The forthcoming election to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) ought to have been about the poor state of civic services in Mumbai and a road map for the city’s future. Instead, the two major allies in power, Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are locked in battles over jingoistic nationalist sentiment, grabbing credit for projects and personal egos of their respective leaders.
Into this raucous scenario, Asaduddin Owaisi introduced a heavy dose of religious partisanship this week. The leader of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM or MIM) declared at a rally that Muslim-dominated areas of Mumbai must get 21% of the BMC’s Rs37,000 crore annual budget, that’s Rs 7,700 crore, because it matches the proportion of Muslims in the city’s population.
Owaisi’s demand has been roundly condemned, including by Muslim leaders. Samajwadi Party (SP) representatives, who won from Muslim-dominated areas earlier termed Owaisi’s demand dangerous and communal. It’s outspoken leader Rais Shaikh derided that the demand for a separate share for Muslims in the BMC budget would hurt the cause of the community and help the Sena-BJP alliance by polarising voters. The SP and MIM are rivals, of course.
The BJP filed a complaint with the Election Commission (EC) after the Supreme Court judgement on Monday that religion must not be invoked in electoral politics. It is unclear if the judgement can be applied to Owaisi’s speech given a day before. The Shiv Sena too wants the EC to take action against Owaisi. This is rich in irony considering that both the parties have repeatedly played the communal, specifically Hindu-Muslim, card in election after election since the 90s.
That said, Owaisi is fishing in dangerous waters. He probably plans to leverage the MIM’s recent successes in local elections in Nanded, Aurangabad and Kalyan-Dombivli, and the election of two MIM MLAs in the October 2014 state Assembly election including Waris Pathan, who won from Byculla albeit by a wafer-thin margin, to win a few seats in the BMC. The increased visibility and voice will boost the party’s chances in the general and state elections of 2019.
It is no secret that Owaisi’s electoral approach across India has been divisive and communal. He is unlikely to play another card in Mumbai. Of course, this is cynical and opportunistic but his aim is to be the sole or leading representative of Mumbai’s Muslims, or at least a sizeable section of them. However, in the process, he is communalising the urban development debate and the basics of budget allocation. It is a perilous approach, one that is likely to hurt the cause of the poorest of the poor which includes Muslims.