The “all India” in the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) was dormant for a substantial period of time, until the party decided to contest elections in Maharashtra earlier in the decade. A string of victories in the state raised both the party’s stock as well as its ambitions. Ostensibly spurred on by its performance, the party leadership announced plans to contest elections in other states, including Bihar, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
This pitch raises two questions. One, why has the AIMIM (henceforth MIM), a relatively small party — both in terms of numbers as well as programmatic concerns — which rarely moved out from its pocket borough of Hyderabad, decided to spread itself? Two, how are other political parties likely to react, especially now that it has operationalised its plan to contest the forthcoming assembly elections in Bihar?
The rhetoric of its president, Asaduddin Owaisi, for some time now has revolved around two facts: The educational backwardness and economic marginality of the Muslim community, and the issue of missing Muslim representatives. In his speeches and interactions with the media, Owaisi refers to the Sachar Committee report to highlight the socio-economic conditions of the community. The aspirations of Muslims, he often reiterates, are not different from other communities, especially when it comes to demands like a share of government schemes, good schools for children and jobs for young people. Similarly, there is empirical evidence to highlight the gross mismatch between the proportion of Muslim representatives and their population share. Owaisi has frequently accused other political parties of using Muslims and Muslim leaders as symbols. He told this paper that Muslim leaders were good only to “hold iftaar parties, send a chaadar to Ajmer or to cook biryani”. This representation deficit, he laments, has hurt the community.
While this appears to be a relatively refreshing stand compared to the traditional demands made on behalf of the community, it is nevertheless a slippery position — and therefore suspect. First, it implicitly assumes that only Muslims can represent Muslims. Second, though Owaisi is critical of clerics and has not made any religious demands, the expansionist ambitions of the MIM have strong undercurrents of religious consolidation. Third, it provokes and subsequently feeds on the fear and anxiety of the community.
While none would deny the Muslim community’s poor standing, it is fair to ask whether the MIM strategy is only to make other parties appear less credible. As a challenger, it is clearly not representing any new or ignored cleavages and/ or issues. It is primarily using the supposed disappointment with the existing champions of the same issues to create space for itself. In other words, it is entering a terrain already occupied by established political parties.
The MIM is simply a smart political entrepreneur. The party has a clear understanding of the system and is alert to political opportunities. It recognises that on the one hand, there is a group in the electorate that desires some collective goods and on the other, there is a failure in the existing delivery mechanisms. The fact that the 16th Lok Sabha has the lowest number of Muslim MPs, and none of them are from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have sizeable Muslim populations, has also helped. The MIM’s expansionist plans follow the blueprint of any canny entrepreneur. The party steps in and offers itself as a vehicle to realise the goals of the demanding section.
The decision to spread beyond Hyderabad using the challenger route is based on a low-cost budget model. First, focus only on those areas where there is a concentrated presence of Muslims, thus lowering entry costs. Second, the issue space needed to establish a viable electoral identity already exists; it only requires a little value addition. Finally, the organisational costs are reduced, since it relies excessively on one charismatic individual and expects that the unstructured mass of people will follow the leader.
The MIM may or may not succeed, but it nevertheless changes the existing structure of competition. Since it is targeting a diversified constituency that, according to its website, includes Muslims, Dalits, minorities and what it calls “other underprivileged communities”, its game plan threatens the Congress, as well as others scrambling for the traditional Congress constituency.
Party studies literature tells us that theoretically, there are three options open to other competitors if the MIM moves beyond Hyderabad. First, ignore the MIM and hope that the prominence of the issues it raises decreases, forcing it to retreat. This will not work because, of all parties, the BJP benefits from the MIM presence and so will neither ignore the MIM nor allow others to do so. Second, incorporate the issues raised and highlight the convergence with the MIM. This means accepting the MIM challenge and demonstrating how existing relevant parties are better equipped to fulfil those particularistic demands. This is what the challenged parties like the Congress, SP and much of the non-BJP bloc(s) are likely to do. However, this tactic is not open to the BJP, since it is contrary to its vote-mobilisation plans.
Third, oppose the MIM demands and portray them as illegitimate. This would have a contrary effect to the second strategy. It will give prominence to the MIM, reinforce it and create space in the electoral market. While the BJP would follow this path, the rest cannot use this strategy, as it would hurt their programmatic appeal.
The space available to the MIM, therefore, hinges not necessarily on its own rhetoric but rather on the salience the existing relevant parties accord to its agenda. Its expansionist plans will be slowed if the non-BJP bloc(s) appropriate its agenda and are seen by the electorate to be a better choice than the
BJP-led NDA. However, if the BJP-led NDA engages with the MIM discourse and is seen as a better option compared to the non-BJP bloc(s), the MIM will be encouraged. Strange as it may sound, the MIM’s expansion depends on the BJP.
The writer is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad