Lucknow: The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) of Asaduddin Owaisi plans to contest the coming three-tier panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh, giving the jitters to the ruling Samajwadi Party.
Both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party have announced they will contest the elections on party symbol at some places and support strong candidates at others.
Highly placed sources in the Hyderabad-based AIMIM told IANS that its president Owaisi, the party's only Lok Sabha member, has given the green signal to the idea of fighting the panchayat battle. The party is working on the selection of candidates and finalizing the election strategy.
The panchayat polls will test the waters for the future in the electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh where the AIMIM feels it will have a key role to play in the 2017 assembly elections.
Owaisi has for long been itching to get his party's footprint in Uttar Pradesh but the Samajwadi Party government thrice denied him permission to hold rallies in the state. The Samajwadi Party clearly fears that Owaisi would poach into its otherwise reliable Muslim support base. Muslims and Yadavs played a major role in catapulting the Samajwadi Party to power in 2012.
Owaisi, however, slipped into Uttar Pradesh's Iftar gatherings in Meerut and Agra. Both cities have sizable Muslim populations. Owaisi, often seen as a firebrand, mingled with the Who's Who among Muslims and gave special time to Muslim youth.
Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, is home to some 36 million Muslims. Their en bloc support to any single party creates a perception of winnability.
AIMIM state unit leader Mohd Tauheed Ahmed Siddiqui says the party will contest the Panchayat polls but "strategically and selectively".
The winning potential of the candidates will be a key factor. The overall performance is expected to cast a shadow on the 2017 assembly polls.
The party, informed sources say, is focussing on western Uttar Pradesh - the flashpoint between Hindus and Muslims in 2013 when 67 people were killed in riots in the Muzaffarnagar region. Thousands became homeless.
Owaisi's fiery speeches, his opposition to the hanging of Mumbai serial bombings accused Yakub Memon and his rant against Hindutva forces have endeared him to many Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, specially the youth.
The Samajwadi Party, the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are haunted by the spectre of Owaisi eating into their vote bank.
"We are not sure of the exact impact but, yes, the AIMIM's entry into UP is a worrying prospect," says a senior Congress functionary.
Some feel that the AIMIM may meet a premature end like the Apna Dal, which till not long ago was a party to watch out for until it bit the dust in the 2012 battle.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is, however, happy over the development. Its leaders feel that Owaisi will further polarize the electorate on religious lines, in the process consolidating Hindus behind the BJP.
BJP strategists are also confident that Owaisi's entry will further weaken the electoral prospects of the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress.
Established in 1928 to keep the then Hyderabad State independent, the MIM was banned after the state's merger with the Indian Union in 1948.
Owaisi's grandfather, Moulana Abdul Wahid Owaisi, revived it in 1958 to champion the cause of Indian Muslims.
It has seven members in the 120-seat Telangana assembly. Two of its candidates were also elected to the Maharashtra assembly last year, giving it a major boost. It has since decided to expand nationally.
Often branded communal by critics, the MIM claims to represent the interests of not just Muslims but all socially and economically backward classes. It says it is the only party in India to develop a chain of educational institutions and state-of-the-art hospitals.
(Mohit Dubey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)