The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election results mark a watershed moment in the electoral history of Telangana and the Bharatiya Janata Party's rise as a significant force in southern India. The political impact of this election shall be felt in other parts of India too, because forces fanning communal polarisation will get wind from the verdict.
Multiple inferences can be drawn from the verdict, the most ominous being that the BJP's sectarian discourse is striking a deeper chord among people in a state that the Telangana Rashtra Samithi swept during the December 2018 assembly elections. The regional party retained its sway to a great extent in the Lok Sabha polls last year too, by winning nine of the 17 seats, while the BJP won 4 seats. The marginalisation of the Congress – it won three seats in the parliamentary polls, has become more evident with the party winning just two seats in the GHMC.
More significantly, the TRS will now be dependent of the support of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen for securing the election of its mayoral candidate. Consequently, the BJP will be free to drum up support for its argument that its adversaries either 'appease' Muslims, or play ball with leaders who consider the futility of acting as 'pressure groups' within mainstream secular parties. These leaders, the BJP brass contends, advocate parties exclusively engaged in protecting Muslim identity and ensuring security for the community. AIMIM leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, is labelled as one such leader.
The BJP's dramatic increase in tally from four to 48 in the GHMC polls, courtesy the use of Hindutva rhetoric in ample doses, has to be placed alongside the AIMIM holding on to its base in Old Hyderabad constituencies, notable for the overwhelming presence of Muslims.
While the AIMIM has always been a party backed by the dominant sections of Muslims for its advocation of minority rights and concerns, the endorsement of the BJP's shrill campaign is indication of the corresponding emergence of a Hindu vote bank in the twin-city for the first time. Its implicit campaign that if Muslims can 'have' a party of their own, Hindus too must have a party that unabashedly articulates the community's interests, has found resonance among sections of Hindus.
Significantly, the BJP has won nearly two-third of its seats from wards which are part of Lal Bahadur Nagar and Secunderabad zones. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat had addressed a rally of the faithful in December 2019.
The march passed through several localities of this zone, which is also an assembly constituency. The show of strength in the city rekindled support for the RSS viewpoint that everyone in India was a Hindu, regardless of personal faith. The organisation also has a traditionally solid network of cadre in this area, which is sought to be bolstered by citing the Muslim mobilisation behind the AIMIM.
While the BJP victories in L.B. Nagar zone is attributable to the RSS network, successes in Secunderabad indicate the emergence of an electoral block which has a fair sprinkling of people from outside Hyderabad – even Telangana – who approve of the BJP's polarising narrative. It is noteworthy that the BJP leadership took Prime Minister Narendra Modi's slogan, 'Go Vocal for Local' in a completely different context, and deployed a battery of vituperative leaders from Home Minister Amit Shah to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, party president J.P. Nadda and several Central ministers, to enlist voters. The UP chief minister for instance, used the locally emotive demand of changing Hyderabad’s name to Bhagyanagar, a demand which was so far made solely by fringe groups.
The GHMC results demonstrate that the BJP has usurped the position of the principal opponent of the TRS. In the 2018 assembly polls, advanced by Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the Congress won 19 seats while the BJP bagged a solitary constituency. The GHMC elections were also advanced by a few months by the TRS, but this time the party has faltered due to the emergence of an anti-incumbent sentiment which intermeshed with the BJP's majoritarian campaign. The electorate's negative opinion stemmed from perceived failure of the TRS in providing relief and succour after floods in the Musi river earlier this year.
Unless altered, future political equations in Telangana are likely to follow the course witnessed in Orissa and West Bengal, where marginalisation of the Congress led to the emergence of the BJP as the alternate to Biju Janata Dal and Trinamool Congress.
The GHMC results also indicate that from now on, the TRS will not get a head start in elections because of its role in the formation of the state. These results are indicative of the limits of political parties which articulate separate statehood for a region in a big state. While the TRS was buoyed by its advocacy for Telangana for long, this was the first election where people were partially making up their minds on the basis of the government's performance.
The BJP's gains have been mainly at the expense of the TRS, for aforesaid reasons. But the party's inability to dent the AIMIM in its stronghold suggests consolidation of support for the party. The AIMIM's performance has to be viewed from the prisms of its recent gains in Bihar, and previously in Maharashtra. The party has now set its sights on entering the electoral arena in West Bengal next year.
This suggests that the AIMIM is pushing its position that Muslim interests cannot be protected by pressure groups within secular opposition parties, because, more often than not, they are worried about losing the backing of Hindus. In contrast, barring for marginalised Hindu castes, for instance Ati-Dalits in Bihar, whose voice is mostly not articulated by any party, the AIMIM does not seek to secure of Hindus.
Continuous decline of Muslim representation in decision-making bodies of political parties, legislatures and ministries, coupled with the community’s enfeeblement and societal alienation, is leading to further ghettoisation among non-elite sections of Muslims. This development and the ambivalence of non-BJP parties on issues pertaining to dignity and security of Muslims, will cement the position of 'Muslim parties' like AIMIM and other similar parties in other states.
The homogenisation of the Muslim community and its solidification behind these parties, will further enable the BJP to raise the bogey of Muslim consolidation. These are still early portents, but the GHMC verdict raises visions of the more permanent labelling of constituencies as 'Muslim seats' and 'Hindu seats'. The worry is that if this becomes a new normal in India, the demand for separate electorates with specific number of reserved seats shall be raised.
Decades after Hindu nationalists, then in a different avatar, opposed the demand for reservations of legislative seats on the basis of religion during debates in the Constituent Assembly, the BJP may likely fan this viewpoint. For it will enable further vilification and demonisation of Muslims.
Author and journalist, Mukhopadhyay's books include Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times and The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. The views are personal.