Assam polls: Political riddle for both Congress and BJP

Assam polls: Political riddle for both Congress and BJP

Come 2016, several states in the country will go for Assembly polls, but one state that will be keenly watched is Assam.

The Congress, which has been in power since 2001, would seek mandate for a fourth consecutive term and the party high command has already pitched Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi as its chief ministerial candidate.

But this election will perhaps be the toughest for Gogoi and his team – the BJP has made steady inroads in the state since the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

The minority-based All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is gaining strength, while the party from Bodoland area – The Bodoland Peoples’ Front – is not with the Congress this time. To top it all, there will be anti-incumbency factor of a 15-year rule.

The Congress under Gogoi has only bettered its performance in every election since 2001. It has a clear majority in the 126-member state Legislative Assembly. But trouble began in 2011, when Gogoi came to power for the third straight term.

His one-time closest aide and a key member of state cabinet, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was also the party’s “ground level poll strategist,” infused dissidence against Gogoi, which divided the party into two camps. But the party high command reposed faith in Gogoi, resulting in Sarma’s exit from the party.

Sarma, who resigned as a minister and then as an MLA, is now with the BJP. He is the convenor of the saffron party’s poll management committee in Assam. For both, Sarma and the BJP, this will be a do or die election.

Riding on the Narendra Modi wave, the BJP won seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam. The swing in favour of the saffron party was such that it got the highest number of votes in 69 constituencies out of the total 126 in the state Legislative Assembly.

The BJP’s vote share in the state had gone up from 11.5 per cent in the 2011 Assembly election to 36.5 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In contrast, the Congress vote share went down from 39.9 per cent in 2011 to 29.9 per cent in 2014.

The BJP saw a huge number of people joining them as members. There was almost a mass exodus from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to the BJP.

However, 2016 will be a different ball game. Perhaps, the Bihar Assembly election results have given the ruling Congress in Assam a new lease of life, while also reminding the BJP that the ride to power is still a far treacherous drive ahead.

The BJP thinks it can come to power in Assam and political watchers believe it has a fair chance. But if anyone would gain from polarisation of votes in Assam other than the BJP, it is the perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF. It is the main opposition party in the state. The AIUDF had won three seats in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

Enjoying a minority support base, Ajmal is the king maker in Assam politics these days. If the BJP tries to polarise voters based on religion, it may get the Hindu votes, but it will drive away a huge chunk of Muslim voters towards the AIUDF. According to the 2011 Census, nine out of 27 districts in Assam have Muslim majority.

The BJP has been using the sensitive issue of illegal migrants from Bangladesh to its benefit, which has generated anti-Muslim sentiments among people. The move maybe counter productive for it in the crucial Assam Assembly election.

Also, the Centre’s notification to grant Indian citizenship to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh is both good and bad for the state BJP.

While the Bengali Hindu vote bank might see a switch in loyalties, the Assamese nationalist voters may choose Asom Gana Parsihad (AGP), that still swears by Assamese nationalism. The Assamese nationalist forces always harboured both anti-Bangladeshi and anti-Bengali sentiments and often mingled both.

A complex situation

Assam is a complex demographical riddle. The greater Assamese society has failed more or less. The tribal groups see themselves as different from the caste-based Assamese people and thus, there are several  demands for statehoods.

The tribal regional parties have formed a united platform led by the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) and have indicated that they would form an alliance with the BJP. The reason being that the tribal groups have lost faith that their land and rights can be protected by the Congress.

The 2012 riots in Bodoland testified to the enmity between the Muslim settlers and the local tribal groups like the Bodos.

Now, if the Centre is able to declare the six ethnic communities in Assam, including the Adivasis working in tea gardens (known as tea tribe), as Scheduled Tribes, the state BJP may clinch the deal ahead of the Assembly election in 2016.

The tea tribes and the other five ethnic communities including the influential Asoms are traditional vote banks of the Congress. However, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls they started inching towards the BJP.

Moreover, peace talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom, after its founder Anup Chetia’s release, will benefit the Modi government.

Amid all this, Assam CM Gogoi is talking about a “grand understanding” between anti-BJP forces. Anti-BJP players like Nitish Kumar are showing interest in Assam polls.

In all likelihood, Kumar’s election campaign strategist Prasant Kishor might help the Congress in Assam. If the Congres, the AIUDF and other anti-BJP parties form an understanding and if the AGP also joins it, the anti-BJP votes should remain intact.

Thus, more than how Gogoi plans to save his regime, or Ajmal tries to reap  political benefit, it will be challenging for state BJP President and Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and its poll committee convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma to make sure that they can capture Assam even without a Modi wave.

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