Shoumik biswas/ catch news
Without mentioning Islam by name, he harped on the bond between Muslims
He attacked Nitish Kumar and Amit Shah, but didn't mention Narendra Modi
One year ago, Asaduddin Owaisi truly arrived as a national leader. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won two seats in the Maharashtra Assembly elections and caused the defeat of the Congress and the NCP in half a dozen other seats.
It was a good lesson to "secular" parties not to take Muslims for granted, to stop treating them as a vote bank. Owaisi's message - that 'Muslims are not the coolies of secularism' - began resonating among more and more people.
I am a practising Muslim and, like many Indian Muslims, I too saw Owaisi's rise with hope.
In India, Muslim politics is the only form of identity politics that is looked upon with suspicion. Perhaps even Muslims - who have been unfairly carrying the albatross of partition around their necks - fear the rise of another Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
So Mayawati can be a leader of Dalits, Mulayam Singh Yadav or Lalu Prasad can be leaders of Yadavs, Narendra Modi can become a 'Hindu Hriday Samrat', but Muslims can't have a leader. I thought this is something Owaisi could change. He could be a Muslim Mayawati or Kanshi Ram.
It is with this sense of anticipation that I went for Owaisi's rally at Janata Haat in Bihar's Kochadhaman constituency on 31 October.
Situated in the Muslim majority Kishanganj district, Kochadhaman is perhaps the AIMIM's best bet for opening its account in Bihar. The candidate, Akhtarul Iman, is the president of AIMIM's Bihar unit and a former JD(U) MLA.
Owaisi arrived a couple of hours after the rally began, which is customary for the main speaker in election rallies. Iman made his speech just before Owaisi. When Iman was nearing the end of his speech, Owaisi could be seen making dua or a short prayer.
The speech, however, left me deeply disappointed.
When Owaisi decided to enter the electoral battlefield in Bihar, he was accused of being a BJP agent deployed to eat into the grand alliance's Muslim votes.
The AIMIM claims that it is steadfastly opposed to the BJP. But this wasn't reflected in what its leaders said. Among the nearly 30 speakers at the rally, only two criticised the BJP. All the others devoted their speeches to attacking the Mahagathbandhan.
People came and sang Surjapuri songs lampooning the grand alliance, and paens about how the AIMIM has shaken the ground beneath their feet. One speaker called the Congress MP from Kishanganj, Maulana Asrarul Haq as Gaddaar-ul-Haq (traitor to the truth).
Owaisi, too, spent much of his speech attacking the grand alliance, especially Nitish Kumar. Here's some of what he said.
"Hum kaate gaye aur aap khamosh baithe rahe, mantri bane rahe. (We were cut to pieces and you remained silent, remained a minister)"
"Can you even dare to call Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri, to Patna and look her in the eye?"
"A boy from Hyderabad, who was falsely lodged in Sabarmati jail on terror charges for six years, told me to go to Bihar and teach Nitish Kumar a lesson."
"We are questioned and criticised when we raise our voices. But no one says anything to you, because you are a Nitish Kumar not a Akhtarul Iman or an Owaisi."
Interestingly, Owaisi hardly mentioned Narendra Modi in his speech, even when he was blaming Nitish for his silence during the Gujarat riots.
True, Nitish is a soft target because of his 18-year alliance with the BJP. In contrast, Owaisi conveniently omitted Lalu Prasad, whose anti-BJP and pro-Muslim credentials are far more solid.
The only BJP leader Owaisi did criticise, and rightly so, was party president Amit Shah, by responding to his "Pakistan" comment.
"What is your connection with Pakistan that you mention it so often? Are you in love with Pakistan or what?"
"I assure you that when the BJP loses, fire-crackers will be burst right here in India, in Kochadhaman, and even Amit Shah will hear them."
Though Owaisi did not indulge in anti-Hindu politics, like the anti-Muslim advertisements recently released by the BJP, he did try to exploit the sense of victimhood in the community.
He went into graphic details of the atrocities against Muslims, like the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri and the murder of Ehsan Jafri during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The audience cringed as he narrated one gory detail after another.
"Akhlaq's daughter went outside to ask for help. She kept pleading 'someone please come and save my Abba' but no one came to help."
"Think of Akhlaq's mother. She would have thought that her son would be her source of support in her old age, that he would take her body to the grave. Now she has lost her son because of these beasts."
"Do you know how Ehsan Jafri was killed? The mob gathered outside the Gulbarg Society. He called the police, he called Modi, but no help came by. He was a mujahid mard ka baccha (son of a holy warrior). He came out and told the mob 'kill me if you want to, but spare my family'. And then, he was killed in front of his wife's eyes. She watched as he was was cut to pieces and then set on fire."
"I visited a relief camp after the riots. I met women who told me that they were raped by gangs of men, repeatedly."
Now, the perpetrators of the Dadri Lynching or the Gujarat riots have neither shame nor remorse for what happened. So one can't fault Owaisi for bringing them up. But the larger question here is: what narrative is Owaisi trying to weave? Is it a narrative of justice or of victimhood?
Owaisi used the murder of Akhlaq to push his own mission of Muslim unity. He said, "Akhlaq's soul is telling us that Muslims must unite."
He ended his speech by insinuating that Muslims should vote for the AIMIM in the name of Islam. However, he did it in a clever way, even without mentioning Islam, as that would be a violation of the model code of conduct.
"Don't vote for any gathbandhan. Vote for the bandhan (bond) that binds us. What is the bandhan that binds us? What is the bandhan that binds me and Akhtarul Iman? What is the bandhan that binds me and Javed Athar sahab, Qamruzaman sahab (mentions people on the dais but ignores Dayanand Mandal, the sole Hindu seated)? What is the bandhan that binds me and you? Is it of blood? No it is not a bandhan of blood, it is the bandhan that our creator has given us. Vote for AIMIM in the name of that bandhan," he cried, amidst cheers from the audience.
This is precisely the kind of dog-whistle communal politics that the BJP is guilty of.
From the tone and tenor of his speech, the striped purple sherwani and the body language - outstretched arms, combative postures and 56 inch chest - Owaisi seemed like a Muslim version of Narendra Modi.
He was as brazen as Modi has consistently been since the Gujarat riots. "People say I make bhadkau (inflammatory) speeches. If this is inflammatory, I will continue making inflammatory speeches for the next 25 years. The only thing that can stop me is death."
It is sad to see an intelligent politician like Owaisi take a short-cut to popularity by making incendiary speeches and seeking votes in the name of religion.
A barrister at law, Owaisi's educational qualifications are a source of pride for many of his supporters. He could have endeavoured to become a Muslim Ambedkar. Instead, he seems to be trying to be a Muslim Modi.
Without realising it, Owaisi is giving Modi his greatest victory.
The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.