No Takers for Muslim Parties in Bihar

An Owaisi poster in Kishanganj.

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The identitarian turn in Hindi Heartland (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) since late 1980s led to the electoral viability of caste and community-centered political parties at the expanse of catch-all and class-based parties like Congress and Left wherein the parties like Bahujan Samajwadi Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Janata Dal/Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar catered primarily to the interests of their respective core constituencies, namely, numerically dominant castes among OBCs and Dalits like Yadavs and Jatav-Chamars.

Similarly, this period also witnessed Bharatiya Janata Party succeeding in carving out a vibrant support base composed of a diverse section of Hindus like Upper Castes, a section of non-Yadav OBCs and numerically insignificant Dalit castes in the two states.

Thus, three distinct but related characteristics that marked the unfolding of new party system in this identitarian phase happened to be the existence of a numerically significant caste or community, their urge to redefine the socio-political power configuration and hence, the quest to have a party from their vantage point.

Surprisingly, Muslims, despite having all the three characteristics in U.P and Bihar, remained an exception to this dominant trend and the two states did not witness the emergence of an electorally viable Muslim party.

CHANGE OF CONTEXT

However, things changed significantly in the aftermath of publication of Rangnath Mishra and Rajinder Sachchar Committee report which catapulted the notion of Muslim backwardness and the failure of secular parties in ameliorating the state of community, at the centre stage leading to floating of multiple Muslim centric parties, like Peace Party in western U.P, National Ulema Council in Eastern U.P, by Muslims who claimed to be disgusted by the aloofness of the prominent Muslim leaders from mainstream parties towards the twin issues of backwardness and victimhood informing the community.

It must be noted that despite losing all the seats these newly formed political parties registered significant percentage of Muslim votes in their respective constituencies and unsettled the pattern of old electoral outcomes in the respective constituencies. However, they could not sustain their limited electoral appeal beyond 2012 State Assembly election in U.P and had a natural death by the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

The state of a quest for Muslim centric political parties in Bihar has been gloomier than U.P despite the fact that emotive and economic issues have had a strong presence in the popular imagination of the community members in the state wherein they have actively rallied behind the civil society organizations, who have raised these issues time and again. Here, the interesting trend that needs to be analyzed happens to be the responses of the Muslim electorates to multiple Muslim Parties testing the electoral waters in the ensuing Bihar election.

MUSLIM PARTIES IN BIHAR ELECTION

In total there are five Muslim parties, namely, MIM led by Asaduddin Owaisi, Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) led by Barelvi leader Tauqir Raza, Muslim League, Ittemham Council and specifically in the context of Bihar, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led in the state by Tariq Anwar, who all have announced their intention to contest the Bihar assembly election specifically in Seemanchal region on account of larger Muslim concentration and overall backwardness of the area.

All these parties have merged the two factors to make a case of Muslim backwardness in the area as the key electoral issue. It is altogether a different matter that except for MIM and NCP, one does not have much idea about the profile of candidates from other Muslim parties.

Secondly, their mobilizational strategies, for namesake or real, have been to make an appeal to Dalits to make a common case with Muslims against negligence by all the political parties, victimhood and backwardness by society and the state. MIM in particular have been repeating this punch line not only in Bihar but also in Maharashtra and U.P.

SOCIAL PROFILE OF MUSLIMS IN SEEMANCHAL

Four districts of Eastern Bihar - Araria, Purnia, Katihar, and Kishanganj - wherein Muslims constitute 42%, 37%, 43% and 67% of the population respectively, popularly referred as Seemanchal, has geographical proximity with Nepal and Bangladesh leading to the existence of a diverse socio-linguistic profile of Muslims in the region. While Kishangunj is dominated by the Surjapuri Muslims, Araria is dominated by Kulhaiya Muslims.

Similarly, Purnia is dominated by Angika Muslims while Katihar has a significant presence of Shershahvadi Muslims.

Not only these Muslims speak completely different language and have markedly distinct cultural practices despite habiting same geographical space, they have sectional political loyalties towards leaders hailing from their respective caste groups. Intermarriage is still a rare practice among various groups of Muslims and some groups like Shershahvadis are not even invited for inter-dining by others.

Besides, another fault line that has emerged significantly in the last two decades, happens to be theological in nature wherein except for Shershahvadis who are Ahl-e-Hadis, all other groups are internally divided for being Deobandis or Barelvis. Unfortunately, this theological divided has its social implication in terms of faithful’s positive response to the appeal of their respective theological leaders.

NO TAKERS FOR MUSLIM PARTIES

In this backdrop, an analysis of responses by majority of Muslim electorates in Seemanchal region shed some light on their, complex political articulations in general and extremely negative perceptions regarding Muslim parties contesting the Bihar election in particular.

Firstly, the much-hyped MIM and Owaisi factor is not only considered a non-entity but also perceived as a ploy of BJP to divide the Muslim votes. In fact, majority of Muslim respondents were not even aware about its existence and those who took cognizance called him names and labeled him as an outsider who is in the habit of waking up to the realities of Muslims on the eve of elections and acts as a Vote-Katva (vote spoiler).

Secondly, the politically informed Muslim respondents opined that a party like MIM could never succeed in capturing the imagination of majority of Muslims in Seemanchal for the simple reason that here one looks at the social profile of the top leadership before taking a party seriously. Since, the state president of MIM in Bihar, Akhtarul Iman, a two time MLA from Kochadhaman in Surjapuri dominated Kishanganj districts also happens to be a Surjapuri Muslim, it was opined that Kulhaiya and Shershahvadiand Angika Muslims would treat MIM in Bihar as catering to the interests of Surjapuris Muslims only.

Thirdly, another stalwart Muslim leader from the region, Tariq Anwar, senior NCP leader and M.P from Katihar, who is a part of the ‘Third Alliance’ is also considered a vote spoiler in the ensuing election whose influence was opined to be limited to a couple of assembly seats in Katihar district.

Further, majority of Muslim respondents were not even aware of the presence of other Muslim parties and summarily rejected them as non-existent political entities.

CONCLUSION

Thus, it can be inferred that barring a few exceptions in Kerala and Assam, most of the Muslim parties have no takers among the community members due to a combination of factors like the existence of multiple social fault lines and logistical and organizational difficulties of Muslim centric parties to reflect the same diversity in their leadership profile; the dominant perception that a Muslim party would not get much support from the electorates from other communities leading to loss of winnability factor for the same and lastly, the anxiety among Muslims that their mobilization in favor of a Muslim centric party would lead to a counter mobilization among the majority community.

The electoral battle in Bihar, as seen from Seemanchal wherein a party like MIM could not contest even ten assembly seats, categorically indicates the precarious state of Muslim Parties in India.


Sajjan Kumar is a Doctoral candidate at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The article is partly based on the fieldwork in Seemanchal region supported by Peoples Pulse - a Hyderabad based research organization.

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