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Sushanta Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2016-04-01

Assam Poll – high stakes for Congress and BJP


Assam is poised for a fierce electoral battle with the two major players-- the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holding high stakes in the two-phase election to the state assembly. The two-phase polls are scheduled for April 4 and 11.

The BJP is looking at the Assam assembly polls as an opportunity to shake off the party’s image that was battered by two successive losses in Delhi and Bihar polls. For the Congress too, the stakes are very high as Assam is one of the seven states where the party is currently in power.

Led by the incumbent Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the ruling Congress has been trying to pull out all the stops to retain power for the fourth consecutive term prevent the BJP and its allies from capturing power at Dispur.

The BJP’s hope to wrest power from Dispur stems from the party’s spectacular performance in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Riding a popular Modi- wave the saffron party won seven of the total 14 Lok Sabha seats and its candidates polled the highest votes in 69 of the total 126 assembly seats in the state. However, absence of a strong organisational network to consolidate the gains forced the BJP to enter into pre-poll alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) for the ensuing assembly polls.

The three-party coalition is hopeful of avoiding a split of the non-Congress votes. However, there is always a resistance among the rank and file of the constituencts of any political alliance to transfer of votes to the common candidate as they are apprehensive of permanent a shift in loyalty. Revolt against the alliance and rebel candidates jumping into the fray triggered speculations that the rebels may spoil the game for the three-party alliance in some constituencies to the advantage of the ruling party. The BJP is contesting 89 seats and left 24 seats to AGP and 12 to the BPF. The AGP contesting in 30 seats and will be locked in a friendly contest with the BJP in six seats. After sharing power for eight years BPF snapped its ties with the Congress in 2014 when dissidence against the Gogoi government was at the peak. Former Health and Education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma who led the dissidence and later quit the Congress in 2015 to join the BJP with nine other dissident Congress legislators is said to have played the key role in shaping the alliance with BPF.

In 2011 assembly polls, the party positions were as follows: Congress- 78, All India United Democratic Front – 18, Bodoland People’s Front- 12, Asom Gana Parishad-10 and BJP- 5, Trinamool Congress- 1, independents- 2.

Congress hopes that there has been perceptible change in the situation over the past two years since 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The ruling party was grappling with dissidence during the Lok Sabha polls and it went to the people as a divided house. This time it has been able to present a united house with the party throwing its weight behind the incumbent chief minister Tarun Gogoi and his government after ten dissident legislators led by Sarma joined the BJP.

On the other hand, ever since the BJP projected its state president and Union minister of state (Independent) for Sport and Youth Affairs Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate, Sarma has been seen going overdrive right from ironing out teething problems of seat sharing with AGP and the BJP to addressing rallies across the state which has helped him a build the image of a star campaigner for the BJP. However, this has also triggered speculations that the BJP has been divided into two camps of Sarma and Sonowal that may put spanner in the wheels of BJP’s chariot which the party dreams to ride to capture Dispur.

The Congress is pinning hopes on regaining its lost support base among the tea tribe voters who play deciding role in about 35 seats and among the Muslim voters of erstwhile East Bengal origin who speak Assamese and a Bengali dialect who decide about 30 seats. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP caused severe erosion in the traditional stronghold of the Congress among the tea tribes and its candidates polled highest votes in 26 of about 35 seats decided by them. In 2011, the Congress won 26 of these seats and the BJP won only one seat. During 2014 Lok Sabha polls, most of the Congress legislators elected from these constituencies were seen engaged in dissidence against Gogoi that was led by Sarma. After Sarma and his loyalist quit the Congress to join the BJP, Gogoi loyalists managed to patch up with the party leaders representing the tea tribes and used the electioneering to showcase the unity in a desperate bid to turn the tide. The ruling party is banking on its campaign that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government headed by Narendra Modi had stopped the monthly allocation of additional quota of 7600 MT of rice and 5000 MT of wheat to the tea gardens which is required for providing subsidised ration to garden workers at 50 to 55 paise a kilogram but the Congress-controlled Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha moved the court to get the Modi-government’s order suspended. Besides, the Congress is also counting on a slew of welfare schemes initiated by the Gogoi government targeting the tea tribes such as the chief minister’s Bagan Ghar Scheme for providing every tea garden worker family land and financial assistance for construction of dwelling the chief minister’s Bagan Jal scheme for providing drinking water, and the chief minister’s Bagan Bus Scheme for providing public bus service facilities for the students of the tea garden workers. The BJP, apart from banking on its campaign that the tea tribes remained the most backward community under the Congress rule, has fielded veteran tea tribe leader and the sitting Lok Sabha MP from Jorhat Kamakhya Prasad Tasa against Gogoi in Titabor constituency in a bid to send a message that the saffron party is ready to strike the most lethal blow on the Congress bastion in this election.

The BJP and its allies have been running the campaign that the Congress and the AIUDF have reached secret electoral understanding, a charge which the Congress and the AIUDF have denied and the ruling party has been running a counter campaign that BJP and AIUDF have reached a secret pact to capture power by polarizing the votes on communal lines. To buttress its claim, the Congress alleged that the despite having no chance of winning the AIUDF has fielded candidates in several upper Assam constituencies only to help the BJP and its allies.

While AIUDF Chief Badruddin Ajmal has been claiming that his party would be the kingmaker, the Congress hopes that the AIUDF support base has declined which will help the ruling party to regain its support base among the Muslim voters of erstwhile East Bengal origin that was lost to Ajmal’s party after the latter’s formation in 2005 in the wake of scrapping of the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act 1983. The Supreme Court struck down the controversial legislation on a petition filed by Sonowal when he was in AGP. The AIUDF is grappling with dissidence and rebellion over distribution of party tickets and seven of its sitting legislators quit the party after being denied tickets this time and four of them joined the Congress which has emboldened the ruling party. 

Six left parties- the CPI(M), CPI, CPI (ML), Forward Block, RSP and RCPI-  have put up joint candidates 44 seats and these candidates expected to play key role in some of the constituencies. Left parties strived for a non-BJP, non-Congress alternative of left and secular parties and made best efforts to rope in AGP in it. For the left parties too, this election has come as opportunity to stregnthen their organisational bases in the state towards mobilising more public support for the political alternative which these parties are clamouring for.

The Bodo heartland-- BTAD comprising of four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgur -iaccounting for 12 seats and the Barak valley and comprising of three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi with 15 seats are two regions which are poised for tough contests and results in these constituencies are sure to have critical impact on the numbers game that will follow. The BPF, which rules the Bodoland Territorial Council that governs the administration in BTAD, is well aware of the decline in its support base as indicated by the results of 2014 Lok Sabha and 2015 BTC polls and chose to side with the BJP to trigger fresh hopes among the voters that the BPF’s alliance with the party in power at the Centre would be beneficial for the autonomous council.

BPF Chief Hagrama Mahilary who is also the Chief Executive Member of BTC, however, kept his options open by going on record that his party will support whichever party comes to power at Dispur. The Congress, on the other hand has picked alliance with BPF’s rival party United People’s Party and left four seats to the Bodo political party to shatter Hagrama’s dream to become the Kingmaker. In 2014 the BPF candidate for Kokrajhar constituency Chandan Brahma finished a poor third and in BTC polls in 2015 it managed to win only 20 of the 40 elected seats. (BTC has total 46 members- 40 elected, 6 nominated). Backed by Congress support, the UPP, led by veteran Bodo leader and former Rajya Sabha member Urkhao Gwra Brahma, is pining hopes on voters in BTAD, who it claims are disillusioned with BPF, to put a formidable challenge and change the power equation in the Bodo heartland.

In the Barak valley the BJP failed to win a single seat in 2011. Of the 15 assembly seats in the Bengali-dominated valley the Congress won 13 and one seat each was won by the AIUDF and the AGP. The party failed to win either of the two Lok Sabha seats—Silchar and Karimganj in 2014. The Congress won the Silchar seat and the AIUDF won the Karimganj seat. The BJP hopes that the two notifications issued by the Modi government exempting Bangladeshi Hindus, who have entered into India on or before 31st December, 2014, from the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, in respect of their entry and stay in India without such documents or after the expiry of those documents and its promise to grant such refugees Indian citizens would help the party to make a comeback in the valley. The Congress, on the other hand, hopes that the decline in AIUDF support base will help the ruling party to hold on to sizable seats in the valley. The Congress too has been trying to woo the Bengali Hindu voters by claiming that the party had raised the demand for providing shelter to Bangladeshi Hindus fleeing alleged persecution in the neighbouring country.

However, the parties and their candidates, the ruling as well as opposition, have not been able to move beyond the same old issues of illegal migrations, secret killing, National Register of Citizens, government schemes and projects, flood and erosion, corruption and reduced the electoral battle to mere poll rhetoric, accusation and counter-accusation which have not brought any new hope for the electorates.  They lacked any innovative idea to face the challenges of governance and giving a fresh look at existing legislations or proposing some set of legislations to address the larger issues of land and land rights, resources and their equitable distribution and identity and political rights. Nevertheless, the political spin doctors in the two major players – the Congress and the BJP as well as their allies hope to set the agenda for the voters.

Sushanta Talukdar


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