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“Aa gaye Barrister Owaisi! (Here comes Barrister Owaisi),” yells Syed Abdahu Quadri, a young passer-by, as Asaduddin Owaisi, the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) chief and sitting Hyderabad MP, strides by, towering over the crowd in his six feet-plus. It’s easy for party workers and photographers to keep sight of his head and wide frame. He stops at the gate of a house and calls out through a microphone to a woman putting out clothes to dry on the terrace. “Amma tees tareekh ko aakar zaroor vote dena, neeche aana padega, upar mat baithe rehna (Come down from that terrace to cast your vote on April 30),” he says. The woman giggles in pleasure.
Walking briskly, the 44-year-old MP repeats his lines, urging people to vote the patang (kite) symbol. He stops by at beef shops, cracking jokes and asking how trade is faring. In the bylanes of Barahgalli and Ambedkarnagar, he chats up kirana shop owners. “Have you put on weight?” he asks one. A car winds through the incredibly narrow, crowded pathway. The driver springs out and clings to Owaisi enthusiastically. Party workers have to gently detatch the interloper from their leader without causing offence. In the bylanes, women wait with water, tea, biscuits and fruit for Owaisi. “Modi ko vote de rahein hain? (Are you voting for Modi?)” he kids Abeeda, as she blushes and the crowd laughs. He declines a glass of water: “Mujhe paani mat pilaao, bas vote de do patang ko.”
It’s not all roses in the dusty lanes, as several voters line up with complaints about poor water supply, sanitation, broken roofs and power cuts. Owaisi reassures them with the air of a magician biding his time till the last act. “Many term the Owaisi family’s politics as one of sensationalism and communal, but let me tell you something. If one is not accessible to voters, then nothing works,” he says, taking a tea-break at a cable operator’s house in Wahednagar.
Since 1984, the Owaisi family has kept the Hyderabad parliamentary seat eight times. It was first represented by the late Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, Asaduddin’s father. Asaduddin has been elected MP twice, in 2004 and 2009. It seems there’s no anti-incumbency. “Only those who don’t work, or who cut themselves off once polls are over, experience this anti-incumbency. If you watch how we function, you’ll understand,” he says.
Indeed, public interaction is one of the strong points of the MIM. At the party’s Dar-us-Salam headquarters in the Old City, hundreds of people line up with complaints: water shortage, scholarships, ration cards, passports, jobs, family grievances, police cases and the like. “They shout at us, we shout back at them—it’s all in good spirit—and we do our best to solve their problems,” says Owaisi. “MIM corporators are in constant touch with officials of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation so that people’s civic problems are sorted out. While our evening’s bike rallies are more election-driven, padayatras happen all the time, not only during polls,” he says.
Owaisi says he has handpicked his MLAs and party leaders from the grassroots. “Sure, money is needed to fight an election, but only a politician who has come up the hard way understands people’s problems. I surround myself with talented people such as Ahmed bin Abdullah Balala,” says Owaisi, pointing to the MIM candidate for the Malakpet Assembly. “He worked with the same conviction when he was a simple party worker, then a corporator and then an MLA. If my people perform, I get all the credit, so there’s nothing to be insecure about,” he says. “I cannot be like Shahrukh Khan and solve every micro-level issue by saying ‘Main hoon na,’” he says.
Owaisi accepts that his younger brother, Akbaruddin Owaisi, the Chandrayangutta MLA, is a better orator and connects better with voters. “I just crack a joke here and there and walk fast,” Owaisi laughs. The MIM has been using social media like Facebook and Twitter generously during the campaign.
Asked about his election expenditure, Owaisi says he doesn’t pay for people to turn up at his meetings. “I don’t offer biriyani to anyone,” he says. “But if they offer me biriyani, I gorge on it.” He says his professors in the UK urged him to always fight for cases he believed in, and that he believes it’s his duty to fight for the rights of Muslims when they are wrongly indicted. He has represented some of the accused in the Mecca Masjid blast and Haren Pandya murder cases. “If standing by innocent Muslim youths makes me communal, so be it for your headlines’ sake,” he says.
The MIM is not without opponents from the community. The breakaway Majlis Bachao Tehreek, founded by the late Amanullah Khan, fields candidates against the MIM but with little success. Party workers have clashed. Another opponent is Zahid Ali Khan, editor of Siasat, now 70, who had contested against Owaisi on a Telugu Desam ticket last year. This time, he’s not contesting. His son, Amer Ali Khan, who recently joined the YSR Congress, says the Owaisi family, which has through the MIM controlled civic politics in Hyderabad since the mid-1960s, has amassed unbelievable wealth. “Booth-capturing, cash for votes and double voting are commonplace,” says Amer, and alleges that the Owaisis have never worked for development. “If you listen to their speeches, they are mainly talking about Narendra Modi and building upon the fear factor,” he says.
In fact, Asaduddin plays down his wealth and is appropriately humble, but his brother Akbaruddin flaunts wealth in style. A video clip of his recent electoral speech shows Akbar taking potshots at the Majlis Bachao Tehreek, whose founder is said to have started out as a shopkeeper who rented out bicycles. “Was Akbar Owaisi a puncture-repair man? Did Akbar Owaisi come to Chandrayangutta to fight elections on a bicycle? Is Akbar Owaisi a poor man or a mendicant? When Akbar Owaisi came here, he was a crorepati; even today, he remains a crorepati,” he says, as his supporters go ballistic. Party office-bearers say it’s all in good humour.
Amer Ali says such talk points to the arrogance of a family which believes it can buy votes with money. “The brothers have different styles. While Asaduddin appeals to the intellectual voter, Akbar is more aggressive and connects with the common man through what may be termed playing to the gallery,” says Syed Amin Jafri, an MIM MLC and senior political observer.
The Hyderabad Lok Sabha, with all of seven assembly segments, has an electorate of which 65 per cent belong to the minorities—Muslims chiefly. The unease that the ‘Modi wave’ has created is evident: people from the community look up to the Owaisis for assurance. Asaduddin Owaisi, who is so far keeping equal distance from the main Telangana parties, namely the TRS and the Congress, is tight-lipped about future alliances. “Our primary aim is to keep the BJP-led NDA away. As for an alliance, or for us backing any party, we will decide after the result,” he says.