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Sushanta Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2019-04-08

Ahead of Lok Sabha Election, AGP and BJP mum on Citizenship Amendment Bill; seek to corner Congress on Assam Accord

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) agreed to set aside the issue of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) while reviving their electoral tie-up in Assam, for the fear of losing the spark of lost love reunion. The opposition Congress has seized the opportunity and made CAB the main poll plank, hoping that it would create new electorates for the party in the state and correct its poll arithmetic.

The Congress cannot expect to get direct support from those anti-CAB movement supporters who are traditionally opposed to the party and are aligned with regional forces. However, the spin doctors in the Congress believe that the BJP’s announcement to bring the bill again has triggered fresh apprehension among all CAB opponents and, therefore, harping on it as the key poll issue might lead to convergence of a significant number of electorates centring it.

Photo courtesy AGP facebookpage

BJP national president Amit Shah on 17 February announced at a rally in Assam that his party would bring CAB again if it retains power at the Centre. Shah’s statement stoked dying embers of anti-CAB agitation in the state which lost its steam after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 lapsed in the Parliament. Shah also vowed to include it in the party’s election manifesto. The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and 30 other organisations which were at the forefront of anti-CAB agitation described Shah’s announcement as “an exercise by the BJP to create a vote bank of illegal Bangladeshis at the cost of the interests of indigenous people of Assam

Congress president Rahul Gandhi while sounding the poll bugle in the North East on 21 March vowed that his party would not allow the CAB to be passed in the Parliament as “it is detrimental to the people of the North East”.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government pushed the bill in the Lok Sabha and also got it passed by the Lower House of the Parliament on 8 January but did not push it in the Rajya Sabha after the Congress, the Left and several other opposition parties vowed to oppose in the Upper House and protest against the bill intensified across Assam and other North-eastern states.

The bill sought to amend the citizenship laws to remove “illegal migrant” tag on people belonging to Six religion groups – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Christian, Sikh and Parsi- in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who came to India without valid travel documents or overstaying even after expiry of the validity of such documents so that they can apply for Indian citizenship.

Photo courtesy : AGP

In 2014, the BJP won seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam while the Congress managed to win only three seats when Modi wave swept the country. All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won three seats, one seat went to an Independent candidate while the AGP drew a blank. All the seven seats won by the BJP came from the Brahmaputra valley, which witnessed massive protests demanding the withdrawal of the CAB.

In the last Lok Sabha polls, the AGP did not have electoral alliance with the BJP but the regional party forged electoral tie-up with the BJP in 2016 to increase its tally in the Assam Assembly and also get a share of the power at Dispur. Vote shares of the parties in 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2016 Assembly polls were as follows:

 

 

Vote share in 2014 Lok Sabha polls ( %)

Vote share in 2016 Assembly Polls (% )

BJP

36.86

29.5

Congress

29.90

31

AGP

3.87

8.1

AIUDF

14.98

13

BPF

2.21

3.9

 

In this Lok Sabha polls, the BJP has fielded candidates in 10 seats leaving three seats for the AGP while the Bodoland People's Front is contesting in one seat. Congress has fielded candidates in all the 14 seats. The AIUDF has fielded candidates only in the three seats of Barpeta, Dhubri and Karimganj which were won by the party in 2014. Assam will have three-phase polls on 11, 18 and 23 April.

The BJP has roped in student leaders who took an active part in anti-CAB agitation to counter Congress poll plank. Adviser of the All Assam Tai Ahom Students’ Union (AATSU) Ashwini Chetia joined the BJP while the ruling coalition has fielded former AASU vice president Moni Madhav Mahanta who quit the student body to join the AGP. Both were at the forefront of anti-CAB agitation. Mahanta is the common candidate of the ruling coalition in Kaliabar Lok Sabha constituency. Gaurav Gogoi, son of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi is the sitting member of Parliament from this constituency and seeking another term.

However, the AASU, AATASU and several other student bodies’ call for voting against parties and candidates favouring CAB is expected to keep the options open for the electorates.

In a bid to create a smokescreen over their position on the CAB, the AGP and the BJP while announcing the poll-tie up maintained that both the parties would stand committed to their respective positions on CAB but there would be efforts to resolve the issue through a process of consultation and discussion.

Shah as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi in their election rallies in Assam refrained from referring to CAB in their speeches but the duo held the Congress responsible for the delay in implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord which envisages “constitutional, administrative and administrative safeguard” for protecting, preserving and promoting “cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” BJP spin doctors believe that harping on Clause 6 would neutralise the anti-CAB campaign and prevent CAB opponents from converging as new electorates.

AGP quit the BJP-led coalition government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal on 8 January after BJP pushed the CAB in the Lok Sabha and the Central Executive Committee of the regional party flayed Shah for his statement and decided not to have any electoral alliance with any party supporting the CAB. The nine-member AGP Strategy Formulation committee headed by party president Atul Bora later decided the revive the poll tie-up while three ministers of the party re-joined the Sonowal government.

AGP’s attempt to put the lid on CAB issue to pave the way for the poll tie-up with the BJP did not go down well within the party as well as its supporters. Founder president of the regional party and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta is among those party rank and file who have opposed the tie-up. Mahanta has appealed to the electorates to cast votes in favour of those candidates who are opposed to CAB. He has also refrained from campaigning for the party candidates. Mahanta, other leaders and workers opposed to the tie-up insisted that the issue of the poll tie-up with the BJP should have been first discussed by the party’s central executive.

Awareness among media persons on VVPAT--Photo courtesy DIPR, Kamrup ( Metropolitan)

The ruling coalition of BJP, AGP and BPF has also raked up “electoral understanding” between the Congress and the AIUDF to frustrate the Congress poll strategy. It alleged that the Congress and AIUDF have forged “unholy alliance of protectors of Bangladeshi Muslims” and urged the electors to reject such alliance. Both the Congress and AIUDF, however, have denied any kind of electoral understanding between the two parties. The Congress dubs both the BJP and AIUDF as “Communal force” and urged the voters to reject them.

The Congress has countered the campaign of the ruling coalition by maintaining that the AIUDF is on the verge of withering away as a political force in the state and was unable to find candidates to contest in other seats. The Congress also accused the AIUDF of working as “BJP agent” and spreading a rumour of a pre-poll alliance between the two parties.

The AIUDF is contesting in three seats and announced that it did not put up candidates in other constituencies to prevent the BJP from taking advantage of a possible split in “secular votes.” The AIUDF had earlier announced plans to put up candidates in eight constituencies. AIUDF’s revised strategy gave leverage to the ruling coalition to rake up the issue of “AIUDF-Congress tie-up”.

Congress will have many hurdles to cross before it can reach the touchline but whether the CAB opponents would like the controversial amendment to the citizenship laws to become a key electoral issue will be known only on 23 May when the counting of votes will be taken up.

Sushanta Talukdar

(This aricle was first published in FIRSTPOST on April 1. The original article can be accessed in the following link https://www.firstpost.com/politics/ahead-of-lok-sabha-election-agp-and-bjp-mum-on-citizenship-amendment-bill-seek-to-corner-congress-on-assam-accord-6365411.html)

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