As Muslim groups start shepherding their community in Bihar ahead of the Assembly elections, observers of minority politics feel that this may lead to a polarisation on religious lines and thus help tilt the scales in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Various Muslim groups and parties, such as the All India Majlise Ittehadul Muslimeen of Asaduddin Owaisi, are starting their campaign in the state from this week.
Muslims, who constitute around 16%-19% of the state's total population, have a dominating presence in districts such as Kishangaj, Katihar, Araria, Purnea, Darbhanga, Sitamarhi, Champaran, Bhagalpur, Madhubani and Siwan, among others. It is believed that they can emerge as a deciding factor in as many as 50-60 of Bihar's 243 Assembly constituencies.
A newly formed group called the Samaj Insaf Front is organising a rally in the Muslim-majority Kishanganj district on 16 August. It will be addressed by MP Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlise Ittehadul Muslimeen. Those who are aware of the way Owaisi addresses Muslim issues, say that if he rakes up controversies pertaining to his community and target Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders, he might end up helping consolidate the Hindu vote in the favour of the BJP.
"Owaisi seems to believe more in the politics of polarisation than in competitive politics. He is touring the same route which Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat visited last month. His speech may help forces who benefit from the polarisation of votes," said Professor Mohammed Sajjad, an expert on Bihar politics.
Samaj Insaf Front has among its members Muslim leaders such as former MLA Akhtarul Iman and Shahid Ali, both of whom are close to former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who has floated his own party and has joined hands with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
"Thus, Owaisi's arrival in Bihar will definitely benefit BJP," added Sajjad, hinting towards "some manipulation" to invite Owaisi in Muslim majority areas just to flare up religious fervour among Hindu and Muslim voters.
A senior AIMIM leader from Bihar told this correspondent that his party plans to fight around 25 seats in Muslim majority constituencies. When asked that won't it help weaken Muslim or other candidates fielded by Janata alliance in these areas, he said that his party is experimenting to garner community votes and is focusing on long term gain for Muslims.
All India Muslim Personal Board, which has several prominent Muslims as its members, has also announced its campaign "deen aur dastoor bachao" (Save religion and Constitution) campaign just before the elections. Though its members reject any allegation of any possible polarisation this campaign may stir in Bihar, but whenever the board has started a nation-wide campaign on any issue, it has led to controversies and division of opinions between Hindus and Muslims.
A firebrand cleric from UP, Tauqeer Raza, is also said to have toured Bihar in recent weeks to test electoral waters for his outfit, Ittehad e Millat Council. If he fields his candidates in the elections, and he himself campaigns raising Muslim issues, it might antagonise social religious groups other than Muslims.
Analysts like senior journalist Pradeep Kumar Singh said that BJP will definitely gain from any polarisation resulting from controversies involving community concerns of minorities. "And if some clerics and leaders like Owaisi stir the hornet's nest, it will directly benefit BJP and seriously dent caste and religious equation of Janata alliance," said Singh.
Janata alliance, though confident of Muslim support, also looks alarmed with arrival of clerics and Owaisi visiting Bihar during election. "Muslims are united against communal forces and if people like Owaisi and others try to deviate some towards some other directions, it will only prove costly to secular forces. I hope the community is aware of such threat," said Syed Afzal Abbas, a JD-U leader.
Aware of importance of Muslim votes and their capability to sway elections from close margins, BJP is also trying to woo the community. Apart from Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, the party plans to field new inductee Sabir Ali in its campaign in all Muslim majority areas. "Besides, we plan to field atleast 10 Muslim candidates," said a senior BJP leader, without elaborating further.