Congress has blatantly promoted Hindutva in last four years: Asaduddin Owaisi

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31 March, 2019

In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, or AIMIM, is trying to mark its presence in the states of Bihar, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. The 91-year-old party is led by Asaduddin Owaisi, its lone member of parliament, who is eyeing a fourth consecutive win from the Hyderabad constituency. The AIMIM has declared its support to the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, and had supported the Janata Dal (Secular) in the Karnataka assembly elections last year. In Maharashtra, the AIMIM is part of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi—an alliance of Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised groups—which was spearheaded by Prakash Ambedkar, the president of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh.

The AIMIM’s traditional base is in the old city of Hyderabad, from where Owaisi had won with a margin of over two lakh votes in the 2014 general elections. That year, the AIMIM was recognised as a state party in Telangana, after seven out of the 20 candidates it fielded won the assembly elections. In the 2018 assembly elections, it contested eight seats and won seven of them again. The AIMIM had supported the Congress in undivided Andhra Pradesh since 1998 and was a part of the United Progessive Alliance, but pulled out of the coalition in 2012. After the 2014 general elections, the party entered into an alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and continues to be a staunch supporter of its leader and the chief minister of Telangana, K Chandrasekar Rao.

In an interview with Nileena MS, a reporting fellow with The Caravan, at the party headquarters at Darussalam in Hyderabad, Owaisi spoke about the upcoming elections, and the AIMIM’s plans and allies. Among other things, Owaisi discussed how the Congress had adopted the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology to contest the elections, the need for all marginalised groups to come together, and the role of regional parties in the Lok Sabha elections. “Let’s share this burden of defeating BJP equally,” Owaisi said. “Why only regional parties?”

Nileena MS: “The 2019 general elections will not be about what a government can deliver. The race now is about proving who is a bigger Hindu in India.” You said this at the India Conference 2019 held in Harvard University. How is this reflected in the political discourse of today?
Asaduddin Owaisi: From what we have seen especially in the last three years, what is the difference between the Congress and the BJP? That invisible line does not exist anymore. That is why I say, India has only one national party—one is the BJP and the other is one-and-a-half BJP. The latest example is the imposition of the NSA [National Security Act] on three Muslims in [Madhya Pradesh] who were already booked under the MP Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act. [The Congress] went overboard and applied NSA. Is that a national security issue? That shows your priorities are not employment, economy, reviving informal sector, or addressing agrarian distress. Your main priority is this because you feel that unless and until you become like the BJP, you cannot win elections.

NMS: The Congress repeatedly says they are secular, and Rahul Gandhi launched a “Save the Constitution” campaign in April 2018.
AO: When anyone says I stand by the constitution, the constitution should be the driving document. But it is not so. It is merely lip service. If you abide by the constitution, then make it a living document. You do not want to do that.

NMS: You are extremely critical of the Congress now, but they were your ally from 1998 to 2012. Why this change in stance?
AO: In the last four years, there is blatant promotion of Hindutva by the Congress party. It is not even soft Hindutva. They are competing with the BJP, not with any different ideology, but by adopting the same ideology. When the AIMIM was supporting the Congress here, the then CM of Andhra Pradesh, Kiran Kumar Reddy’s government failed in preventing communal violence in the state. We realised that the government was not serious in living up to the expectations, so we withdrew our support here and at the centre.

After that we started expanding our party in Maharashtra, UP, Bihar and Karnataka and then suddenly I was being called an agent of the BJP.

NMS: You have claimed that the Congress is responsible for the current condition of Muslims. Why do you think so?
AO: Of course, no one can deny that. Take the Nellie massacre, the Mumbai riots, the Hashimpura massacre, the Bhagalpur massacre. The list is long. When did all this happen? When the Congress was in power. They could not even implement the Justice Srikrishna Commission report on the Mumbai riots when late Vilasrao Deshmukh or Prithviraj Chavan was in power. What is the sanctity in their claim of being different from the BJP? [In February 1998, a commission enquiry headed by BN Srikrishna submitted its report on the Mumbai riots of 1992–1993, following the Babri Masjid demolition, in which it noted, among other things, a need for police reforms to address their “built-in bias” against the Muslim community.]

During the time of the first debate on the triple talaq bill, in 2017, the Congress had two Muslim MPs. One of them was Maulana Asrarul Haque Qasmi, the MP from Kishanganj. He told a press conference that his party did not allow him to speak on triple talaq. He is a scholar from Darul Uloom Deoband [one of the largest Islamic schools of thought in India]. Why didn’t they allow him to speak? First the Congress opposed triple talaq; then they voted in favour of that. Later, when Muslim women came out [against the bill], they realised that they were losing ground. Suddenly, they started saying that it was wrong. That is why I say the Congress does not have a definite approach to tackle the ideology of the BJP.

NMS: In this political context, what is the importance of the Dalit-Muslim alliance, as propagated by the Vanchit Bahujan Agadhi, for the 2019 elections?
AO: For Dalits and Muslims, we have no choice but to come together, along with the Other Backward Classes and other marginalised communities. In the last four years of the BJP’s rule, atrocities against Muslims and Dalits have increased. There has been no strong condemnation or no effort being made to stand with the victims. The so-called national parties are [competing on] who is a better Hindu. Issues pertaining to atrocities, marginalisation, political empowerment and economic upliftment are sidelined. There is an alternate path, and if we emerge as an alternate political force, then people will be galvanised. This work has to be done, not only for electoral purpose, but also on social platforms where marginalised communities will come and work together. VBA was Prakash Ambedkar’s idea—he is the main force behind it. We decided to support him because this cause is very important for us.

NMS: According to you, who would be the key regional players as alternatives to the BJP and Congress and how would this impact national politics?
AO: As far as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are considered, KCR and Jagan Mohan Reddy are going to sweep the elections. Anyone winning in Telangana and AP will be in a very strong position when the time comes to form a government. In Maharashtra, we have tied up with Prakash Ambedkar. So far, we have had a tremendous response to public meetings but turn-out at public meetings cannot be a barometer of electoral success. If that is converted into votes, I am sure Prakash Ambedkar would emerge as a very important player after elections.

The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have tied-up in Uttar Pradesh, and the Trinamool is going alone in Bengal. So, I do not know how the post-poll alliances are going to be.

NMS: Your ally, KCR, has floated the idea of a “Federal Front”—a coalition of non-BJP and non-Congress regional parties. What do you think of KCR’s role in national politics?
AO: This whole fight is about federalism. Why should there be so many subjects in the concurrent list? Leave it to the states. When we became independent, at that time the concept was a strong centre and weak states. But, after 70 years that is not the case. These are states that have done better than the national average. Let the government in Delhi talk about core subjects like external affairs and defence. Why should they decide how many dispensaries should be there in Hyderabad? That is what KCR is aiming and aspiring for, he wants federalism in its real meaning.

I am pretty sure that if KCR and Jagan sweep Telangana and AP, it will benefit not only these two states, but every state where regional parties are in power. That is the larger goal of KCR. He has done so much for the state … like the Kaleshwaram irrigation project [a multi-purpose irrigation on Telangana’s Godavari River]. He has that political sagacity to do important work for the nation.

NMS: AIMIM was against the bifurcation of AP but now you support the TRS, who fought for the division. What is the reason for this change in opinion?
AO: We had opposed the bifurcation ... but I will have to accept that our apprehensions have so far been wrong. In the last four-and-a-half years, Telangana and Hyderabad, in particular, have not seen a single communal riot, except for some minor incidents. The atmosphere of fear psychosis that has become prevalent among Muslims in other parts of India does not exist in Telangana. The government is running about 200 minority residential schools, from class six to twelve—English education is imparted. The government is spending around one lakh on each student. There are 50,000 boys and girls studying over there. Please show me one example of another state where this kind of work is done.

There is overseas scholarship scheme for Muslim students. In the last two years, about eight hundred Muslim boys and girls have gone to universities in the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and Singapore. Then there is the Shaadi Mubarak scheme [a welfare scheme in Telangana that provides financial assistance for marriages for women from minority communities]. We want progress, and governance is good in Telangana. So, what is wrong in supporting them?

Our alliance with them has proven to be a success. People have given them a huge mandate. Now, in the parliament elections, we want a 17–0 result. In AP, Jagan should also win more than 20 seats.

NMS: There is criticism against Telangana’s development model, such as complaints of spiralling debt, corruption and delay in projects, among others? How do you respond to the criticism of this so-called “unsound development?
AO: Take, the Rythu Bandhu scheme for farmers, [which gives farmers Rs 4,000 per acre per season] KCR was the first one to do it. Now, the prime minister is copying it. That too, it is done worse than the Telangana scheme. I am not an economist, but when I go to a constituency and see the reality staring at our faces and sometimes, when I see these economists speak, I am amazed by their lack of understanding about the ground. Where will the poor people go? How will they sustain their livelihood?

If we look at KCR kits, poor pregnant women deserve it and it is given to the poorest of the poor. Not to people who are rich. These schemes should be continued. But yes, revenue mobilisation, plugging leakages, checking corruption is also important.

NMS: What about the criticism of the Rythu Bandhu, considering Telangana continues to face agrarian distress?
AO: It is a start. A lot of improvements can be made to it, which will happen. He started it much earlier, not like the present union government which started it a few days before election. On the ground, there was a certain impact. I am not saying that it has eradicated all rural distress. But one cannot deny the fact that it has helped a lot of farmers and the kind of response was fantastic.

NMS: There has also been criticism of the way the TRS government has dealt with increasing cases of discrimination and atrocities against the Dalit community. What are your views on this?
AO: These caste killings are mostly inter-marriage issues which should not have happened. I hope that in future authorities would be alert. If someone gives a complaint that there is threat against him, I hope they will react immediately and not wait for the parents of girls or boys to send some goons to attack them. The police must have learnt some lesson, and they will be more proactive.

NMS: What about the political differences between the TRS and the AIMIM on issues such as the no-confidence motion against the Modi government and reservation for economically weaker sections?
AO: They are independent to take their own decisions, and we are independent to take ours.

NMS: There is this perception that the TRS’s alliance with the AIMIM is a strategic move, and that they are likely to support the BJP at the centre. How do you respond to this?
AO: Assume that they have this thought, why isn’t anyone asking the Congress whether they are going to get 120 seats or not? Let them get 120, the game is over. It really upsets me that this question is asked every time. In Telangana, the BJP’s strength has come down. They lost the deposit in all 105 constituencies. Did the Congress defeat the BJP here? No, the TRS did. Then how does this question arise?

This is very selective questioning of what regional parties should or should not do.

NMS: But what if the TRS decides to support the BJP at the centre?
AO: As far as I know, that should not happen. The Congress must get 120. Let’s share this burden of defeating BJP equally. Why only regional parties?

NMS: According to media reports, money played an increasingly large role in the Telangana elections. There is also the issue of deletion of voter rolls and the allegations that TRS manipulated the poll process. What do you think of this?
AO: Chandrababu Naidu has not spent money over here? He had used police here to further his political interest.

Some names were missing, I do not deny that. But to say that deliberate conspiracy was hatched is completely wrong. The Congress went to court and indulged in baseless wild allegations. You are raising fingers at the ECI [Election Commission of India]. The mistakes are there, that has to be corrected. You should be thankful that if those names were there, you would have lost by more than half of the majority. Every parliament segment, the average difference was more a than 1.5 lakh. Had those names been there, they would have lost by two lakh votes.

The issue is the Congress does not want to do any introspection. They want to blame me that I am a vote divider. What about you? Are you trying to say that everything is perfect in their house? Good luck to them. As long as they keep doing this, we will keep on winning.

NMS: What are the AIMIM’s plans for Andhra Pradesh? Will it contest elections from the state?
AO: We are supporting Jagan Reddy. If Jagan Reddy wants me to go and campaign for him, I will certainly go. We will not contest in AP.

This interview has been edited and condensed.