‍‍‍‍Always to give a try with his luck and playing Muslim card makes the political expert in terms of understanding the voters’ pulse in the country. This is AIMIM, the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) continues on the path of expansion and fluctuating fortunes.

Its most recent foray was in Madhya Pradesh, where it contested the local body elections, possibly as a prelude to the state assembly elections due in 2023. At the same time, the party lost its hard-fought gains in Bihar after four AIMIM legislators from the Seemanchal region defected to the Rashtriya Janata Dal. A few months before this, the party had also fared poorly in the West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh state elections, where it was not seen as a viable alternative by Muslims.

While Owaisi has been trying very hard over the years to make inroads for his party, he remains an outspoken figure on TV talk shows and media and not a politician of consequence. This is not because he does not work hard or because he does not have an agenda that appeals to his target electorate. To the contrary, his speeches and statements on Muslim empowerment and leadership resonate with a large section of Muslims, cutting across party and class lines. Yet why does he fail to garner Muslim votes?

Owaisi’s failure stems not from his lack of effort or agenda, but rather the electoral nature of Indian democracy and the demographics of the Muslim population. Both of these are not conducive to parties representing minorities.

Every election in India where voters directly elect their representatives from the ward up to the Lok Sabha, follows the first-past-the-post system. Candidates are elected for each constituency by a simple majority and votes are not consolidated across seats. This may seem like a minor detail, but is of great import for representation of minority groups. This is in contrast to the proportional system, where parties are allocated seats based on their overall vote share and not on individual constituencies won.

Why does it matter? The first-past-the-post system favours the winning party which almost always gets a higher number of seats compared to its vote share (on the seats contested). On the other hand, the losing parties always get fewer seats than warranted by their vote share. The system is particularly harsh on parties placed third and below. By way of example, in the recent election to the UP assembly, third-placed Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party could manage just one seat despite a 12% vote share.

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Coming back to the AIMIM, if our elections followed the proportional system, the party would have probably contested all seats in Uttar Pradesh hoping to attract as many votes as possible, without worrying about winning individual constituencies. If Owaisi could attract even half of the total Muslim electorate of 20% in UP, he could have sent 40 members to the house. As it is, under our current system, not only was the party forced to contest on just 100 seats, it could not even win on a single seat. Despite frequent appeal to vote for apni qayadat or ‘own leadership’, the vast majority of Muslim voters just did not see the point of sending five or six members to the legislature at the cost of a certain landslide victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

More damagingly for Owaisi, even though the AIMIM could not win a single seat, and had a low vote share on the seats that it contested, it was enough to let the BJP defeat the Samajwadi Party on several seats where the winning margin between the BJP and SP was less than the votes polled by the AIMIM candidate. Given that the overwhelming mandate of UP Muslims was against the BJP in the UP assembly elections, the AIMIM ended up damaging the interests of the community. And the more Muslims voted for the AIMIM, the more seats would have been lost to the BJP.

Now, even with a first-past-the-post system, minority groups can still count on an adequate number of seats if they are concentrated in a particular region or state. We only have to look at the example of the Sikhs who form the numerical majority in the state of Punjab. Though there are sizeable Sikh groups spread out throughout the country (who are insignificant in numbers locally), the Sikh community is assured of sending members to the Parliament, apart from the Sikh chief minister in Punjab. It is also interesting to note that Sikh politics in Punjab does not revolve around the Akali Dal, the self-anointed party of the Sikhs, showing that minority groups concentrated in a region need not have parties of their own to defend their interests.

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But one gets a very different demographic picture for the Muslims. Other than the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Muslims do not come close to forming the majority in any state. There are clusters of concentrated Muslim populations in states like West Bengal, Lower Assam, Western U.P, and elsewhere, but the usual pattern all over the country is that of a dispersed population. The AIMIM would potentially be more important in UP politics if instead of the actual 20% and 18% Muslim populations in UP and Bihar, UP had 30% and Bihar just 2%. Even within the existing population shares in UP and Bihar (and elsewhere), Owaisi would have been more successful if the Muslim population was exclusively concentrated in a few regions (like Malappuram or Seemanchal), which is not the case.

Any party claiming to represent Muslim interests must contend with the insurmountable barriers of first-past-the-post system and demographic dispersion.

The only possible way to work around the demographic and electoral realities is to come together with other parties by entering seat-sharing agreements. Here again, Owaisi runs into formidable challenges. There is currently no reason why regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Trinamool Congress would want to ally with the AIMIM, when they already enjoy strong support from the Muslim community. The regional party leaders are also aware of the consolidation of Hindu voters behind the BJP that is happening even in the absence of any pro-Muslim stance on their side. Not surprisingly, none of the major regional parties have shown any inclination of aligning with him. To be honest, we don’t know if Owaisi has even tried approaching them.

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In fact, Owaisi can only get the regional parties on board if Muslim voters drift away from them over time in favour of the Majlis. It is essentially a conundrum. Owaisi cannot get the regional parties to align with him until he negotiates from a position of strength. Muslims, on the other hand, cannot afford to make the AIMIM stronger, until they are willing to endure prolonged rule by the BJP. So far, as election after election has shown, the desire for non-BJP rule is certainly stronger amongst average Muslims than the desire to have a few fellow Muslims getting elected on the AIMIM banner.

We started our discussion with Owaisi’s entry into MP. Results from that state have shown that the party has played more of a spoilsport, letting the BJP walk away with the mayor’s post in Burhanpur while itself picking up four wards across the state, all at the expense of rival Muslim Congress candidates. In Bhopal city itself though, most seats in Muslim-dominated wards were won by the Congress. The results corroborate our understanding that apart from the occasional surprise win, Muslims will remain hesitant about the party.

What then remains for the AIMIM? If Owaisi is serious about Muslim empowerment and upliftment, he would have to reassess the role of the party outside Telangana. At present the party remains focused on elections without building a social base or getting involved in social issues. In fact, the party is conspicuously absent on the streets and protest sites when it comes to taking on the administration on key issues affecting Muslims.

If he wants to build credibility, Owaisi should first work on building a strong social base, and take the lead in organising Muslim civil society groups. This will give him the strength that he will need to bring on board the non-BJP regional parties. Elections can follow later, on a few, carefully selected seats. This is the only way Owaisi can get out of the zero-sum game he’s currently engaged in. #KhabarLive #hydnews