An alliance of convenience

Print edition : April 14, 2001

The Asom Gana Parishad breaks ranks with its coalition partners in the State government to forge an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

WITH the ruling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) severing its ties with the Left parties and finalising a seat-sharing deal with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political scene in Assam on the eve of the May 10 Assembly elections presents an altogether different picture. The AGP, which won 63 of the total of 126 seats in the May 1996 Assembly elections, was running the government with the support of the Left parties. While the United People's Party of Assam (now the Samajwadi Party), with one MLA, and the Communist Party of India, with three MLAs, had their representatives in the Ministry, two other alliance partners, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Autonomous State Demand Commi-ttee (ASDC), supported the government from the outside. The CPI(M) has two seats and the ASDC five in the Assembly. The position of the AGP government led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was strengthened when a Bodo formation, the People's Democratic Front (PDF), with five legislators decided to support it. The Congress(I), the principal Opposition party, won 34 seats.

Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.-V. SUDERSHAN

Political observers felt that the sudden change in AGP strategy could be attributed to its fear of the rising strength of the Congress(I) in the State. While the Congress(I) won nine of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the October 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the AGP failed to win even a single seat. The Congress(I) has ruled the State for the longest period since 1952. It lost to the AGP in the 1985 Assembly elections held immediately after the Assam Accord was signed in the wake of a violent anti-foreigner agitation which lasted from 1979 to 1985. However, the Congress(I) returned to power in 1991 and ruled the State until 1996.

Earlier, the AGP's efforts to have a truck with the BJP had failed owing to stiff opposition from the BJP's State unit. The BJP State unit was of the view that the "growing popularity of the BJP in Assam" would be affected if it aligned with the AGP, which had the anti-incumbency factor going against it. Following this, the AGP, in a resolution adopted at its Naogaon conclave in February, had said that the party would continue its anti-BJP stance because the BJP was a communal party. The BJP, on the other hand, had declared that it would fight the AGP on the corruption issue. That the BJP initially declined the AGP's offer of an alliance was evident from the statement made by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta after a meeting with West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in Calcutta on March 28. Mahanta said that the AGP did not want to have any arrangement with the BJP and that it wanted to be part of the Lok Morcha (People's Front) at the national level.

However, after having turned down an offer of alliance from the AGP, the BJP suddenly changed its stance and agreed to talk to the AGP. The BJP is reported to have done this after Mahanta met Home Minister L.K. Advani in Delhi on March 31 and told him that the Congress(I) was better placed to form the next government in Assam. Advani immediately called the State BJP leaders and talks between the two parties were resumed.

Uday Hazarika, State secretary of the BJP, told Frontline that after considering various political factors the party finally decided to join hands with the AGP only to prevent the Congress(I) from coming to power. Moreover, the Bodo groups led by the All Bodo Students Union had suggested that the AGP and the BJP come together in order to prevent a division in the anti-Congress(I) votes. In that event, other groups of tribal people would also back the two parties and all of them together could pose a challenge to the Congress(I). The Bodo groups would like to see friendly governments both at the Centre and in the State so that they could pursue their goals, Hazarika said.

Tarun Gogoi, president of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

With the formal decision to go for an alliance with the BJP, the AGP has claimed a share of 80 out of the 126 seats. According to the AGP's formula, the BJP will field candidates in 28 to 30 constituencies (the BJP won four seats in the 1996 Assembly elections and two seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections) and the rest of the seats will be distributed among the All Bodo Students' Union-supported independent candidates and the Holiram Terang faction of Autonomous State Demand Committee. After the alliance was finalised, AGP president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta sent the party's vice-president Biraj Sarma and general secretary Pradip Hazarika to New Delhi to initiate talks with BJP general secretaries Narendra Modi and Sunil Shastry to work out a seat-sharing formula. Apart from its 63 sitting seats, the AGP will field candidates in the six constituencies which were won by its former allies, the CPI, the CPI(M) and the Samajwadi Party. The AGP would also contest in 11 other constituencies where it had won when it first contested the elections in 1985.

Interestingly, even after the alliance with the BJP was formalised, the AGP seemed to fight shy of naming the BJP as its electoral ally. It preferred to refer to the BJP as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Chief Minister Mahanta said that although his party was confident of forming the next government, he was willing to ally with the NDA in order to wipe out the Congress(I) from the State. He said the AGP would continue to promote secularism no matter which party it forged an alliance with.

WITH the resignation of Flood Control Minister Promode Gogoi of the CPI and the Irrigation Minister Abdul Muhib Majumdar of the Samajwadi Party from the State Cabinet, the ruling four-party alliance has broken down. On being asked whether their parties were considering an alliance with the Congress(I), Gogoi and Majumdar said that such a possibility could not be ruled out. While Gogoi said that the Congress(I) was a secular party, Majumdar said his party was supporting the Congress(I)-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra to keep the BJP out of power. They said that a similar formula could be worked out in Assam.

Meanwhile, the Congress(I) is ready for an electoral alliance with the Left, other regional parties and groups opposed to the AGP-BJP alliance. "Whoever goes with the BJP either directly or indirectly, will not get the votes of the minorities. And Assam is a State where the minorities, both religious and linguistic, play a decisive role in the elections," said Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president Tarun Gogoi. He claimed that the Congress would make a clean sweep in the elections. The Congress(I) was sure about getting the direct support of the United Minority Front (UMF), Gogoi said.

Promode Gogoi of the CPI who resigned from the State Ministry.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

With only weeks left for the elections, political parties are busy wooing the crucial minority vote bank. According to the 1991 Census, Muslims account for 28 per cent of Assam's population and cannot be ignored by any party. In the last elections, the AGP-led four-party alliance had managed to get 10 candidates belonging to the Muslim community elected. This time, however, the figure might come down, owing to the AGP's alliance with the BJP. The Jamait-e-Ulema-e-Hind, a major Muslim organisation, has pledged support to the Congress(I).

The reported sharp fall in the rate of growth of population of Assam has gladdened minority organisations. The All Assam Students Union (ASSU), which has been spearheading a movement against illegal infiltration into Assam from Bangladesh, described the Provisional Census Report, 2001, as a positive gain. The report puts the rate of growth of population in Assam at 18.85 per cent. The 1991 Census had revealed a growth rate of 24.24 per cent over the previous decade and it was attributed mainly to a large-scale influx from Bangladesh.

UMF president H.R.A. Chowdhury said that the report had proved wrong the contention that infiltration into Assam continued unabated. "We have been saying that the rate of infiltration was not as alarming as was being made out to be by some quarters including the Assam Governor. Now, we have been proved right," he said.

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