Opinion Columnists 26 Nov 2020 Saeed Naqvi | Does a ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

Saeed Naqvi | Does a ‘liberal’ Muslim leader have a future in India’s politics?

Published Nov 27, 2020, 4:31 am IST
Updated Nov 27, 2020, 4:31 am IST
The enigma of Asaduddin Owaisi acquires new salience after his success in Bihar
Asaduddin Owaisi (PTI photo)
 Asaduddin Owaisi (PTI photo)

The quest for a liberal Muslim was always a contradiction in terms. But a search for a liberal Hindu, dalit, Christian or Sikh leader would also be a bogus one. As RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in their Hindutva chariot, hurtle towards Hindu Rashtra say, by 2025, the RSS’ centenary, the very notion of a liberal Muslim in public life seems out of place. What would be the acceptable contours of a Muslim leader who is neither mute nor abrasive?

The enigma of Asaduddin Owaisi acquires new salience after his success in Bihar. Speculation centres on how he might fare in West Bengal, with a 30 per cent Muslim population, which is the backbone of Mamata Banerjee’s support. As they are Mr Owaisi’s hunting ground too, will the Muslim voter be confused? If Amit Shah hadn’t made it his life’s mission to oust or substantially diminish “Didi” and her TMC, Muslims may well have risked a breach in their absolute support for her. But now, any bid by Mr Owaisi to fish for a small catch, just to open an account in Bengal, will expose him to the slur that he’s a “vote katua”, a vote divider which is what parties, particularly the Congress, cast him as. This allegation of communalism against Mr Owaisi helps the Congress sustain the delusion it’s still with the secular lineup. The Congress doesn’t like the refrain: Congress and BJP, tweedledum and tweedledee. It must be admitted, of course, that there are differences between the two corporate-supported parties. Former Madhya Pradesh CM Digvijay Singh may, admittedly, drink a litre’s cow urine daily, but his drinking habits don’t come into conflict with the secularism a handful of Congressmen swore by earlier.


To fast forward the narrative, there were no cow vigilantes, no lynchings in the name of the cow, no “love jihad” bar. The Congress can’t be blamed for such trends. The charge against them is different: extreme cowardice. When these shameful events happen, the Congress, instead of going for their opponents’ jugular, just shuts up -- in case taking sides leads to a loss of Hindu votes. No wonder the tag of “BJP’s B team” has stuck on the Congress.  

Take Amit Shah’s latest fusillade directed at the “Gupkar gang” for “international conspiracy”. Randeep Surjewala’s tepid response says nothing. Why doesn’t the Congress make its stand clear on Article 370?


Sheikh bhi khush rahey/ Shaitaan bhi naraaz na ho (Keep the agents of God and Satan equally happy).

How can the Congress point fingers at Mr Owaisi’s “pro-BJP stand” when it reduced senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad to tears during the 2019 election: “Even district committees don’t invite me to address rallies”. Ahmed Patel, whose death we mourn today, was kept away from the campaign in Gujarat.

This is the pincer in which Mr Owaisi holds the Congress. He taunts the Muslims: “Congress has brought you down to the level described in the 2005 Sachar Committee report.”  


The thrust of Mr Owaisi’s argument is that Muslims have been tricked into supporting “pseudo-secular” parties like the Congress, and caste parties in UP, Bihar, etc.

Muslims have been frightened into supporting these parties. The ogre that frightened them is obviously the RSS-BJP. Mr Owaisi’s argument is that these so-called secular parties seek Muslim support not to defeat the BJP (of which they are incapable), but to enlarge their power base, a delusion at best, and end up doing nothing for Muslims.

With a population of 200 million, or 14 per cent of the total, there are 27 Muslims in a 543-strong Lok Sabha. The ratio in state Assemblies is even more embarrassing. Mr Owaisi’s argument is simple: seven seats in Telangana, two in Maharashtra and now five in Bihar is 14 seats. Supposing Muslims pick up an average of even one seat in 28 states and eight Union territories, the figure 36 will not look so negligible.


The electoral weakness of India’s Muslims is precisely this: though substantial in an overall sense, they are scattered all over. Ironically Covid-19, by linking schools, colleges, businesses and international conferences, the magic of virtual reality will come into play. Members of Assemblies can be in instantaneous contact.

The danger, of course, is that the growth of a Muslim entity might help accelerate Hindu consolidation. How does one obviate that emergency? By allowing the Muslim vote to habitually occupy frayed mattresses in parties like the Congress which are in fatal decline?


The durability of Mr Owaisi in public life denotes the failure of all parties to paint him in lurid, communal colours, much as they tried. Such a moment did come in 2013 when his younger, more firebrand brother, Akbaruddin Owaisi, made a provocative reference to police support for violence against Muslims. “Remove the police for 15 minutes and let’s see.” The speech smacked of a sort of Muslim macho, causing the media to go into convulsions.

Since then, Akbaruddin was clearly restrained. Asaduddin, a barrister, a restrained and skilful speaker, once a medium pacer for the South Zone cricket team, and one who anchors his political stance unerringly to the Constitution, is an uncommon phenomenon in public life. For the right, left and centre, Asaduddin is the exasperating opponent who doesn’t deviate from good manners, logic, the Constitution and, woe of woes, is a Muslim. If he does have such qualities of heart and mind, why will sensible non-Muslims not turn to him some day?