As Akbaruddin Owaisi drove back 300 km from Adilabad Jail to his home Hyderabad on Saturday evening, I wonder if he thought that the past two months have been such a long journey. The state took time to realise the hate content in his Urdu speeches that he delivered in Adilabad and Nizamabad districts in December but once it did, things went out of control for Owaisi junior and he had to cool his heels behind bars for close to five weeks before being released on bail.
Politically for Owaisi and his party, the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and for the Muslim community at large, the hate speech episode has been a setback. Just like with every person who has indulged in hate politics in the past, it has created both an ardent group of admirers as well as fierce critics for Akbar. Within Hyderabad, the leader of the MIM legislature party in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly is a huge polarising figure today.
Mazher Hussain of Confederation of Voluntary Associations, a network that works extensively on issues of communal harmony in India, says that while the adulation may bring some short-term benefits, what should worry Akbar is that there are many in the Muslim community who are equally angry with him for losing control over his tongue, either deliberately or without realising it. There are many who feel his diatribe has brought a bad name to the community, especially when Islam specifically prohibits Muslims from speaking ill of another religion and faith.
While Owaisi's vitriol upset even the liberal among the Hindus, many in his own community felt vulnerable to verbal attacks and generalised hate. It also resulted in many otherwise indifferent Muslim liberals getting communalised, especially when Vishwa Hindu Parishad's rabble rouser Pravin Togadia replied in kind to Owaisi's hate speech.
Over the last few years, the MIM under Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi has been cultivating a more moderate, pro-development image in Hyderabad. It has been reaching out to the dalit and tribal sections and trying to grow beyond its image of being just a party of and for Muslims. This, Asaduddin reckoned, will help it grow beyond the Old city and a clutch of just half a dozen assembly seats. There are pockets in districts like Nizamabad, Kurnool, Guntur where the MIM thinks it can make inroads. The hate speech episode will mean the MIM stands the risk of losing this support it had gained to an extent.
Which is why the MIM today is at the crossroads. What does it do now will dictate which way the party will go from here. If Akbaruddin Owaisi is more careful and measured in his utterances, as he ideally should have been as a responsible elected representative of the people, it will be unfortunately interpreted as a taming of the rabblerouser. Given his mercurial temperament, one cannot be sure how he will react to such taunts. On the other hand, if he flies off the handle again, he risks getting into similar trouble. The tussle between the moderates and those who advocate a strident line could create fissures within the party, though for the moment, the politically astute Asaduddin Owaisi remains the last word on all contentious matters in the party.
The MIM would be most concerned about the gains or losses for the BJP. To give it credit, it ensured minor skirmishes did not snowball into communal clashes in the Old city area of Hyderabad in the recent past before deciding that enough was enough over the Bhagyalakshmi temple issue. The temple abuts the Charminar and has been the cause of a running feud between Hindu and Muslim groups. The MIM withdrew support to the Congress government in Hyderabad and Delhi and it believes it paid the price for it with the police cases slapped on the Owaisi brothers. It is common knowledge that in the past, the Congress government always looked the other way even when MIM leaders crossed the line.
Intelligence sleuths who track political events reckon that the polarisation has helped the BJP. The saffron party is trying out a three-in-one package in the run-up to the 2014 elections. Telangana + aggressive Hindutva + Narendra Modi brand of development is the 'buy one, get two free' offer that the BJP hopes to serve in its manifesto. Given the MIM's position on Telangana and Modi, apart from Hindutva, it is certain that there will be an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the party and the BJP. In fact, Akbar's speech in Nirmal on 22 December in which he also taunted Narendra Modi was one of the first steps in that direction.
What turn Hyderabad politics takes will now depend on what kind of response the MIM chooses to give, post Akbaruddin Owaisi's stint in jail.