ASSAM: Alliance trouble

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

Extremist groups launch a violent campaign against the Asom Gana Parishad-Bharatiya Janata Party combine even as the Congress(I) rises to a position of advantage.

WITH the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) resorting to attacks on select candidates and campaigners of practically all political parties, the pre-poll situation in Assam provided an alarming picture. Already 18 political workers, including the official candidate of the BJP in Dibrugarh constituency, Jayanta Dutta, have been killed by ULFA militants since the poll process for the 126-member Assembly started in early April. The ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), another extremist group operating in the Bodo-dominated region of Lower Assam, have been terrorising voters and party workers in their effort to enforce a poll boycott.

The Centre has sent an additional contingent of paramilitary forces to the State in view of the spurt in violence. Additional units of the Army have been deployed in vulnerable areas to undertake counter-militancy operations and to seal the international border with Bhutan in order to check armed infiltration. Security has been stepped up at all vital installations and in certain areas of Kamrup district and in Nalbari, Naogaon, Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts of Lower Assam. Logistically, ULFA enjoys some advantages in Lower Assam. Its cadres can strike at will and then disappear into sanctuaries in nearby Bhutan. Moreover its new-found ally, the NDFB, is always at hand to help in ground-level operations and to provide information.

ULFA and the NDFB are particularly angry with the ruling Asom Gana Parishad for severing its ties with the Left parties, which were a partners of the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led coalition government, and allying with the BJP. The extremist outfits backed up their violent campaign against the AGP-BJP electoral alliance with a dictate to the people not to vote for the ruling AGP-BJP combine. ULFA, through an editorial in its mouthpiece Freedom, launched a veiled campaign against the BJP, which it said was spewing the "venom of communalism" in Assamese society. It described the AGP as the "local collaborator" of the BJP, adding that "the people now feel that these local collaborators should be dumped in such a manner that history will have little chance even to condemn them."

The direct attack on the AGP-BJP alliance might have prompted Union Home Minister L.K. Advani to remark during his campaign in Assam that "there is a Congress(I)-ULFA link" and that the Congress(I) should stop encouraging the militant group. Ruling out a ceasefire with ULFA, he said the AGP-BJP alliance would make a winning combination to rule Assam for the next five years.

Reacting sharply to Advani's comments, Kamal Nath, All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) observer for Assam, stated that the statement linking the party to ULFA was unbecoming of a Union Home Minister. He said the recent attacks on AGP workers were a result of the conspiracy of the AGP-BJP combine to divert people's attention from the AGP's misrule and to win the sympathy vote.

The AGP and BJP camps are in disarray, faced as they are with an open revolt by the rank and file over the conditions agreed to in the formation of the alliance. While some prominent AGP leaders joined the Congress(I), Hiranya Bhattacharya, founder-member of the State BJP, resigned from the party in protest against the alliance and floated a new party, the Asom Bharatiya Janata Party (ABJP), at an impressive rally on April 11 at Nalbari. Hundreds of BJP workers and supporters attended the Nalbari conference to welcome Bhattacharya's move. BJP workers staged violent demonstrations in the district. The State party office in Guwahati was ransacked for three consecutive days, and slogans were raised against Advani and the party's State organising secretary V. Sateesh. Protesting against the way in which the AGP president and Chief Minister Mahanta had allocated seats, Pradhan Barua, party legislator from Jonai, joined the Congress(I). Sericulture Minister Ramendra Narayan Kalita has extended his support to Barua although he has not formally broken his links with the party. Barua is reported to have mobilised a sizable section of AGP leaders and activists to work for the Congress(I) in the elections. Dissidents in the BJP are angry that the party has been allotted constituencies that are in the Congress(I) bastion and hence unwinnable. In 10 of these costituencies, the AGP and the BJP have agreed to have "friendly contests", further reducing the BJP's chances. The arrangement has also rendered the prospects of some sitting AGP MLAs uncertain.

THE Congress(I), which was initially worried about the impact of the AGP-BJP alliance, is now jubilant. With the bickerings in the party over the allocation of seats having ended, the Congress(I) has put itself in a comfortable position. As the main Opposition party in the State, the Congress(I) is likely to make major gains from the revolts in the rival camps. (Political observers attribute the AGP's sudden decision to dissociate itself from the Left parties and woo the BJP to its fear of the rising strength of the Congress(I). The Congress(I) won 34 seats in the 1996 Assembly elections. And in the three Lok Sabha elections held in 1996, 1998 and 1999, it steadily increased its tally to five, nine and 10 respectively. In sharp contrast, the AGP did not win a single seat in the 1998 and 1999 elections.

This time the Congress(I) is contesting all the 126 seats. The AGP is contesting 82 seats and the BJP 44 (including 10 "friendly" contests with the AGP). From its own quota, the AGP has allotted some seats to the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the Bodo Peoples' Action Committee (BPAC). The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Sharad Pawar is a new entrant in the poll arena. It is contesting 54 seats, and some local political groups with which it has formed a front have put up candidates for 11 seats. The Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Samajwadi Party are contesting under the banner of the People's Front. The Front has put up candidates in 43 constituencies.

The anti-incumbency factor is also likely to spoil the AGP's chances. The track record of the AGP government is unsatisfactory: it failed to tackle the insurgency problem and end the deterioration of law and order; financial mismanagement has resulted in an empty treasury; the government failed to attract investors; and the unemployment figure has risen to 1.5 million.

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