A report recalled from the Bihar campaign of 2015. Even then, the “outsider” Owaisi had a fifth column buzz about him. But he was clear and insistent his wasn’t a passing visit to the Muslim-preponderant Seemanchal region of Bihar. He stayed, and this time, in 2020, he won five seats in the Assembly.
There’s a bit of Hyderabad in Kishanganj. But only a bit, insists Asaduddin Owaisi, emir of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and, after Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the most talked about outsider of this election.
Owaisi is by now weary and more than a little annoyed of the insinuation that defies banishment: that he is the Modi-Shah fifth column in Bihar, sent out to divide the minority vote and create cracks for the BJP to slip through. “Just look at how small our entry is, just six seats in one pocket,” he protests, “And I have openly declared that on the 237 seats that we are not contesting, people should support secular parties and defeat Narendra Modi. Am I conspiring to bring down the anti-Modi coalition with six seats?”
We are in Owaisi’s camp quarters, the charmingly christened “Chanchal Palace” – no royal estate, merely a mofussil hotel as un-palace like as it can get. Owaisi, looming of built, probably doesn’t fit straight on the beds they provide. It will be a while before he sets out for the day. He is kitted out in crisp whites, before he leaves he’ll pick one of several trademark striped sherwanis that hang on the wire curtain behind him.
He’s been here several weeks now, living out of a suitcase and a duffel, and a personal retinue that serves up traditional Hyderabadi fare once each day.
Why has he travelled so far from home to cough dust in this bereft Bihar outback? “For no other reason than to inform Muslims, and also Dalits, of another voice, another tone. I would not have been required to come here if parties that claim to espouse Muslim interests had been true to their word. Muslims have been used and cast aside, called to iftar parties and been bidden goodbye, that can’t work any more. I have come here to do duty, this is more than politcal, this is a social mission I have been driven to.”
Almost a reluctant raider, he would have you believe, driven less by his ambition to expand, more by the apathy that has come his community’s way. “We have a saying back in Hyderabad that mother’s don’t feed infants until they begin to wail. I have come here to make Muslims wail and demand their due. We don’t want throwaway bones, we want our plateful.”
The Muslim-dominant pockets around Kishanganj, Owaisi calls the “step-child” of Bihar. “Why must this region be so poor and neglected? This is also a strategic border region, but they have kept it deprived just because you have taken the loyalty of Muslims for granted? No longer, I am here for the longer term, it is not about this election alone.”
The hubbub outside Owaisi’s room has begun to mount; visitors are pressing on the door, his political aides, many from Hyderabad, are charting the day’s route with local apparatchik, down on the street, the green caps of the Owaisi brigade, Kishanganj youngsters all, are revving their motorbikes. When he eventually heads out, a humming caravan would have formed around him – many dozen of motorbike riders fore and aft, half a dozen SUVs, a fanfare of banners and sloganeering, a tell-tale trail of dust: there goes Asaduddin!
Everyone’s taking notice, they can’t but. “Sansani phaila diya hai Owaisi, khaskar jawanon mein jo Facebook-Twitter type hain, unko jaise naya neta mil gaya ho,” Azar Rehmani, a Kishanganj reporter tells us, “Sheher se nikalte hain to kaafila ban jaata hai, poore sheher mein jam lag jaata hai. (He has been sensational, especially among the youth, the Facebook-Twitter type, as if they have found a new leader…When he moves about town, it turns into a caravan, all of town gets jammed).”
Kishanganj, a congested maze of narrow alleyways, should probably feel grateful Owaisi has chosen to camp on the edge of town and heads straight out into the countryside most days. A frenetic energy precedes and follows him wherever he goes. “Owaisi! Owaisi!!” That chant has come to resound and seduce an ever growing curiosity if not also following. Crowds wait hours to get a glimpse of him, and when he finally arrives in the engine-roar of motorcycles, they jostle around him – to catch his eye, to shake his hand, to merely get a touch. He is, if nothing, a beaming new face; he says, if nothing, a bold new thing: “Don’t accept pity and sympathy, get up and demand what is yours by right.”
Rural Kishanganj is what nature has given it and man has not, or is yet to. Rich or earth and its many gifts – paddy, bamboo, rivulet and stream, even lush punctuations of groves where grows what they call “poor man’s tea”. This is not Darjeeling or Upper Assam, but to come upon a tea estate in Bihari flatlands is its own unlikely delight. Around all of that, though, resides rank deficiency, a bare life eking away. There’s barely any pucca housing, or evidence of mechanised farming; dwellings are low, dark, mud and wattle, the dwellers, well they come from those dwellings. They survive on what the land offers and what purchase they can get from subsistence retail.
Such a patch Owaisi has come to inject fresh hope into. His own hopes may really be attached to two of the six seats the AIMIM is contesting – Kishanganj itself, and neighbouring Kocha Dhaman. In Kishanganj, Owaisi enjoys the energies of a young nominee called Taseeruddin and the palpable anti-incumbency against the sitting Congress MLA Javed Azad.
Kocha Dhaman is a prestige battle dared by Akhtarul Iman, the head of the AIMIM’s Bihar chapter. Iman is a chequered son of Kocha Dhaman with a zig-zag history. In 2014, he left the RJD to join the JDU and secure a ticket for the Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat. Mid-campaign he controversially vacated his candidacy in favour of the Congress’ Maulana Asrarul Haq, who eventually won.
Iman took some blame for helping the BJP with his decision – by stepping down from the contest in the name of the “Muslim qaum”, he helped consolidation of Hindu votes in later phases of the poll, it has been argued. It’s the same “qaum” Iman hopes will consolidate to seem him through against Master Mujahid, the JDU incumbent. It’s a classic Muslim versus Muslim battle, just the battle Owaisi says he has come to Bihar to fight, the fight between the Muslim that is happy to “plead and petition” and the Muslim who will henceforth protest about being denied his due.
Or, to use Owaisi’s metaphor, the Muslim who will wail until he has snatched attention and share. “This is not a fight we are backing out of,” Owaisi says, “Elections will come and go.”
The bit of Hyderabad that has arrived in Kishanganj isn’t going away.