AIMIM Shadow Upsets Poll Equations in Karnataka, May Hit Congress Badly

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Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM)
Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM)

The decision of AIMIM to contest Assembly elections in Karnataka would upset poll equations and may hit Congress badly.

A shadow from Hyderabad is looming large over the electoral scenario in Karnataka sending the main parties into a tizzy. With the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) deciding to enter the fray in the 2018 Assembly election in Karnataka, the electoral mathematics has changed forcing the Congress to rework on its poll equations.

The AIMIM, which is focussed just on bagging the Muslim votes across the country, could badly eat into the Congress’ Muslim vote base. Traditionally, Muslims in Karnataka have been voting either for the Congress or the JD(S). Initially, it was the JD(S) that had gained as party supremo Deve Gowda was seen as a defender and protector of the minority community. But all that changed when his son H D Kumaraswamy sided with the BJP in forming a government a few years back. From then on, the Muslims have shifted their loyalty to the Congress.

But now, the Muslims are upset at the Congress in Karnataka is trying to woo the Hindus. For starters, the Congress has planned a big temple hopping by party president Rahul Gandhi when he starts campaigning in Karnataka. With his temple hopping in Gujarat and public pronouncement that he is a Brahmin having faith in Hindu religion paying rich dividends, the Congress poll managers are trying to repeat the formula in Karnataka.

Apart from this overt pandering to the Hindu vote bank, the Congress has also started initiatives to woo the dominant Lingayat community by initially promising them a separate religious status and then changing the plans to give them minority status. The Lingayats have traditionally been siding with the BJP.

All these moves have upset the Muslims. They now have nowhere to go. It is into this vacuum that Owaisi has stepped in to. The community knows that the AIMIM has no chance to come to power in Karnataka, but at least they now have a voice and a shoulder to lean on.

The AIMIM is planning to contest a huge number of seats, but would be concentrating on Muslim dominated seats. For example, Bengaluru sends 28 MLAs to the 224 member Karnataka Assembly. In many areas like Shivaji Nagar, Muslims dominate and the AIMIM has chances to grab a few seats.

Across Karnataka in Hyderabad-Karnataka districts like Kalburgi and Bidar, Muslims form a majority. The same is the case in few districts in north Karnataka.

But what will change the scenario is the fact that the AIMIM is aiming to field strong candidates in the volatile coastal Karnataka districts like Dakshin Karnataka. This region has been on the boil of late with Muslims clashing with the RSS resulting in loss of life and property. The Muslims in this region have been left to fend for themselves with the Congress-led Siddaramaiah government not able to control the violence.

What the Muslims in this region are looking for is a hardline leader who can voice their concerns and protect them from the Hindu fringe groups. And the AIMIM fits the bill perfectly.

With Gulbarga and Bidar in the north, Bengaluru and Kolar in the south and Dakshin Karnataka in the coastal area, the AIMIM has enough ammunition power to propel the Congress out of the poll battle.

There are 25-26 Assembly constituencies in Karnataka where Muslim votes are the deciding factor. If the AIMIM enters in a big way, coupled with smaller parties polarising votes, the Congress certainly stands to lose.

No wonder that a worried Congress initially planned forging an alliance or reaching a tacit understanding with Owaisi. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had tasked Chamarajpet legislator B Z Zameer Ahmed Khan with this responsibility.

But this tacit alliance plan did not work out, leaving the Congress fretting and fuming. Owaisi was also miffed with Khan. “All these days, Khan was critical of me. I have seen videos of him censuring me. But, he wants to meet me now that he’s moving to the Congress,” Owaisi said. “I told people who came to me that Khan should first decide what he really wants.”

Owaisi has been critical of the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government for not allowing him to address a public meeting in Karnataka.

What worries the Congress in Karnataka is that the UP scenario might work here to the advantage of the BJP.

A desperate Congress has now made the absurd charge that the AIMIM has a tacit understanding with the BJP. Karnataka home minister and Congress leader Ramalinga Reddy has alleged that the BJP and the AIMIM had reached a secret understanding to divide the minority votes in several constituencies.

Senior Congress leaders in the state suspect the BJP and AIMIM may field proxy Muslim candidates in heavily polarised regions such as Dakshina Kannada to divide minority votes.

The BJP had used a similar strategy in Uttar Pradesh, where the party won a landslide victory last year.

But the BJP has rubbished the claim of any talks and said that the party is confident of bagging 150 of the 224 assembly seats on its own.

But the Congress is trying to woo the minority community as well. Eyebrows were raised when the state’s home department wrote a letter recently seeking the opinion of district police chiefs on whether communal cases against members of minority communities should be withdrawn. Opposition parties slammed the Siddaramaiah government for misusing state machinery to appease certain sections of society for electoral gains. Subsequently, the Karnataka government had to modify its request to include members of all communities.

The BJP maintains that it is the Congress which is trying to set up pacts with radical organisations such as the Social Democratic Party of India in communally sensitive regions such as Coastal Karnataka among other places.

While calling the Congress allegation of a secret understanding between the BJP as “baseless and far from the truth,” the saffron brigade said the chief minister’s “dirty tricks department” was trying to divert the attention of the people. “We are not so desperate so as to indulge Asaduddin Owaisi in talks. We are not in talks with any such organisation, let alone AIMIM, neither now nor in future,” the BJP maintained.

Owaisi too has trashed the Congress claim. “The allegation is the Congress’s weakness as they have neither minority support, nor that of Hindu voters,” a senior AIMIM leader from Hyderabad was quoted in the media.

But the BJP has given a secret handle to Owaisi, especially in the hotbed of coastal Karnataka. To ensure that the pro-Congress Muslims shift sides, the BJP has come up with a good Muslim bad Muslim theory. Senior party leader KS Eshwarappa stirred a controversy when he said Muslims who are with the Congress “are killers” while those linked with his party are “good Muslims.”

“Muslims who killed 22 RSS and BJP activists are with the Congress and those who are good Muslims are with the BJP,” Eshwarappa, a Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka in 2012, said.

Hence, the radical and fringe Muslim groups are likely to vote for Owaisi while the BJP polarises its Hindu votebank.

AIMIM’s entry into the poll arena has forced the Congress to tweak its plans. The party has decided to field its senior and influential Muslim leaders for campaigning to counter any possible attempt of polarisation.

The Congress adopted similar strategy in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections and also during Maharashtra’s Nanded-Waghala Municipal Corporation (NWMC) polls held last year.

In Bihar, the Congress, which was then a part of grand alliance with JD(U) and RJD, won 27 assembly seats out of the 40 segments. The Congress also emerged victorious in the election to the Maharashtra civic body by getting 73 of the 81 wards there.

It is a fact that this one of the strategies of the Congress that prevented the AIMIM from consolidating minority votes in the NWMC polls. Similar exercise will surely be carried out in Karnataka. And Owaisi is likely to be projected as an `outsider’.

The Congress has also asked its leaders and functionaries in Karnataka, the lone big state under its rule at present, to refrain from engaging in any discourse that may lead to polarising voters.

To make good the possible loss of Muslim votes, the Congress is also wooing pro-Kannada activists and group. In a change of strategy, the Congress has accused the BJP of being anti Kannada and anti Karnataka. For this, the Congress is milking the Mahayadi river sharing row wherein the BJP ruled Goa has refused to release water to the parched regions in north Karnataka. If this is not anti-Karnataka, what is, a senior Congress leader said.

The Congress is also looking to women voters. The government recently decided to launch pink autorickshaws in Bengaluru to be driven by women. Bengaluru is also getting a big makeover with promises of a suburban rail service and white topping of roads.

If all these click, fine for the Congress; if not the AIMIM will split the Congress vote bank giving the BJP a big advantage. And then there is the JD(S) which of late has been soft on the BJP. Party supremo Deve Gowda made things clear that his party burnt its fingers badly be aligning with the Congress in the past. Rightly interpreted, it would mean that he has no problem in aligning with the BJP if the party is unable to come to power on its own in Karnataka.

The state is expected to witness a three-corner contest between the ruling Congress, BJP and JD(S). And ofcourse, looming large is the shadow of Owaisi from Hyderabad.