Bill at the centre

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta (centre), former Chief Minister and Asom Andolon Sangrami Mancha chief adviser, with Asom Gana parishad workers at a rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati on February 8. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and other leaders at an election rally in Silchar on April 11. Photo: PTI

Former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi (right) at an election rally in Nagaon on April 16. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister N. Biren Singh. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Lok Sabha election results will be crucial for regional parties such as the AGP and the AIUDF in a State that seems to be progressing increasingly towards a BJP-Congress binary.

Three major players in Assam politics, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), have high stakes in this Lok Sabha election.

The second and third phases of polling, scheduled for April 18 and April 23, for nine of the State’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, will be critical for these parties. The next Assembly election in the State is scheduled for 2021.

The AGP and the AIUDF have put up three candidates each, while the BPF is contesting one seat.

The AGP is a constituent of the ruling coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has 14 legislators in the 126-member Assam Assembly. The BPF, with 12 legislators, is the second coalition partner. The AIUDF is the second largest opposition party in the House with 13 legislators.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the AGP and the BPF drew a blank, while the AIUDF won the Barpeta, Dhubri and Karimganj seats.

For the AGP, winning in this election is also critical to preventing a repeat of the regional party’s history of splitting over election debacles. The regional party cannot afford a split when the Assembly elections are a little over two years away. Besides, every time the AGP stitched an electoral alliance with the BJP, a section of its supporters shifted their loyalty to the saffron party. The declining electoral influence of the regional party indicated this shift.

The BPF controls the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The election to the autonomous council under the Sixth Schedule is due next year. The United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), backed by the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and four other organisations including the National Democratic Front of Boroland-Progressive (NDFB-P), is making every effort to win the Kokrajhar seat with an eye on the BTC elections and next Assembly election. It seeks a separate State of Bodoland.

AGP’s compulsions

The AGP hoped to correct its election arithmetic by forging a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. It is optimistic of an anti-Congress sentiment working as a catalyst in the chemistry between the support bases of the two parties. However, the contrasting stands of the AGP and the BJP on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill seem to have inhibited the desired chemistry.

The AGP revived the party’s electoral alliance with the BJP despite opposition from a section of the party’s leaders and workers and even a section of its supporters. Among those who opposed the alliance was Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, founder president of the AGP and former Chief Minister. He and some other leaders insisted that the AGP could not have an alliance with the BJP because the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was violative of the Assam Accord. The decision to revive the ties with the BJP did not have the approval of the party’s central executive and general house. Mahanta not only refrained from campaigning for AGP candidates but also appealed to voters to endorse candidates opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Mahanta’s stand has supporters within the party rank and file. Bubul Das, who was a Minister in Mahanta’s government, quit the party and joined the Congress on the last day of campaigning for the second phase of polling. There were reports of a section of AGP workers and supporters pledging support to Congress candidates in some of the constituencies. This triggered speculation whether all AGP supporters would transfer their votes for the common candidates of the ruling coalition in all the constituencies.

Ironically, Mahanta had taken the lead in forging an electoral alliance with the BJP in the 2001 Assembly election. Under Mahanta’s leadership, the AGP dumped its allies—the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the United People’s Party of Assam (UPPA). However, the alliance with the BJP failed to produce the desired result in the election. The AGP managed to win only 20 seats while the BJP won eight, paving the way for the Congress to rule for three consecutive terms from 2001 to 2016 under Tarun Gogoi’s leadership.

In 2004, the AGP made a breakthrough in the Lok Sabha election, winning two seats after drawing a blank in the 1998 and 1999 general elections. In the 2006 Assembly election, when it was in alliance with the Left parties, its tally increased to 24. In 2009, the AGP again forged an electoral alliance with the BJP, but its tally in the Lok Sabha dropped to one seat from two, while the BJP’s tally increased to four from two in 2004. The AGP failed to build up a party organisation on the basis of regionalism, and its political activities reduced to mere election-centric exercises. This, coupled with its indecisiveness in choosing allies, gradually limited the AGP’s influence in the State.

In the 2011 Assembly election, the AGP won only 10 seats. The BJP, capitalising on the AGP’s decline and the dissidence within the ruling Congress, won seven seats. This pushed the AGP to forge an electoral alliance with the BJP again in 2016. However, its tally increased marginally to 14 seats from 10 in 2011. The BJP’s gain from the alliance was a quantum jump—from five seats to 60 seats. What the AGP gained was a share of the power pie after a long spell in the opposition. This is what has once again propelled it to rejoin the Sarbananda Sonowal government and revive electoral ties with the BJP, although the BJP has made clear its intention to introduce the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill if it returns to power.

A failure to win on the part of the three AGP candidates may precipitate a fresh crisis in the regional party. Traditionally, electoral reverses have caused splits in the party, and such splits in turn have brought on further electoral reverses by turning away traditional supporters to either the Congress or the BJP. In 2005, Mahanta broke away to float the AGP (Pragatisheel), only to merge it back with the AGP in 2008. The AGP split for the first time in 1991, when Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, former Home Minister and a signatory to the Assam Accord, left to float the Natun Asom Gana Parishad (NAGP) along with another senior AGP leader, Brindaban Goswami. The NAGP merged with the AGP in 1994. But Phukan revolted against Mahanta again, was expelled from the party and in 1996 formed the Asom Jaitya Sanmilan (AJS). The AJS merged with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), but Phukan returned to the AGP fold in 2004.

The Congress sees the AIUDF’s declining electoral influence as an opportunity to consolidate its base among Muslim voters of erstwhile East Bengal origin. The Congress lost their support when they saw the AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal as a protector of their interests after the 2005 Supreme Court decision to scrap the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983. The Congress opposed the scrapping of the IM(DT) Act and showcased it as a shield for minorities against alleged “harassment” in the name of identification of foreigners. After the controversial Act was scrapped, Ajmal wooed minority voters away from Congress strongholds. However, the Congress managed to keep the AIUDF out of power by forging an electoral alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front in 2006 when it fell short of a majority by 11 seats. The AIUDF won 10 seats and the BPF 11 seats. The AIUDF’s failure to get a share of the power pie limited its influence among the electorate. Moreover, Muslim voters who once put their trust in Ajmal started shifting their loyalty back to the Congress, which was backing the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This was reflected in the 2016 Assembly election which saw the Congress denting AIUDF strongholds.

The declining influence of the AGP and the AIUDF has been clearly pushing Assam towards a Congress-BJP binary. In a bid to prevent the Congress from making inroads into the traditional AGP support base among the majority Assamese, the BJP-led ruling alliance has been campaigning to persuade voters that the Congress and the AIUDF have reached a secret understanding to protect “illegal Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators”. The impact of this narrative among the majority Assamese and other indigenous language speakers helped the AGP-BJP alliance to restrict the Congress to 25 seats in the 2016 Assembly election. How effective it will be in this year’s general election remains to be seen.

The AIUDF had initially announced that it would field candidates in eight Lok Sabha constituencies, apparently to mount pressure on the Congress for a pre-election understanding and seat adjustments. The Congress showed no interest, and the AIUDF later announced that it would contest only three seats and not field candidates in five constituencies in order to “stop the BJP” from retaining power. The party hoped that the Congress would reciprocate by not fielding candidates in the Barpeta, Dhubri and Karimganj seats, where the AIUDF is seeking re-election. A delay in the announcement of Congress candidates in these three seats triggered speculation, supported by BJP propaganda, of a tacit understanding between the Congress and the AIUDF. The Congress’ performance in these three seats will have ramifications for not just the AIUDF but also the BJP’s narrative.

The AIUDF’s failure to get a share of power during the Congress regime had led to disillusionment among its supporters. The updating of the NRC and the threat of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill must have also led many of them to identify the Congress, rather than the AIUDF, as the party with the power to stall the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Most of them saw the NRC as a document to end long years of harassment in the name of identification of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill as a piece of legislation to make the NRC infructuous. This gradual shift in perception was reflected in the 2016 Assembly election in which the AIUDF’s tally was reduced to 13, down from the 2011 tally of 18. The AIUDF’s poor performance in the panchayat elections last December was another pointer to this.

The AIUDF won 17 seats in the Brahmaputra valley in 2011, and one in the Barak valley. Nine of the 13 seats it won in 2016 were in the Brahmaputra valley and four in the Barak valley.

Badruddin Ajmal faces a tough challenge to prevent his party from suffering the same fate as that of the United Minorities Front (UMF) in 1987. The UMF was formed in 1985 and it won 13 seats in its debut electoral performance. That was also the year the AGP formed by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) after the historic Assam Accord and it captured power and formed the government for the first time in the State. In 1987, 12 of the 13 UMF legislators joined the Congress.


Stiff challenge for BJP

The Lok Sabha election has posed before the ruling BJP a tougher challenge than the numbers game it played to install a coalition government in Manipur in 2017. The BJP won 21 seats in the election to the 60-member State Assembly in 2017, whereas the Congress won 28. Yet, the BJP installed a coalition government with the support of the National People’s Party (NPP), the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the Lok Janashakti Party and an independent member and survived the floor test by inducting a Congress legislator in the Council of Ministers.

In 2014, when the Modi wave swept the country, the Congress won Manipur’s two Lok Sabha seats, Outer Manipur and Inner Manipur. In 2017, it won 19 of the 40 Assembly seats in the valley districts, while the BJP won 16. Of the 20 seats in the hill districts, the Congress won nine and the BJP five. Inner Manipur has 32 Assembly segments in the valley districts and Outer Manipur has 28 Assembly segments (20 in the hills and eight in the valley).

In this election, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is the main election plank for both the Congress and the Communist Party of India (CPI). It will be interesting to see which of these two parties draws the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill votes. In Inner Manipur, the CPI has fielded former Minister Moirangthem Nara Singh, who was defeated by the sitting Congress MP Thokchom Meinya in 2014. This time the Congress has fielded new faces in both the seats—O Nabakishore from Inner Manipur and K. James from Outer Manipur constituency.

Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh claims the BJP will win both seats. The BJP’s main plank is “corruption during Congress rule”; it also showcases the Manipur People’s Protection Bill, 2018, which defines “Manipuris” and “non-Manipuris” and regulates the entry of the latter to the State.

The Manipur People’s Party (MPP) is contesting both Lok Sabha seats and hopes to revive its fortunes in the State. It had won only five seats in the 2007 Assembly election and drew a blank in 2012 and 2017. It did not contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election but extended support to BJP candidates in both the seats. In Outer Manipur that year, the BJP fought its present alliance partners, the NPP and the NPF, which have four legislators each in the Assembly.

In the first phase of polling this time on April 11, Outer Manipur witnessed over 80 per cent voting.