The 'Ajmal' factor in Assam Assembly polls

The 'Ajmal' factor in Assam Assembly polls

Repeated poll setbacks have forced Maulana Badruddin Ajmal to soften his anti-Congress stance and join the grand alliance

"Who is Badruddin?" asked former Assam chief minister and veteran Congressman Tarun Gogoi just before 2006 Assembly elections. 

When Gogoi's dismissive remark reached perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal's ears, he was unperturbed. Instead, he waited for the poll results. 

Ajmal had entered the polls on a strident anti-Congress stance and it fetched results. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the party he founded in 2005, bagged 10 of the 126 Assembly seats in its maiden electoral battle against the ruling Congress. 

Ajmal had made his point. Now, Gogoi knew a bit more about the perfume baron.

During the next few years, Ajmal's party carved a place for itself in the poll landscape, notching several victories. 

In the 2011 Assembly polls, The AIUDF surged further and emerged as the biggest Opposition party by winning 18 seats. The BJP had won only five seats then. 

The 2014 General Elections yielded more rewards as Ajmal, his brother Sirajuddin and Radhesyam Biswas won three of the 14 Lok Sabha seats.

And then the good times came to an end. The BJP moved into the state aggressively and muddied the poll waters with its "illegal immigrants" rhetoric. The Congress and the AIUDF were stunned as the saffron party seized power in the state in the 2016 Assembly polls.

Ajmal's party's tally came down to 13 seats. The 2019 Lok Sabha polls brought more bad news as only Ajmal himself was elected to Lok Sabha from Dhubri, a Muslim-majority constituency sharing a border with Bangladesh.

Since then, the 65-year-old has had to recalibrate his poll strategy to counter the BJP, which continues to hammer away at the looming threat of "illegal immigrants" besides accusing Badruddin and his party of protecting such illegal Muslim immigrants.

With the setback in 2019 LS polls, the AIUDF knew it was faced with an existential crisis. To counter the BJP's narrative of ethnic communities vs immigrant Muslims needed a compromise. And this is what Ajmal did. 

He softened his anti-Congress stand. Till then, Ajmal still maintained that his party would maintain equal distance from both the Congress and the BJP. 

Realising that going alone in 2021 polls could further hurt the party's tally and his political clout, Ajmal was quick to accept Tarun Gogoi's proposal for a "grand alliance" weeks before Gogoi's demise in November. 

Loss of more seats in the next Assembly elections, many say, would not only mean Ajmal's fall in politics but may pose trouble to his empire of perfume business across India and in the Arab countries.

The anti-CAA agitation which roiled Assam in December 2019 provided Ajmal with an opportunity to join hands with Congress and Left parties in order to unite the Muslim votes (over 30% of total votes) against the rising BJP and its allies. Ethnic communities and the Muslims are angry with the CAA as it seeks to give citizenship to non-Muslim migrants till 2014.

On January 19, the Congress, the AIUDF and the Left parties announced a "grand alliance" hoping to wrest power from the BJP in the Assembly polls slated in April.

The grand alliance is eyeing to defeat BJP candidates in at least 18 constituencies, where the saffron party won in 2016 mainly due to division of Muslim votes between the Congress and Ajmal's AIUDF. 

Ajmal, however, showed his political smartness by announcing that the chief ministerial candidate would not be from his party. This, many believe, was done to ensure that votes it was eyeing from the ethnic communities remained secure. 

As the "grand alliance" threatens to unite Muslims against the BJP in April elections, a highly polarising campaign is underway in the state.

The saffron party has stepped up verbal attacks on Ajmal, repeatedly calling him "protector of Bangladeshis". 

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while addressing a rally in Nalbari on January 23, tried to infuse fear among ethnic communities, saying that AIUDF-Congress would open the doors for the "infiltrators". 

Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is BJP's strategist in the Northeast, has been trying to project Ajmal and his party as a threat to ethnic identity. "They are trying to establish the rule of Babar in Assam," Sarma said at a rally. In another event, Sarma said if Ajmal's party wins, Hindus would not be able to visit temples. 

Ajmal didn't remain a mute spectator to these barbs as he hit back in the same vein, saying Muslims would not be able to visit mosques if the BJP wins the polls. Ajmal's statements, however, put the Congress in a tight spot, forcing it to ask him to refrain from making divisive comments.