Karnataka Assembly polls: Despite risks, allying with Asaduddin Owaisi would serve HD Deve Gowda well, raise his prospects as kingmaker
Asaduddin Owaisi could provide the Deve Gowda-led Third Front in Karnataka a strong Muslim face and prevent the 13 percent Muslim votes from falling in Congress' kitty
A few weeks ago in the run-up to the elections in Tripura, a group of Bengali Muslims met Asaduddin Owaisi, requesting him to contest in a few constituencies that have a Muslim voter population. When he refused, they asked him to mark his presence by putting up a candidate in at least one seat. Realising Owaisi was stubborn about not having a footprint in the North East, they requested him to at least address a few public meetings.
The response remained negative and Owaisi's party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) stayed away. Or else, Congress and CPM, which were defeated in the elections, would have accused Owaisi of being BJP's agent, out to split the minority vote. Just like it accused AIMIM of doing BJP's bidding in the elections in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
But if there is a state Owaisi is keen to contest in, it is Karnataka. He has his eyes set on a few seats in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region and possibly even in Bengaluru. A significant portion of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region was part of the erstwhile kingdom of Hyderabad under the Nizam rule. Not only is it home to a sizeable Muslim population, but the language spoken here is Deccani Urdu along with Kannada.
Sources close to the Hyderabad MP say that Congress is already nervous about AIMIM's electoral foray into Karnataka. They claim feelers were sent to Owaisi through non-politicians close to Congress, asking him to desist from contesting in Karnataka. The Congress, however, dismisses Owaisi as a force of no consequence pointing to his party's performance in the Bengaluru civic polls in 2015 where it came a cropper, not winning even a single ward in the 198-member civic body.
Owaisi is only too aware that his decision to contest will provoke Congress to accuse him of being a BJP agent. But relations between Owaisi and Congress have hit rock bottom because the Siddaramaiah government on several occasions has refused the AIMIM leader permission to address public meetings in Karnataka.
Owaisi's Plan A is to be part of the Deve Gowda-led alliance of JD(S)-BSP-NCP that has announced it will fight the elections together in Karnataka. The JD(S) has allotted 20 seats to Mayawati's BSP to contest while seven seats will be given to Sharad Pawar's party in the Belagavi district, where there is a significant Marathi-speaking population.
A preliminary discussion between the JD(S) leadership and Owaisi has already taken place and the ball is in Deve Gowda's court. Owaisi has reportedly conveyed to them that in an election that is going to be fought on caste and communal lines, the alliance needs a strong Muslim leader who is a good communicator. The JD(S) after the exit of Zameer Ahmed does not have too many Muslim leaders who command a significant following.
It is here that Owaisi, with his strong oratory skills, could be a good fit for the Third Front in Karnataka. With Congress leadership engaged in a temple run, just like it was in Gujarat and adopting what is seen as a soft Hindutva line, the JD(S) feels its alliance can attract the Muslim vote if it fields the right candidates. But in the absence of a strong Muslim face, the entire 13 percent Muslim vote in Karnataka could go into Congress' kitty. This vote share is the bedrock of the AHINDA slogan of Siddaramaiah, that targets the minorities (alpasankhyataru), backward classes (Hindulidavaru) and Dalits (Dalitaru).
Gowda acknowledges the advantage that Owaisi will bring to the table but is reportedly worried about his firebrand image and the impact it could have on the Hindu vote. The Hyderabad MP has left it to the father-son combine of Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy to take a final decision. Gowda's main objective is to emerge as a kingmaker in a hung Karnataka Assembly which explains why he is taking his time to decide on Owaisi. If Gowda does not play ball, Owaisi plans to contest a few seats on his own.
The JD(S) strength lies only in the old Mysuru belt. In the past, it has won a few seats in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region but that has been more on the back of individual candidates. Many of those MLAs have now switched sides. In such a scenario, Owaisi, even with the attendant risk, may seem like the best bet for Gowda.
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