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Assam: A Battle of Hawks

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Will the Congress-led alliance stop BJP juggernaut from retaining power in Assam? Alliances on both the sides are formidable and both look competent to strike a victory.

The tenure of the present 126-member house expires on May 31. The dates of the polls are announced; Assam assembly elections will be held in a month from now. In the previous elections in 2016, the election brought a change of power when the Congress lost its majority to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Sarbananda Sonowal was sworn-in as chief minister. Cashing in on the popularity of Narendra Modi, the party and its allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People's Front (BPF) had bagged 86 seats.

The scenario this time around, however, may be different. The BJP, which heads Assam's three-party ruling coalition, is faced with an uphill task to retain the government and achieve its goal of winning 100 in the upcoming Assembly polls. The primary challenge for the BJP is tie up of Congress and minority-based All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). They have formed a six-party grand alliance ahead of the polls. The newly-formed Anchalik Gana Morcha of Rajya Sabha MP Ajit Kumar Bhuyan and three Left parties – CPI, CPI (M) and CPI (ML) – are also the part of this alliance. In the last polls, the Congress and the AIUDF did not have any alliance. The BJP had contested in 84 seats in the 2016 elections, bagging a vote share of 29.5 per cent, less than that of the 31 per cent of the Congress, which had won 26 seats out of the 122 contested seats. The combined vote share of BJP-AGP-BPF was 41.9 per cent, which was less than that of the Congress-AIUDF’s vote share of 44 per cent. In 17 constituencies where the BJP had won, the combined vote share of Congress and AIUDF was more than that of the saffron party. Also, the combined vote share of Congress and AIUDF was more than that of the AGP in two seats which were among the 14 seats that the regional party had won.

Now that Congress and AIUDF would fight together, the split of anti-BJP votes is likely to be prevented The BJP’s ally, the AGP had won 14 of the 24 seats it contested. However, the birth of two regional forces -- Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal - is expected to cost the AGP dear. That the BJP and the AGP are nervous following the AJP’s emergence in the political spectrum.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam Finance minister and convener of BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) is confident that BJP and its ally parties will win over 100 seats in the next assembly polls in Assam which is scheduled in 2021. Recently, the BJP formed its tribal council in the northeast by engineering a split in the Congress-led North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC) in October last year. The council covers Dima Hasao district, whose headquarters Haflong is 325km southeast of Guwahati. After its massive victory in the recent Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and Tiwa Autonomous Council (TAC) elections, BJP has been building up its strength and confidence.

But the moot question is: Does BJP stand a realistic chance of a shot at power again in Assam? Can the BJP’s individual vote share increase in the upcoming election?

Congress is focusing on improvement of its structural base and make its grassroots strong. Already, the party has been working on connecting people at every district of the state. On the other hand, in just 5 years, the BJP’s membership in Assam has increased more than twenty-fold from just about 2.5 lakhs to nearly 60 lakhs. Most of the urban local bodies are with BJP, including most major towns. For the first time, the BJP had contested the BTC elections, and performed spectacularly. BJP’s war room has drawn up extensive plans to give a final push to its election campaign where the party faces stiff challenge from its rivals. The party has also readied a team of 3.20 lakh ‘prishtha pramukhs’ to connect with every family ahead of the upcoming elections.  Each prishtha pramukh is in charge of one page of the electoral rolls. His or her brief is to meet every person on the voters’ list on an assigned page.

Of the 60 seats that led to BJP’s win in the 2016 general elections, more than half are from upper Assam. The Congress were left with just 6 seats in Nazira, Sibsagar, Titabor, Mariani, Doomdoma and Golaghat. Also, in a first since independence, the Congress won just one seat under the Dibrugarh Lok Sabha constituencies. A comparison of the 2014 Lok Sabha election results with the 2009 Lok Sabha and the 2011 Assembly election results clearly suggest a political shift with the BJP’s rise in upper Assam. The BJP has remained strong in the Barak Valley and lower Assam regions traditionally.  Political observers say that whoever dominates in 42 seats scattered from Koliabor to Sadiya in upper Assam, rules the state for 5 years. In all previous elections it has been seen that the political party that has succeeded in grabbing the majority of these seats have claimed the seat of power in Dispur.

In the three elections that the Tarun Gogoi-led government was formed, the Congress party had won 30 seats, although by the 2019 elections they had lost their grip over the same. In upper Assam, BJP-led NDA alliance worked formidably well primarily because the AIUDF has no evidential social base in upper Assam and the Congress had lost a substantial part of its social base during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. An alliance with the AGP in upper Assam prevented the dispersion of anti-Congress votes and added to the NDA’s gains. Additionally, the BJP could forge a social alliance with the plains tribes of Assam stretching from lower Assam (Bodos and Rabhas) to upper Assam (Tiwas, Kacharis and Mishings). It could take the plains tribes’ leadership into confidence to forge a kind of informal social alliance. The NDA won 75 per cent of seats in upper Assam and 64 per cent and 60 per cent of seats in lower Assam and the Barak Valley, respectively.

The Congress has also announced a target of winning 100 out of 126 seats in the Assembly polls in Assam in 2021 and decided to focus on re-establishing contact with the people. Congress President Sonia Gandhi had recently announced a panel of observers for the state comprising Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, AICC General Secretary Mukul Wasnik and Bihar Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed Khan. The panel has held discussions with the state unit leaders prior to the announcement of the alliance. A section of the Congress believes that an alliance with the AIUDF, a party that is identified as espousing the cause of the non-Assamese Muslim voters in the state, would help consolidate the Muslim vote-bank. Muslims comprise 35 per cent of the state's population. Leaders in favour of the alliance argued that if there was no tie-up with the AIUDF, the Congress would lose minority votes to Ajmal. The argument of those in the Congress opposed to having an alliance with the AIUDF was that it would lead to an alienation of the indigenous Assamese voters who view Ajmal as a leader of the Bengali-speaking Muslims and fear that their culture is under threat from outsiders.

This Article First Published In Our Magazine

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