As the VBA contests polls in Maharashtra, a look at Asaduddin Owaisi’s Dalit outreach

Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen has never won a Lok Sabha election beyond its traditional bastion in the old city of Hyderabad. Neeraj Priyadarshi/Indian Express archive
17 April, 2019

On 18 April, ten out of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha constituencies will vote in the second phase of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. These polls mark the electoral debut of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, or VBA—an alliance of Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised groups—which is contesting all 48 seats in the state. The alliance is spearheaded by Prakash Ambedkar, the president of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, and joined by Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, or AIMIM. Ambedkar, who is the grandson of BR Ambedkar, is contesting from two constituencies—Akola and Solapur—both of which will vote on Thursday.

An untested political alliance, which has nevertheless drawn huge crowds at its campaign rallies, the VBA may upend the caste arithmetic of the big four in the state—the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress. Dalits and Muslims together account for almost twenty five percent of the state’s population. The VBA also reflects Owaisi’s attempts to bring together the Muslim and the Dalit vote. Many analysts see this as Owaisi’s attempt to expand his and AIMIM’s appeal beyond their stronghold of Hyderabad and to a wider base of the electorate. The only time that AIMIM won an election outside of Hyderabad was in the 2014 state assembly elections in Maharashtra, when it bagged two seats.

In the following extract from “The Seeker,” The Caravan’s September 2016 cover story, Neyaz Farooquee traces Owaisi’s history of courting Dalit voters, his attempts to create alliances with other Bahujan parties and extend the presence of AIMIM to other states with significant Muslim and Dalit populations.

One way Asaduddin is pushing the frontiers of Muslim politics is by courting Dalit voters. In the Maharashtra election in 2014, the AIMIM tried out a new slogan: “Jai Bheem, Jai Meem”—“Bheem” for the Dalit hero Bhimrao Ambedkar, and “Meem,” phonetically, for MIM. I saw a poster with the same slogan on my visit to Darussalam. Before the Bihar election, Asaduddin told a newspaper, “I definitely see a future where Muslims and Dalits should come together socially and politically.” And this January, after the suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula on the University of Hyderabad campus, he was one of the first politicians to visit protesting students at the university, and also Vemula’s mother.

The AIMIM has some history of Dalit engagement. It fielded Dalit candidates during the days of Asaduddin’s father and grandfather, but this was rare and largely for appearances. In the late 1980s and 1990s, though, when the party had the numbers to appoint the mayor of Hyderabad, three of the five people it elevated to the post were Dalits. Under Asaduddin’s leadership, it has continued to field Dalit candidates in small but noticeable numbers—especially in municipal elections, where they have had some success. In assembly elections—as in Maharashtra, where it fielded Dalits in five of the 24 constituencies it contested—no Dalit has yet won on an AIMIM ticket, even in the party’s home state.

I spoke to Kancha Ilaiah Shephard, a noted scholar of caste issues, about Asaduddin’s prospects with Dalit voters. Asaduddin, he said, is “willing to address ideological issues of non-Muslims,” and has a politics that “runs counter to Hindutva nationalism.” Muslim leaders from mainstream political parties have, by and large, not taken any ideological position on caste, he said, but Asaduddin has. The AIMIM leader still has a long way to go in winning Dalits’ confidence, but “he seems to approve of Ambedkar’s role more than Gandhi’s role in India. That is common ground.”

As part of this strategy, Asaduddin has actively reached out to young Dalit leaders. At a small gathering in Hyderabad before the 2014 election, he met Naliganti Sharath—a Dalit activist at Osmania University, who took part in the Telangana movement, has organised against Hindutva, and has spoken out for women’s and transgender rights. At the gathering, Sharath sang against prohibitions on beef. Asaduddin “liked my song,” he told me at his university hostel, “and asked me to visit him if I wished.”

Sharath did, and Asaduddin offered him a ticket for the upcoming Telangana assembly election. “I took some time, asked my seniors for advice, before I said yes,” Sharath said. But he had a condition. “I said I will fight against the state BJP chief, G Kishan Reddy,” in a constituency in Hyderabad.

Sharath remembered Asaduddin’s reaction. “He smiled and said, ‘Be realistic. It’s your first election.’” But the young man was adamant, and Asaduddin relented. “It was a fight between Rama and Ravana,” Sharath joked.

Sharath didn’t stand much of a chance. But the fear that he might woo Dalit voters away made the BJP leader go to Dalits’ homes and “touch their feet,” Sharath said. Seeing that, “Asaduddin-bhai hugged me, and said, ‘Bhai, hum jeet gaye.’” (Brother, we have won.)

Sharath received almost 19,000 votes, compared to Kishan Reddy’s over 81,000. Still, the AIMIM succeeded in catching Dalits’ attention.

And that, for now, seems to be Asaduddin’s most realistic goal. The AIMIM’s next electoral battleground is Uttar Pradesh—with 38.5 million Muslims, comprising 19.3 percent of the population—which votes for its state assembly early next year. Shephard told me, “In Uttar Pradesh, he may not get votes, but he will get ideological footing.” Asaduddin would perhaps settle for that. He is fond of repeating the Dalit leader Kanshi Ram’s line that “The first election is for losing, the second election is for making someone else lose, the third election is for winning.”

In Delhi, Asaduddin told me the AIMIM is open to alliances in Uttar Pradesh, and that the party’s state president “is in touch with some like-minded leaders of Dalits and some parties.” But, he added, “It would be wrong on my part to even talk about an alliance with this party or that party. It is too early to say anything about that.”

In his comments on Uttar Pradesh, Asaduddin has been critical of the Congress, the BJP and the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party—leaving only the Bahujan Samaj Party, which champions the Dalit cause, as a potential partner. Another hint that the AIMIM is trying to woo Dalits came this February, when it put forward a Dalit candidate in an assembly by-election in the state.

But the BSP’s leader, Mayawati, has not shown any sign of reciprocating interest. Meanwhile, the Samajwadi Party, whose electoral strategy relies heavily on Muslim votes, appears intent on keeping Asaduddin out, and has denied permission for several AIMIM rallies.

Naqvi also told me that the AIMIM’s current chances in Uttar Pradesh are very slim. His advice to the party was to diversify its appeal. “You cannot operate from a ghetto,” he said, and you cannot go national “unless you appeal to the Hindus also.” Even Indian Muslims, he said, are not monolithic. “Bengali Muslims are different. Tilak Rai Muslims are separate. Assamese are separate.” Asaduddin “has linked them all up in the English language on social media,” he said, but that does not amount to actual social integration. If Asaduddin embraces a more secular and integrationist politics, Naqvi said, “if he keeps aside his topi, he will be acceptable to me as well.”

Farooqui told me he “will be surprised if the party succeeds even in opening its account in Uttar Pradesh.” In Maharashtra, he said, “they had local presence, which is not the case in Uttar Pradesh,” and some Dalits voted for the AIMIM in Maharashtra “because the traditional claimants of Dalit votes—like the Nationalist Congress Party, at least in Aurangabad—had become obsolete or weakened.” Establishing a Dalit base for the AIMIM in Uttar Pradesh would have to mean Dalit voters moving away from Mayawati’s BSP, and not gravitating instead to the BJP. “That’s a big thing to expect.”

This is an extract from Neyaz Farooquee’s September 2016 cover story, “The Seeker.” It has been edited and condensed.