Coalition concerns

Published : Jun 02, 2006 00:00 IST

The Congress returns to power in Assam, but with Bodo support which will be difficult to handle.


FOR the first time since Independence Assam has a coalition government following the April 2006 Assembly elections. A fractured verdict helped the Congress retain power by sharing it with a party of Bodos. The Congress won 53 seats against 71 in 2001, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) secured 24, four more than last time, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 10 seats, two more than last time. The Bodoland People's Progressive Front (Hagrama faction) with 12 seats played kingmaker to ensure the Congress' second consecutive term in Dispur.

The Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), a conglomerate of 13 minority organisations formed in the backdrop of the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act by the Supreme Court, won 10 seats, eight of which it wrested from the Congress and denied it a majority. The Congress' support base among the tribal people in the tea gardens proved to be intact, but among the minorities it suffered heavy erosion. The party now has only six Muslim legislators against 13 in the last Assembly.

The two Left parties returned to the Assembly with three seats - the CPI(M) two and the CPI one - after they drew a blank in 2001. In 1996 they won five seats. The Asom Gana Parishad (Progressive) won only one of the 93 seats it contested. The lone seat is Barhampur and the victor is former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who formed the breakaway group.

The AGP's failure can be attributed to several factors. First, the formation of the AGP(P) helped the Congress in a number of seats that the AGP could have retained or wrested from it. Second, in a number of constituencies, including Guwahati East, Majuli and Barama, disgruntlement over the choice of candidates led to many rebels entering the fray. The resultant split in the party's votes went in favour of the Congress candidates.

Political observers, however, felt that the AGP failed to highlight effectively the people's discontentment against the way in which the Congress dealt with a number of issues, including unemployment, corruption, lack of infrastructure, floods and erosion, in the Assembly. The Congress, on the other hand, wrested the initiative from the AGP on the issue that was its raison d'etre: infiltration. It achieved this by holding a tripartite review of the Assam Accord by the Centre, the State government and the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) at the Prime Minister's level after 16 years; conducting a joint inspection of the India-Bangladesh border by the Union Home Minister, the Chief Minister and AASU leaders; and conceding the other demands of the student body, such as updating the National Register of Citizens. The Congress thus neutralised strong regional forces such as the AASU and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), which would have otherwise played a key role in favour of the AGP by raising the bogey of infiltration.

The AASU's tirade against the previous AGP government of P.K. Mahanta over the "secret killing" of family members of leaders and cadre of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) also had a negative impact on the AGP.

Brindaban Goswami, AGP president, accepted the "people's verdict" and said there was strong discontentment against the Congress government but this did not transform into votes for the AGP. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi attributed the poll results to the Congress' good performance in the last five years.

For the first time ULFA did not give its ritualistic call to boycott the elections. However, neither this nor the police firing at Kakopathar in Tinsukia district following the custodial death of a farmer, leading to the death of eight persons and subsequent State-wide protests against the Congress government, went in favour of the AGP. The Congress not only retained Margherita, but also wrested Sadiya from the AGP.

The BJP improved its 2001 tally by two, securing 10 seats, thanks mainly to the divided regional parties. Unable to achieve its aim of becoming the kingmaker and projecting itself as an alternative to the Congress and the AGP, the BJP now blames the AGP for not responding to its appeal for a pre-poll alliance. The BJP ate into the AGP's support base, a section of which saw it as an alternative to the Congress.

The CPI(M) regained the Sarbhog seat, with State secretary Uddhab Barman, a two-time Lok Sabha member, defeating his nearest Congress rival Samsul Haque, while Ananta Deka wrested the Rangiya seat for the party by defeating PCC president Bhubaneswar Kalita. The CPI's Drupad Borgohain, a former Rajya Sabha member, wrested Nazira seat from the Congress by defeating Handloom and Textiles Minister Hemoprova Saikia, the widow of former Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia.

The CPI(M) contested 16 seats this time against 22 in 2001, while the CPI contested nine against 19 in the last elections. The strategy of channelling the energy and resources in fewer seats helped the Left parties to make a breakthrough. However, their failure to project themselves as a united force meant that the voters did not perceive them as a strong alternative. The Left parties limited themselves to seat adjustments with the AGP but failed to consolidate the Left vote by uniting on a common platform.

An important aspect of the results is that the Muslim lobby in the new government will not be as strong as it used to be in previous Congress governments as the party lost eight Muslim-majority seats to the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF).

The BPPF (Hagrama faction) with 12 seats emerged as the kingmaker and the Bodo political party is expected to influence major policy decisions of the new government. The leaders of the BPPF(Hagrama), most of them former militants of the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), see this as an opportunity to mount pressure for the full implementation of the Bodo Accord, which was signed by the militant outfit with New Delhi and Dispur on February 10, 2003. An important clause of the accord is that all cases, except those relating to heinous crimes, pending against leaders and cadre of the BLT and against supporters of the Bodo statehood movement will be withdrawn. In fact, BPPF (Hagrama) president Hagrama Mahillary told the media in the presence of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi that this was a precondition for his party extending support in government formation.

Though the AGP had reached seat adjustments with the BPPF (Rabiram faction), the majority of Bodo voters sided with the BPPF (Hagrama) which had seat adjustments with the Congress. The fact that the Hagrama faction is running the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous council under the amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule, fuelled the hope among Bodo voters that its strategic alliance with the ruling party would ensure better flow of development funds to the Bodoland areas. The BTC came into being as result of the accord signed by the BLT.

Contrary to the expectations of the BPPF (Rabiram faction), which had the support of the influential All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU), the election results show that the Bodo masses were not disillusioned by the manner in which the former BLT militants ran the tribal council. The elected council is not even a year old and for the ordinary Bodo voter it was too early to judge the efficiency of the BTC rulers.

In a bid to avoid being over-dependent on the Bodo political party, the Congress cobbled up the support of independents, including Congress rebels. With the BPPF(Hagrama) sharing power, the Congress will be under tremendous pressure to take its coalition partner into confidence before reaching any kind of settlement with the militant National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), which has been enforcing a ceasefire and wants talks with the Centre.

Hagrama Mahillary, who headed the BLT, and his former comrades would not like to relinquish the political power they enjoy as rulers of the BTC. The NDFB, on the other hand, has shown signs that it is losing patience over the delay in the holding of peace talks. A bandh that the outfit called to protest against the arrest of its cadres on charges of extortion turned violent, giving enough indication that it would mount pressure to expedite the peace process. The BPPF (Rabiram faction) and the ABSU have already thrown their weight behind the NDFB and are expected to mount pressure on the Congress-BPPF (Hagrama) coalition government to hold peace talks with the NDFB.

However, for the majority of the Bodo leaders and intellectuals this round of Assembly elections provided the largest plains tribe in the State an opportunity to share power. This, to them is a situation very different from the one in the past, which whipped up separatist sentiments among the Bodo people on the slogan "Divide Assam fifty fifty".

If Bodo leaders see this as a great opportunity to rule their own people as well as the entire State as a coalition partner, the Congress is cautious about depending solely on Bodo legislators to remain in power. Though Tarun Gogoi, 70, maintained a tough stand against taking the support of the AUDF, dubbing it a communal force, a section of Congress leaders is against shutting the door on the AUDF and argues that its support may be required in the event of the BPPF (Hagrama) bargaining hard. Besides, the Congress is worried that a direct confrontation with the AUDF would lead to further erosion of its support base among the minorities.

Political observers, however, believe that Gogoi's strong opposition to the AUDF helped the ruling party to get the support of a large section of Assamese voters who believe that the emergence of a minority conglomerate would have a direct impact on government policies on vital issues such as the unabated influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The AUDF, in its poll campaign, whipped up anti-Congress sentiment among minorities by projecting the ruling party as one that had been exploiting minorities in the name of protecting them.

With his detractors within the party falling by the wayside, Tarun Gogoi, who assumed office for the second consecutive term, has emerged stronger but faces a new challenge of running a coalition government and winning back the confidence of minorities.

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