Sidelined by the party for very long under the Modi-Shah duopoly, Shahnawaz Hussain’s induction into the Bihar cabinet is also a way of placating him and rewarding him for his loyalty to the party.
BJP finally rewarded Shahnawaz Hussain for his loyalty to the party
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national spokesperson and former Union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government Syed Shahnawaz Hussain has finally been brought in Bihar politics as Industry Minister in the Nitish Kumar government. The move is significant as 53-year-old Hussain is one the most well-known Muslim leaders in the party and his ‘home-coming’ took place ahead of critical assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, and Kerala. Out of electoral politics since 2014, Hussain was recently named by the BJP as its MLC candidate from Bihar. No doubt, his move to Bihar will help in his rehabilitation in politics.
He is the first Muslim face from BJP in the Bihar cabinet, thus giving a clear message to the minority community that BJP does not have an aversion or overlook the community in the government. For the BJP, Hussain is expected to help the party’s chances in upcoming Bihar elections where Muslims play a major role.
Many say that with a sizable population of minority voters, BJP hopes to make inroads in election-bound states by offering Hussain an important position in the adjoining state. Hussain is not only a young and articulate leader from the Muslim community but also has had a clean image. Political circle abuzz with talks that the BJP's decision to introduce Hussain in Bihar's politics will counter the old traditional Muslim-Yadav equation of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). A section of the BJP leadership believes that he will be the best bet for the party if it aspires to wrest the baton of NDA’s leadership from Nitish in next assembly polls in 2025.
Having unsuccessfully contested the Bhagalpur seat in the 2014 general elections, Hussain was denied a ticket in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. More recently he was given the charge of Kashmir in the DDC elections in the newly formed UT. Many in the party say that BJP’s performance in J&K helped his return to place of prominence in Bihar. His entry in Bihar politics is being viewed with lot of interest. The three- time Lok Sabha MP has been a known baiter of JD (U) chief Nitish Kumar, who he blamed for his Bhagalpur seat being taken away in the last elections.
Hussain had burst on the political scene in 1999 Lok Sabha polls when he wrested Muslim-dominated Kishanganj seat from RJD strongman Taslimuddin and was appointed Minister of State and held various portfolios such as food processing industries, youth affairs and sports and human resource development at different times.
He was given independent charge of the Ministry of Coal in 2001 and was elevated to the rank of a Cabinet Minister with Civil Aviation portfolio in September 2001, thereby becoming the youngest Cabinet Minister. Later he held the Textiles portfolio as Cabinet Minister from 2003 to 2004. He is often referred to as 'The Original Youth leader'. Though he lost the 2004 general elections, but got re-elected to the Lok Sabha from Bhagalpur in a by-election necessitated by resignation of Sushil Kumar Modi who took up the new assignment in Bihar after the NDA grabbed power in the state. He entered the 15th Lok Sabha again from Bhagalpur in 2009. He contested the Lok Sabha election in 2014 from Bhagalpur again but lost with a small margin.
Ever since he lost the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Bhagalpur constituency, he had been relegated to the sidelines within the party. Five years later, he even failed to secure the party ticket from the same seat because it went to Nitish’s JD (U) under a seat-sharing formula. A bitter Hussain publicly blamed Kumar for “taking away” his Bhagalpur Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 elections under the seat-sharing arrangement.
Shahnawaz's entry is being considered as a big bet of BJP as he carries a deep experience of active politics in centre for more than two decades. The BJP seems to have played a major political game first by bringing a Muslim face, and giving a message that the BJP has never been against Muslims in politics. “He may be tasked to make the party base stronger in minority-dominated Seemanchal areas where the AIMIM has won the five seats in 2020 Assembly elections”, said a BJP source. “This kind of move can also balance the move of CM Nitish Kumar and the growing influence of AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi in Bihar”, said one political observer. Hussain had first reached Parliament from Kishanganj, a minority-dominated area of Seemanchal, and then from Bhagalpur which too has a considerable minority population.
Hussain had reportedly refused to contest Bihar Assembly elections in 2015 and 2020. The party leadership wanted him to shift to Bihar but he apparently considered it as a “demotion” after having served as a Cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government. However, he agreed seemingly to work on a mission to pave the way for the BJP to have a chief minister of its own ultimately in Bihar. Hussain’s rehabilitation is likely to give the BJP a handle to dismiss charge that it is “not inclusive” in its politics. He is a nationally known Muslim face for the BJP and likely to campaign in the upcoming assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, and Kerala with sizeable population of Muslim voters. Additionally, after the shift of Sushil Kumar Modi from Bihar to central politics, the BJP needed a leader who does not have a camp in the faction-ridden Bihar BJP.
An important factor at work is lack of traction for Hindutva politics in Bihar. While the BJP has several leaders with strong Hindutva credentials from Bihar, it has found that the Hindutva has limited appeal in ensuring victory in an assembly election. It ultimately boils down to caste politics, which cuts through Hindutva campaign. This gives the BJP a chance to explore the possibility of having a Muslim chief ministerial probable in Bihar. This would help the BJP to build an image-correction narrative nationally.
While Hussain became the Muslim minister in the Nitish Kumar cabinet even as the Muslim nominees from the JD (U) had lost the Bihar election in 2020 polls. The only Muslim minister in any BJP state government before Bihar was in Uttar Pradesh. Mohsin Raza is a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) in UP just like Shahnawaz is in Bihar. In the Lok Sabha too, the BJP has no Muslim representative. There is only one Muslim face in the union ministry — Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
This step can be seen as a major outreach to Muslims who comprise 18 percent of the state population. Party strategists believe that, with Shahnawaz in the Bihar Cabinet, this support could be regained. If the BJP contests alone in 2025, in a triangular contest, the party would need new voting segments to win — and then this could come in handy. It provides an opportunity to the BJP to expand its vote share among educated, liberal Muslims, and can even help the party in the whole of North India, especially Uttar Pradesh, which is due for elections in 2022. Shahnawaz fits the RSS-BJP bill as he claims to be a ‘true Hindustani Muslim’.
Three states where elections are due in 2021 have a high minority population — more than 25 percent. This is a symbolic to the voters in West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, of BJP’s new ‘inclusive’ politics. However, political observers say that it would be imprudent to assume any immediate gains. Shahnawaz has been sidelined by the party for very long under the Modi-Shah regime, and this is also a way of placating him and rewarding him for his loyalty to the party.
This Article First Published In Our Magazine