The Bihar Assembly election results have had a curious fallout on social media. More than the BJP's breakthrough in a state it has never ruled; more than Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's fall; more than the spectacular performance of Tejashwi Yadav fighting without his father, what has engaged social media is Asaduddin Owaisi winning five seats in Seemanchal.
Curiouser still are the glowing write-ups the AIMIM chief has received in English print and digital media. Critical articles have been few and far between, and they've been written not by journalists but by non-journalist commentators such as Yogendra Yadav, Professor Mohammad Ayoob, Khalid Anis Ansari and Faisal CK.
The only journalist who analysed the AIMIM's victory comprehensively was Tanzil Asif for The Wire. The website describes him as an independent journalist based in Seemanchal. Could it be his rootedness in the region that helped Asif analyse the factors that contributed to the AIMIM's performance in Seemanchal, factors that, as he showed, were different in every seat?
The question arises because the only place where journalists have critically assessed the Hyderabad-based MP are two Muslim news websites, which mainly (though not exclusively) report news concerning Muslims. Could it be their rootedness in the community that helps these websites understand the implications for Muslims of Owaisi's politics?
One result that stood out in Owaisi's performance in Bihar this time was his candidate's loss in Kishanganj. This Muslim-dominated constituency rejected Qamrul Huda, just a year after having voted him as the AIMIM's first MLA in Bihar. When he won the seat in a by-election held in October last year, the English media went gaga over Owaisi's successful debut in Bihar. But now, the same media ignored his MLA's disgraceful performance: Huda didn't just lose, but trailed third after the Congress and the BJP.
Again, Asif was the only one to analyse this loss as part of his piece cited above.
It was Aleem Faizee, editor of India's oldest Muslim news website, ummid.com, who asked the question none of the gushing journalists asked Owaisi in the many interviews he gave after the results. Faizee's piece entitled 'Kishanganj is real question that Asaduddin Owaisi needs to answer' discussed this loss in detail.
The website Muslim Mirror carried a number of articles on the Bihar results, of which only one, by an academic, praised Owaisi. The editor of the Delhi-based website, Syed Zubair Ahmad, wrote two pieces, both critical: 'Owaisi's Bengal foray may prove boon for BJP' and 'The BJP needs a visible Owaisi to make Muslims invisible'
What makes Ahmed and Faizee critical when the rest of the English media is all starry eyed?
Faizee does not see Owaisi's electoral victories as extraordinary. They remind him of the early days of Abu Asim Azmi, the Samajwadi Party Maharashtra president. Following the Mumbai riots in 1992-93, Muslims rejected the Congress and welcomed Azmi, who spoke out for the community. But when they found his MLAs and corporators did no work, they deserted him.
"Whenever an alternative to the Congress or any of the so-called secular parties has come up, Muslims have voted for it," points out Faizee, "And they've gone on to reject these parties when they've failed to deliver, even if they've put up Muslim candidates.'"
This happened with the AIMIM's two MLAs whose victory in Maharashtra in 2014 was hailed as the party's first major breakthrough outside Hyderabad. "AIMIM MLA Waris Pathan's non-performance and his brand of communal politics gave the Shiv Sena its first win in Byculla in 2019," laughs Faizee.
Similarly, the Aurangabad Central seat won by the AIMIM's Imtiaz Jaleel in 2014 is no longer held by the party. The AIMIM candidate lost the Assembly elections held in October last year. This was just four months after Aurangabad had voted for Jaleel as the AIMIM's second Lok Sabha MP and the first from Maharashtra.
"Thanks to Owaisi's campaign in Malegaon, the Congress MLA lost, despite having worked a lot," rues Malegaon resident Faizee, "I can guarantee you that if today an election is held, Mufti Ismail, who won on an AIMIM ticket, as well as Maharashtra's second AIMIM MLA from Dhule, will lose." In his 2014 Assembly campaign, recalls Faizee, Owaisi had promised a college in Malegaon even if his party lost. "Where is it?" he asks.
"Anyone who thinks Owaisi is going to bring in positive change for Muslims, is living in a fool's paradise," says Faizee, "Except Waris Pathan and Imtiaz Jaleel, AIMIM candidates are the same old faces who've gone through all the other parties."
For Syed Zubair Ahmad, it's the "negative polarisation" brought about by Owaisi's style of campaigning that's alarming, because it ultimately results in reducing overall Muslim representation. Bihar had 24 Muslim MLAs in 2015; now it has only 19, points out Ahmad. But isn't the BJP responsible for polarisation in the first place? "The use of religion for politics is the BJP's main agenda and it has worked for the party," says Ahmad, "But it doesn't help Muslims. As it is, thanks to the BJP's propaganda, where earlier Hindus used to vote for Muslims, now they rarely do so. Politicians such as Salman Khurshid used to win with the help of both Hindu and Muslim votes. No longer."
In last year's Lok Sabha poll, explains Ahmad, the Congress' Tariq Anwar lost from Katihar, a Muslim-dominated seat which he had won five times, including in 2014, despite the Narendra Modi wave. "It's not as if the Muslims rejected him; his vote share mirrored the Muslim population of Katihar. It's the Hindus who rejected him," says Ahmad, "If Hindus stop voting for 'secular' politicians such as Khurshid and Anwar, do you think they will ever vote for the AIMIM?"
Everyone has a right to practice identity politics, says Ahmad, "But Owaisi's communal rhetoric, like that of the AIUDF's Badruddin Ajmal in Assam, ends up isolating Muslims. Moderate Hindus rush to the BJP when Owaisi enters the scene. For Muslims, it is essential to take others along with us."
Owaisi may keep winning a few seats here and there, predicts Ahmad, because Muslims feel cheated by the so-called secular parties who've done nothing for them. But finally, he wins by defeating other Muslim candidates, points out Ahmed.
The dangers of communal politics when practised by a party that claims to speak for the majority are continuously discussed by English journalists, as they should be. But what of the dangers of identity politics when practised by parties claiming to speak for the minorities? Should that discussion be left to minority journalists in the community media?