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  • Maharashtra, a look at Asaduddin Owaisi’s Dalit outreach

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    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 asOwaisi’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.

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