Will honeymoon continue for Gogoi?

Regional political parties representing a myriad of ethnic interests and aspirations further complicate the political fabric of the state.

Assam is on the threshold of facing one of the most significant elections in its political history. War is afoot, battle lines are being drawn and the proverbial battle cries are being sounded. The prime contenders are the Congress, which is vying for a fourth consecutive victory, and the BJP, which promises to be the change that would alter the fate of Assam and its people. Regional political parties representing a myriad of ethnic interests and aspirations further complicate the political fabric of the state. For Chief Minister TarunGogoi, the upcoming elections are a litmus test of his leadership and political credibility. The odds are certainly stacked against him. Incumbency along with allegations of ineffective governance have eroded Congress’s popular support base in the state. Gogoi has also been fighting dissidence within the party that reached its peak with his one-time close aide and former minister HimantaBiswa Sharma joining the BJP. Sharma’s exodus was followed by nine other MLAs.

The BJP,on the other hand, riding high on the record seven out of fourteen seats from Assam in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has launched ‘Mission 84+’ for the upcoming Assembly polls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Assam marked among other things the announcing of pre-poll alliance of the BJP and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). Led by HagramaMohilary, the BPF, which was an ally of the Congress till 2014, holds 12 of the 126 assembly seats. This alliance is definitely a big blow to the Congress in the run up to the polls.

Another challenge to the Congress stronghold in the state comes from the steady growth of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) under the leadership of BadruddinAjmal. With a significant base in Assam’s Muslim dominated districts, AIUDF has emerged as the prime opposition party in Assam holding 18 out of the 126 seats in 2011 assembly elections. The meteoric rise of AIUDF implies a steady erosion in Congress’ traditional minority vote base.

Another area of concern for the Congress is the tea tribe community. With a population of over 60 lakhs, the tea tribes constitute almost 35 percent of Assam’s total electorate.The BJP is trying to woo the tea tribes with Union HRD Minister SmritiIrani announcing that 14 Navodayas will be set up in the state with special focus on facilitating the education of tea worker’s children. This was followed by Chief Minister Gogoi’s announcement last month of setting up a Tea Tribe Commission to facilitate all round development of the tea tribes. While both parties are competing to win the tea tribe votes, the fate of the Congress in the Assembly polls will to a large extent depend on eliciting the support of this very important constituency.

However, one must recognize the fact that the Congress has a strong and loyal support base within the state that has stood by it inthe last three elections. It has a resilient grassroots network and a committed mid and lower level cadre. The loyal support base of the party has also been cemented through the rolling out of several state welfare schemes like the Majoni(social assistance to girl children), and Morom (financial support to indoor patients in government hospitals), and also the successful implementation of various central schemes such as the NRHM and the SSA.

This in conjunction with the growing popular perception that the BJP is moving away from its erstwhile development agenda may work in favour of the Congress. People are holding the BJP led center responsible for the rising price of essential commodities. The Modi wave is weaning in Assam. The people of Assam are particularly unhappy with the BJP’s response to the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant issue. The Modi government’s decision to grant asylum to Bangladeshi Hindu migrants in Assam has reignited the debate on indigenous Assamese versus foreign immigrants, an extremely volatile and emotional question for the ethnic Assamese population. It is important to recognize that in a state like Assam ethnicity often trumps ideology. The TarunGogoi government is also trying to take advantage of the BJP not keeping its 2014 Lok Sabha poll promise of according ST status to six communities in Assam under the sixth schedule of the constitution. BJP’s retraction from its earlier stand of opposing big river dams has accorded another opportunity to Congress to woo back in traditional vote base, particularly those living in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra.

In this changing political milieu, the role of AsomGanaParishad (AGP) will also be vital. Although the party born out of the Assam movement of the 1980s lost its political sheen over the years, it has been holding parallel talks with both the Congress and the BJP for a possible alliance. If AGP decides to come together with the Congress to create a united front against the BJP, it may considerably change the political equation in the state. Moreover, although AIUDF has denied the possibility of entering into any pre-poll alliance with its new slogan ‘eklachalo’, a post-poll alliance of the Congress and the AIUDF cannot be ruled out.

The big question, therefore, is after winning three consecutive elections since 2001, will the honeymoon continue forGogoi and the Congress? There is no simple yes or no answer to this. While the journey ahead is surely tough, the fight is far from over for the Congress in Assam.

(The writer is Assistant Professor and Assistant Director, Centre for Women, Law and Social Change, Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat, Haryana)

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