With an eye on assembly polls, party hoppers start knocking the doors of new political masters
With assembly elections round the corner, it is time for party hoppers in Assam to shift loyalties to new political masters. The season began with 10 ruling Congress legislators including former minister Himanta Biswa Sarma pledging their loyalties to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While Sarma joined the BJP and later quit as a Congress legislator, nine of his followers met BJP national president Amit Shah expressing their desire to wear saffron in due course. The move of these suspended Congress legislators did not came as a surprise to anyone as the climax of a high-pitch political drama of dissidence, enacted by them over the past more than two years, was too obvious.
Defection of all the Congress legislators to BJP is not expected to be smooth and signs of resistance by local BJP leaders and grassroots workers of the party in their respective constituencies, barring that of Sarma’s, are palpable. In Behali constituency, former state BJP president Ranjit Dutta led party workers to stage demonstration against sitting Congress legislator Pallab Lochan Das, one of nine Congress legislators, who had met Amit Shah. Similarly, in Nalbari constituency, local BJP leaders and workers have gone record that while they welcome anyone who is ready to accept party constitution, the newcomers should not expect party tickets for 2016 assembly elections. The mood is no different in other seven constituencies.
Political spin doctors of both the Congress and the BJP are busy crafting their own interpretations of the developments. Congress leaders, in a bid to check further erosion, have been trying to assure party workers that defection of the 10 party legislators has come as blessing in disguise as it will draw the curtains of dissidence that ruined party’s prospects in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and lowered the party’s public image.
Senior BJP leaders, in a bid to keep party flock together and prevent the defection of Congress leaders having any contamination effect of dissidence, have interpreted the rumblings of dissent by aspirants of party tickets and their followers against such defection as “a sign of party’s growing popularity.”
In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP candidates secured the highest votes in the ten assembly segments of defecting Congress legislators including Jalukbari constituency from which Sarma quit as a Congress legislator. Other nine constituencies (with figures of votes secured by Congress and BJP in these segment in 2014 Lok Sabha elections in brackets) are Raha ( BJP- 58,165, Cong- 35,230 ), Nalbari (BJP- 75,779, Cong—46,216), Behali ( BJP- 36,744, Cong – 24,832), Sipajhar ( BJP- 50,403, Cong—50,148) , Tezpur ( BJP- 58,719, Cong – 45,606 ) , Jonai ( 1,09,568, Cong- 50,335 ), Sadiya ( BJP- 56,649, Cong -29,730 ), Golokganj ( BJP – 58, 609, Cong – 35,176 ; All India United Democratic Front came second in this segment with 41,347 votes) and Ratabari ( BJP -40,759, Cong – 28, 511). In Jalukbari assembly segment under Gauhati Lok Sabha constituency, BJP candidate and former Union minister Bijoya Chakravarty secured 70,069 votes while her nearest Congress rival Manash Borah managed to get 61,576 votes. Ms Chakravarty won Gauhati Lok Sabha seat. BJP won seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the state, Congress and the AIUDF won three and one seat was won by an independent candidate.
With leadership of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee solidly behind him, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi rushed to re-induct two former ministers – Gautom Roy and Siddeque Ahmed, whom he had dropped earlier during peak of dissidence led by Sarma, and on charges of accompanying the dissident leader. Mr Gogoi also elevated 12 other party legislators to the rank of parliamentary secretaries to check further erosion and cut the supplies of Congress legislators to BJP.
Sarma had marched to Raj Bhawan with 38 dissident Congress legislators to tender his resignation from Gogoi’s cabinet in July 2014.
While Congress leaders are hopeful of turning the swing around in the constituencies of party legislators, whom they managed to prevent from defecting, their worries over party’s poll prospects in the ten constituencies of defectors are still not over. The ruling party, however, is pinning hopes on a potential internal squabbling within BJP looming large over in these ten constituencies over ticket distribution.
It remains to be seen if a third non-Congress, non-BJP political force, would be able to take advantage of such a fluid situation. However, such a political force is yet to emerge though efforts by the Asom Gana Parishad and some left parties were still on.
The AGP is hoping to piggyback on growing protests triggered by some decisions of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre including the recent decision of granting the right to Hindu and other religious minorities of Bangladesh fleeing the neighbouring country due to alleged religious persecution, to enter without travel documents or stay even after expiry of validity of travel documents. Revival of AGP as a major political force will be spanner in BJPs dream journey of capturing Dispur. However, the saffron party has thrown open its doors to leaders of student and youth bodies including the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) in bid to woo them and their followers away from regional forces like the AGP. In the past AGP, which was given birth in 1985 by the AASU at the culmination of a six-year long vigorous anti-foreigner agitation, was the natural launching pad for AASU and AJYCP leaders for their political careers.
However, joining of two top AASU leaders – its former president Sankar Prasad Roy and former General Secretary Tapan Kumar Gogoi – and AJYCP leader Manoj Barua and grand farewell to them by the two student and youth bodies has put a question mark over the political neutrality, the two organisations often tom.
The BJP’s calculated move of neutralising the influence of these two organsations in Assam’s electoral politics, seemed to have paid dividend as both the AASU and AJYCP have suffered crisis of confidence with many raising doubts over the genuineness of the protests, they have organised against Modi-government’s decision on Bangladeshi migrants and on other issues, and suspected that such protests could only be used by the leaders of these organization, for bargaining for their own political career. The Akhil Bhratiya Vidyarthi Parishad winning student body elections in several colleges of the state is a pointer towards the BJP’s right-winged student body filling up the vacuum created among students due to loss of confidence in AASU and AJYCP.
Both the BJP and Congress are well aware of the influence of the AIUDF, the principal opposition party in the 126-Assam Assembly with 18 legislators and are expected to factor in, in their electoral strategy, the floating of a new political front United People’s Front by nine tribal and indigenous bodies. Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) which rules the Bodoland Territorial Council (an administrative set up enjoying autonomy under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of Indian Constitution) with 12 legislators, is the major constituent of this new front. BPF was coalition partner of the Congress from 2006 to 2014 till parted its ways in June 2014 when the Congress was grappling with dissidence.
As of now, the political situation in Assam is fluid and the parties are expected to take some more time to draw their battle lines.