People warm themselves around a fire along a street on a cold winter morning in New Delhi December 23, 2014. According to information posted on India’s metrological department website, minimum temperature in New Delhi on Tuesday was reported to be 6 degrees Celsius (42.8 degrees Fahrenheit). REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
The All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a Muslim oriented political party, recently won two seats in the Maharashtra state legislature in India attracting revulsion from both Hindu nationalist and secular parties. Contrary to the fears raised by its critics the party’s electoral success can actually be good for the country’s democracy.
The AIMIM until now was confined to the city of Hyderabad in Telangana state in Southern India. It holds one seat in the Indian parliament and seven in the Telangana state legislature. The party’s president Asaduddin Owaisi is a Lincoln’s Inn trained barrister and a Member of Parliament. His younger brother, Akbaruddin Owaisi, is the party’s leader in the Telangana legislative assembly.
AIMIM gained two seats in the neighboring state of Maharashtra in the October elections. A party gaining two seats out of two hundred and eighty eight (0.9% of the total vote share) would normally not generate much debate in a politically diverse country like India. But it has in the case of AIMIM which projects itself as a defender of the interests of 150 million Indian Muslims. It now wants to expand into other states as well.
The main thrust of AIMIM’s critics is that it is a communal party which thrives on identity politics and inflammatory rhetoric. They argue that the expansion of AIMIM is not good for the future of secularism and liberalism in the country.
The critics tend to overlook the continuing resilience of identity in Indian politics. Despite much talk of development, caste and community had an important role to play in the outcome of this year’s federal and regional elections. Appeals to identity were effectively used in the backdrop of riots in states like Uttar Pradesh for consolidating the Hindu vote. Voter polarization on religious and caste lines is very much in evidence elsewhere too.
The presence of dozens of ethnic, regional, and linguistic parties points to the fractured nature of Indian politics.
All Indian political parties continue to factor in identity in their electoral calculations. Identities cannot simply be wished away and as long as they exist so will identity politics. They can even serve a useful purpose in times of majoritarian upsurge by mobilizing the minorities.
Secular parties in India historically obtained support from Muslims by offering them security in the face of communal riots. Throughout post-independent India the tallest political leaders of Indian Muslims were mostly non-Muslims.
The main beneficiary of this state of affairs was the Indian National Congress which was in government for the longest period of time. Regional parties, with seemingly secular and egalitarian agenda, like the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Lok Janshakti Party, etc. also skillfully used this strategy to garner Muslim votes.
Despite their public proclamations these parties did not do much to improve the economic condition of the Muslims. The caste members of the party leaders enjoyed an expanded access to state resources and power while the Muslims were marginalized.
The Congress government appointed Sachar Committee reportamply demonstrates the decline of Indian Muslims on many socio-economic indicators across the country.
The protectionist model of the secular parties, where one had to forgo material benefits in exchange for security, is now no longer valid as the Muslims demand the same economic and educational benefits as the others. They also demand a share in political power and have grown wary of playing second fiddle to others.
The coming to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the center and its continuing attempts to fashion state institutions and policy in a Hindu mould has further heightened Muslim anxieties–especially among the youth. The BJP’s rise also coincided with the lowest representation of Muslims in the federal and state legislatures.
Even Muslim members of the BJP are hardly ever elected. Even in the washout elections of this year, which led to the formation of a BJP majority government, all its Muslim candidates lost.
AIMIM’s growing popularity and incremental electoral expansion has created unease among the secular parties. Even its former allies like the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal have launched sharp attacks. This posturing only highlights their own failures in tending to the needs of the Muslims on whose backs they rode to power but delivered little.
Democratic Safety Valve
Despite its sectional orientation, AIMIM is very much wedded to the idea of a secular and democratic India. While it is true that some of its leaders have indulged in shrill rhetoric, and face court cases and jail time for doing so, it is not central to its politics. The main content of their speeches is the persistent discrimination and neglect of Indian Muslims.
Forcefully voicing grievances and demands shouldn’t be conflated with hate speech which is in itself is loosely defined and not uniformly enforced in the country. In any case the party president Asaduddin Owaisi had said that it would not prefer to court any such controversies in the future.
The party’s aggressive rhetoric can also be understood as a device used by marginalized communities like the African Americans. As American cultural critic Benjamin Demott pointed out in his 1996 essay in the Nation, too much civility in public discourse might mask deep social conflict. In order to be heard, marginalized communities have to make some sort of noise. In this case the AIMIM had indeed made such a noise and paid for it. It should now move on beyond the sectional rhetoric and work towards a broad based coalition cutting across religious lines.
There is evidence that it is already doing so by reaching out to the other marginalized communities like the Dalits (the so-called lower castes). Some dalit intellectuals also see the possibility of Dalit-Muslim alliance as a promising shift.
The party’s non-dogmatic orientation allows it to be flexible in its politics and it has demonstrated an open minded attitude in the past. It had nominated three of its non-Muslim members to the prestigious post of Mayor of Hyderabad. It has also played a critical role in diffusing volatile situations like the one in Kashmir in 2010. It is a strong champion of territorial integrity of India and its president has defended the country’s stance in international forums. The party supported the 2008 US-India nuclear deal.
Theodore Wright, one of the early scholars of AIMIM’s politics, remarked in a 1963 article that Muslim minority parties in India can serve as “safety valve for insoluble frustrations” and as a barometer of the ruling party’s “own success or failure with soluble grievances.“ This observation is equally valid today. Parties like the AIMIM can serve an important function in giving democratic voice to minority concerns and frustrations in countries like India.
Its future success and staying power will depend on how effectively it channels the community’s frustrations into Indian politics and what tangible benefits that will eventually deliver to the community.
The writer is a political scientist based in Canada.