any Ulema on any given subject anywhere in country.

“As a journalist have you witnessed any election in which the words secularism and minorities were not uttered by leaders of any political party? This elections neither the Congress nor the BJP uttered these words. Why?”Asaduddin Owaisi

One reason is that Owaisi gives wonderful quotes; the other is that, almost without anyone noticing, he has become the country’s most recognised Muslim politician — a characterisation he disputes.

“The question of me being a national leader for the Muslims—I am not interested. That is not going to happen,” Owaisi said. Muslims are not a homogenous community, he said. “There are so many differences in terms of culture and language. The only common factor is marginalisation.”

As a consequence, Owaisi frequently asks journalists to seek his comments on matters that have larger implications including constitutionality, secularism, and freedom of speech. Yet, reporters on the Owaisi beat have tricks of their own. As one old hand put it, “Owaisi should first be asked the question he may enjoy answering before you try to elicit a statement you need from him.”

The Muslim community will have to actively participate in making alliances with socially disadvantageous groups whether they are the Dalits or Other Backward Classes.That is the only way forward because we must realise and come out of this comfort zone that the so called secular parties are there. They are not.”Asaduddin Owaisi

The Biking Politician

The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen was set up by Abdul Wahed Owaisi, Asaduddin’s grand-father, who built the party from the splinters of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a pre-independence socio-political front.

The Owaisis have long been a powerful, wealthy and well-connected clan with a flair for public spectacle. Abdul Wahed Owaisi’s son and six time MP of Hyderabad, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi often rode through the Old City’s narrow lanes on a motorcycle, until his age caught up with him — a practice that his son Asaduddin has continued. The drama around his bike rides and his distinctive style of making an entry have often appealed to people. 

In January 2016, Owaisi rode his motorcyle to the Velivada, a site of protest, at University of Hyderabad where hundreds of students had gathered to protest caste discrimination in modern academic spaces after Rohith Vemula, the 26-year-old research scholar committed suicide on January 17 that year.

More recently, he rode down to caretaker Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s official residence a few days after Telangana’s Legislative Assembly polls on December 7, 2018. The ride was an elaborate joke on the BJP’s Goshamahal (Old city) MLA Raja Singh, who had threatened to kill Owaisi if he dared to travel without security personnel.  

On December 10, Owaisi gave his MP’s security cover a miss to reach the CM’s camp office, Pragathi Bhawan.

“Hyderabad is a safe city,” he told reporters, as he dismounted. In the same breath Owaisi predicted heavy losses for the BJP in the state polls. When the results were declared the next day, the BJP’s strength in the state legislature had fallen from five to one.   

Part of Owaisi’s appeal is his refusal to read from the script expected of most Muslim leaders. In 2015, for instance, he told author Patrick French that the Haj subsidy should be scrapped and the money spent on educating Muslim girls. In a profile for the Hindustan Times, he also spoke out against the influential Muslim clergy.

“There’s nothing extraordinary about an imam, as if he fell from the sky,” Owaisi said. “In Islam we don’t have priests, or the brahmin system. It is high time someone says the bitter truth: there’s a problem with the ulema all over India.”

Apart from bold statements and grand entries, Owaisi’s persona also harbours an element of the mundane; a quality which grabs eyeballs.

On the last Friday before Eid-Ul-Fitr this year, he was spotted directing traffic at Fateh Darwaza, one of the junctions near the historic Charminar.

Caught in the mad rush of thousands wrapping up their Eid shopping, Owaisi stepped out of his car and did what many motorists — especially the elderly — do in the Old City: try their hand at clearing traffic bottlenecks.

Predictably, a video of the incident soon went viral.

AIMIM’s Expansion Plan

For Owaisi, the 2019 general elections mark a watershed moment for Indian democracy.

“As a journalist have you witnessed any election in which the words secularism and minorities were not uttered by leaders of any political party?” he said. “This elections neither the Congress nor the BJP uttered these words. Why?”

As some commentators have noted, the opposition restricted itself to vague allusions like the “Idea of India.”

Going forward, Owaisi said, national political parties will not fight elections in the name of minorities or any socially disadvantaged groups — opening a space for his party’s expansion.

“In Maharashtra a start has been made,” he said. “We will now try to strengthen that in Maharashtra and win more Assembly seats.” AIMIM in 2014 had won two Assembly seats in Maharashtra. Syed Imtiaz Jaleel who won the Aurangabad Lok Sabha seat was AIMIM’s incumbent MLA from Aurangabad Central. AIMIM also has good presence in municipal corporation in the state. In Bihar it fielded candidates in 2015 Assembly elections and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The party now hopes to strengthen its base in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, parts of Karnataka apart from trying for an entry in West Bengal, Owaisi said. 

AIMIM Official/ Twitter
Asaduddin Owaisi addressing Jalse-e-Youm-ul-Quran at Makkah Masjid, Hyderabad on 31 May.

Back in Hyderabad, as he prepared himself for yet another session in Parliament, Owaisi turned his attention to his constituents who had arrived at his sprawling office in Darussalam.

A middle aged married couple whose daughter had failed a state board examination by merely two marks wanted Owaisi’s help —a matter dismissed as the problem fell beyond the purview of his duties as an MP. A young man stranded at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad with a few extra pieces of luggage above the usual weight limit got relief—a phone call from Owaisi sorted things out.

As ever, the road to national prominence winds through the narrow lanes of his home turf. The 50-year-old Owaisi seemed aware of the odds.

“Of all the Muslim leaders of various political parties who contested elections in country only two won because of everyone’s votes. One is Mukhtar Ansari (BSP) in Mau (Uttar Pradesh-2017) and the other is the Indian Union Muslim League MP K Navaskani (Ramanathapuram) in Tamil Nadu,” he said. “All other elected Muslim leaders including Asaduddin Owaisi have more than 30 per cent Muslims in their constituencies. Then what is the great thing which anyone has achieved?” His observation was partly accurate. With the exception of states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu Muslim politicians were mostly limited to constituencies that are thickly populated by Muslim.

Owaisi, however, is on the right track, political observers  maintained. “The party’s calculations have been prescient. For a party like AIMIM it is better to forge alliances with regional forces than national parties as the latter ones have their own equations of sharing power which may not benefit AIMIM. Since Salahuddin Owaisi’s time the party always did pragmatic politics to expand its base. Alliances like the ones in Maharashtra and Telangana (with TRS) could be the way forward to emerge stronger in the national scene,” said Shefali Jha, a Hyderabad based anthropologist who studies AIMIM’s history and politics.

Asad Owaisi who has been lampooning both the Congress and the BJP to emerge as a national leader, might be in for the long haul. “Over the past few years I have grown a thick skin. I take accusations against me as accolades,” he told Huffpost India.