What makes people sit up and take notice of the man from Hyderabad? Like him, loathe him, but can you ignore him?
(The accompanying illustration is by dear friend and the godly talented Suman Chaudhury)
A more courteous pair of hands won’t serve you. They are big hands, like saucers when they open out. You’d want to imagine a cricket ball lodged in them, as there often used to be. Should you slide your gaze up those still sinewy arms and biceps, you’d probably sense the velocity they could impart that red leather orb down 22 yards. Asaduddin Owaisi once played opposite university number to Bangalore’s Venkatesh Prasad, opening the attack for Hyderabad.
That was once. That was before destiny caressed Prasad on to higher cricketing reputation and claimed Owaisi for the rough and tumble of politics. Prasad occasionally warms the dugout benches of club cricket now; Owaisi has spent far too long in the fiery trenches of politics to even feel the heat flaming around him. Insinuations of an underhand deal with the BJP – of illicit liaisons with the enemy – are again pressing upon him. Owaisi is making the offer of a warm plate of ” haleem“, simmered to a fineness on a slow burner all night, and bracing trotter soup. “How often and strongly should I deny that for it to be enough? How much time must I devote to such nonsense? I’ve begun to joke about it, I tell people, yes, I did strike a deal with Amit Shah, it was over a vegetarian meal. Even that is taken seriously. Taste the haleem please, our haleem is very special.”
At 47, Owaisi retains a sportsman’s swarthy frame, a tree-trunk of man looming a few notches above six feet even minus the skullcap, which is to his pate what the blond tuft is to Tintin’s – a hallmark crown. When he bends, torso down, to serve, he turns almost gallant of deportment; when he offers up a bowl voluptuous with haleem in those palms of his, he’s tempting you to believe atavistic hosting courtesies are back in fashion. We are on his patch, after all – his spartan MP’s accommodation a dog’s pee walk from Parliament House – and the emir of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has been brought up in the embrace of old world graces. “Haleem,” he pronounces out his presentation, “I’ll sprinkle roasted onions on it and squeeze a bit of lemon, then tell me how it tastes.”
This is not the man you may have seen exploding off your television screens ever so often – lavishing the treasury and Opposition alike with bursts of grudge and grievance booming from his remote bench in the Lok Sabha; breathing fire from rostrums across far corners of the country, an angsty evangelist of unassuaged grouses, whose fingers slash about like sabres, whose fists pummel the agitated air that swirls around him. When Owaisi takes the public stage he conjures tempests; they leave his constituency rippled with awe and excitement, they prompt his many detractors to label him a divisive rabble-rouser.
Asaduddin Owaisi ko gussa kyon aata hai?
He turns from courteous to curt in the throw of a question. ” Gussa nahin taqleef hai… It isn’t anger, it is pain. We live in a democracy subverted by a few to oppress the many. I get called an anti-national all the time, but what happens to those who murder an Akhlaq, push a Rohith Vemula to suicide, spank Dalits in Una? What is their nationality? I am not a tenant in this country, I chose it, I defied and rejected Jinnah, and yet I am daily asked to offer certificates of loyalty and guarantees of continued good behaviour. India is my chosen pride, my home. And yet what has home given me? A deprived corner and a bad name? And a copyright on anti-nationalism? Am I angry? Yes. I have good reason to be, don’t you think?”
A fever has taken Owaisi, which he is trying to contain. He crosses and uncrosses his legs, he makes a fist of his right palm and grinds it into his left, he is bristling uneasily inside that striped sherwani of his. “Look at what the Sachar Committee report says, look at NSS data, pick up any study that has been done on the status of Muslims and Dalits in our country, the depth of discrimination leaps at you. In the Lok Sabha, we are down to 23 Muslim MPs. And the upper castes? They have more than double the numbers in proportion to their population, they have hijacked the system and we have been left to complain. Our social, economic, political claims are ignored. The BJP, the ruling party of India, gave tickets to only eight Muslim candidates and seven of them lost their deposits because they were already lost seats.”
More’s the reason why the allegation that he is going about splintering the Muslim vote and hurting their interests should lie at Owaisi’s door, or isn’t it? “But how so?” Owaisi calmly counters, his gaze now fixed and penetrating through those retro glasses. “I am good and secular as long as I am with the Congress and become bad and communal as soon as I leave it? Dalit leaders are fine when they play submissive partners to mainstream parties, but when they stand up on their own they become casteist? What has the Congress done for Muslims and Dalits all these decades but drop crumbs on them and abuse them as vote banks? Why is it taken by panic when I leave its side and decide to fight my own battles? I stood by the Congress through thick and thin, I eloquently defended the nuclear deal when it was in danger of being rejected by Parliament, I supported its governments in Delhi and Hyderabad. The Congress never stood by me.”
Over the past couple of years, Owaisi has attempted a tack his late father and AIMIM founder, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, never did. It is a trajectory that no Muslim-interest party in independent India has, in fact, dared approach – to seduce minorities across the country away from mainstream political parties and impress them to invest in a niche enterprise such as the AIMIM . The likes of the Indian Union Muslim League retained an identity but remained adjuncts to the Congress or other regional “secular” parties – a Samajwadi Party here, a Rashtriya Janata Dal there. Owaisi fashioned, or is trying to fashion, a radical shift – to go on his own steam, and to build enough steam to propel the AIMIM beyond its Hyderabad pocket borough. He’s met limited, but remarked upon, success. He secured toenail space in the Maharashtra Assembly, but got blanked out in Bihar. He now has UP in his sights. “Winning or losing doesn’t bother me much,” he says. “What matters is we are expanding our space and reaching out to more people. We lost everything we contested in Bihar but we are there to stay and to build. I am too small to have power ambitions, but politics is about having a voice, giving a voice and making it heard. There is a dangerous alienation floating about. Muslims and Dalits need a voice of their own, they realise others have taken them for a ride. That is why I am here.”
For so doing, he now stands accused by the Congress of dividing the “secular” vote and, therefore, being in willing betrayal: Asaduddin Owaisi, fifth columnist, a Muslim spearhead lending cover fire to the BJP. “Look, I have a history, my party and family have a history. We are nothing if not embattled against the ideology of the BJP and the Sangh. Akbar (his younger, more firebrand brother) and I have grown up surrounded by heckling crowds around our home that used to bay for our blood, we’ve heard the ‘ Musalmaan, Pakistan, kabristan’ slogans so long it forever rings in our ears. As I said, I can only laugh at suggestions that I am in league with the BJP. I didn’t bring it to power. It is the Congress that served power on a platter to the BJP.”
The mention of Akbar is good reason to interrupt Owaisi’s angry tide; his younger sibling’s belligerence and verbal transgressions don’t do his image any good, do they? A gush of fondness washes over Owaisi, his eyes soften, his tone turns indulgent. “We shall talk about Akbar when you come to Hyderabad. He is young, he is passionate, he is dedicated to his purposes.” But that speech of his… “Yes, he surrendered to the law, he spent time in jail, the matter is in court, I am sure he will get justice. If Varun Gandhi can be acquitted for his speeches, Akbar can be too.” Owaisi is implacable in his refusal to take any embarrassment for Akbar. “Come to Hyderabad,” he repeats, “Come see the lovely work he does for people and then we shall sit and talk about Akbar, he is a good man, he is misunderstood, he has been played wrong, when you have been unfairly pushed all the time, when you’ve been made to fight a siege all life, these things happen. There is anger, there is pain.” His fist lies suddenly loosened, his palms open and ambiguously together; could this be a subconscious moment of prayer, or merely a gesture of courtesy to someone Owaisi has invited home?