On predictable lines

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

An unpopular government and a contrived alliance ensure the defeat of the Asom Gana Parishad.

OF all the four States that went to the polls this time, the verdict in Assam looked the easiest to predict. Ever since it returned to power after the 1996 Assembly elections, the Asom Gana Parishad's (AGP) popularity graph had been taking a nosedive. One did not need much psephology to read the verdict of the Lok Sabha elections of 1998 and 1999 in Assam. The ruling party drew a blank in both the elections. In the 1999 elections, the AGP led in only seven of the 126 segments and its vote-share slumped to 12 per cent. A non-entity like the Bharatiya Janata Party had overtaken the AGP as the second major party, securing 30 per cent of the votes and taking a lead in 33 Assembly segments. The Congress(I) was of course on a comeback trail, with 38 per cent of the votes and a lead in 65 Assembly segments. Nothing seemed to be going right for the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government: it faced a series of allegations of corruption and Mahanta's colleagues Bhrigu Kumar Phukan and Atul Bora left him to form new parties. At the eleventh hour, Mahanta struck an alliance with the BJP. It was a non-starter. A humiliating defeat for the AGP and a sweep for the Congress(I) were almost certain.

However, among the four States, it was Assam that produced the closest verdict. Until most of the lead positions were known, it was not certain if the Congress(I) would secure a clear majority. Winning 70 seats, it has a comfortable majority in the Assembly; but it was not a sweeping victory one expected on the basis of the pre-election situation. The AGP and its allies won a respectable number of 40 seats and an impressive vote-share of 36 per cent. The Congress(I)'s vote-share was 40 per cent. Instead of thinking about why the Congress(I)'s tally stopped at 70, one begins to wonder how it could take such a big lead in terms of seats with a lead of a mere 4 percentage points over its rivals.

A part of this puzzle is purely a statistical deception. The vote-share of the AGP-led alliance is artificially inflated because it includes the votes of all their candidates even in seats where they fought against one another other. The alliance put up 139 candidates in the 125 constituencies that went to the polls. If one takes away the votes of the surplus candidates, who were in the fray for "friendly contests", the AGP alliance's vote-share comes down by 3 percentage points, widening the gap with the Congress(I)'s vote-share to 6 per cent. Besides, the calculation includes two Adivasi groups who were merely stapled to the alliance at the last moment. The Autonomous State Demand Committee (United), a faction that broke away from the Marxist-Leninist ASDC led by Haliram Terang, and the All Bodo Students Union-Bodo People's Action Committee (ABSU-BPAC) neither contributed to the alliance nor gained from it. The AGP and the BJP have only 29 per cent of the popular vote. In the seats they contested, the vote-shares of the AGP and the BJP were only 32 and 26 per cent respectively; the ABSU-BPAC candidates won 53 per cent of the votes on an average. In other words, there was effectively a gap of 10 percentage points between the Congress(I) and the AGP-BJP combine. In terms of seats too, the two Adivasi groups account for 12 of the 40 seats won by the alliance. It is not clear if these groups will continue their association with the AGP. The AGP and the BJP won only 20 and eight seats respectively. In effect, the tally should read 70-28 in the Congress(I)'s favour.

This calculation leaves out 27 seats and about 30 per cent of the vote. This is the space occupied by smaller parties and independents. Ever since the anti-foreigner movement in Assam started, the political space in the State has fragmented rapidly. The movement gave expression to Ahomia nationalism; at the same time it triggered various sub-regional and ethnic aspirations that found expression through small parties. It also meant that a large number of small players entered the Assembly and played an important role. These include the ASDC(U), the ABSU-BPAC, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP, basically a regional outfit headed by Sharat Chandra Sinha under whose symbol Bhrigu Phukan's Asom Jatiya Sammilan (AJS) contested the elections), the Trinamul Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Samata Party. The Left parties, once a force to reckon with, faced a wipe-out. Besides the Congress(I) and the AGP-BJP alliance, two other fronts were in the fray. The entry of the nine-party Regional Democratic Alliance (RDA), which included mainly the NCP and the AJS, and the Left-led 'Fourth' front, which included the S.P. besides the CPI and the CPI(M), turned this round of elections into a multi-cornered affair in most of the seats.

The Congress(I) won mostly at the expense of the AGP. It wrested 40 seats from the AGP and its allies and retained 25. Compared to the Lok Sabha election verdict in 1999, it won 15 of the 33 Assembly segments where the BJP had a lead. Most of its gains came from the AGP's home turf in Lower Assam. The Congress(I) won 25 of the 50 seats in this region, a gain of 19 over the last Assembly elections and 10 Assembly segments over the Lok Sabha elections of 1999. The Congress(I) inflicted a humiliating defeat on the AGP in the latter's strongholds in Kamrup and Nalbari districts, winning 13 seats. The Congress(I) did not win any seat in this region in the 1996 elections. The Bodo belt in this area voted entirely for ABSU-BPAC candidates.

Upper Assam, which has 56 seats, is a traditional stronghold of the Congress(I). It won 37 seats here (the same number of Assembly segments it led in the Lok Sabha elections of 1999), 14 more than the 1996 tally. But it could not sweep the region as it used to. The AGP-BJP alliance put up some resistance in Sonitpur and Nagaon districts but the Congress(I) swept Sibsagar district. In 1991, it got 44 of its 66 seats from Upper Assam, with Lower Assam contributing only 17. Now the party's performance in these two regions is balanced and Congressmen from Lower Assam demand more ministerial berths.

The verdict is evenly split in the southern region of the Barak Valley. This comprises the three regions of the Barak Valley proper, where the BJP opened its account, and Karbi-Anglong. The BJP had won four seats in the 1996 election here, before expanding its presence other parts of the State. The Congress(I) defeated the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections of 1999 by winning 14 seats in this region but could not repeat the performance this time. The AGP-BJP alliance matched the Congress(I)'s minority vote by means of an anti-minorities mobilisation. The Congress(I) saved its position by gaining three seats in the Karbi-Anglong and Cachar Hills, largely owing to the split in the ASDC. The ASDC(P), led by Jayant Rongpi, lost to the ASDC(U) in the remaining two seats.

Assam's regional map is closely linked to its ethnic map. Upper Assam is predominantly a tea-growing area. Tea garden workers and their families of non-Ahomia origin have traditionally supported the Congress. Here, the Congress(I) secured 10 percentage points more than its State average but won only 19 out of the 28 seats. In 1991, the party won 27 seats here. In the 36 constituencies with a concentration of Muslim population (40 per cent or above) the Congress(I) won 19 seats this time, which is a loss of six seats when compared to the number of Assembly segments in which it had a lead in the Lok Sabha elections of 1999. The Congress(I) got an overwhelming 57 per cent of the vote among Muslims, but the AGP-BJP counter-mobilisation worked in 10 constituencies. The Congress(I) made up for these losses in areas where the Scheduled Tribes constituted more than 25 per cent of the population. Although it did not get a major chunk of the S.T. vote, it won eight seats in non-Bodo areas, a big gain as compared to the Assembly elections of 1991 and 1996 when it won only one seat. The AGP-BJP alliance was ahead of the Congress(I) among the caste-Hindu Ahomia voters, but that does not ensure victory in Assam where every community is a minority. The Congress(I) was the only party that enjoyed some support among all the minority groups, and thus it proved the natural winner.

What affected the AGP-BJP combine's prospects was the high level of unpopularity of the Mahanta government. Interestingly, AGP supporters themselves admitted this. A third of the voters (22 per cent of AGP supporters) were completely dissatisfied with the government, 41 per cent felt that it had done nothing to solve the problem of insurgency, and 71 per cent (72 per cent among AGP supporters) considered it corrupt. When it came to choosing between the Mahanta government and the previous Congress(I) government led by Hiteshwar Saikia, the verdict was 41-20 in favour of the Congress(I). One-fourth of AGP supporters felt that the Congress government was better.

The AGP tried to avoid defeat by entering into a last-minute alliance with the BJP. The basic arithmetic behind this strategy was simple: in the Lok Sabha elections of 1999, the AGP won 12 per cent votes and the BJP 30 per cent. The AGP calculated that by putting these votes together and by taking the support of some Adivasi groups, it could take on the Congress(I), which had 39 per cent of the votes in 1999. Had the votes polled by the AGP and the BJP in 1999 been added up, the alliance would have won 61 seats. The AGP-BJP alliance won only 21 of these seats, losing 34 to the Congress(I). It is clear that the alliance arithmetic did not work. The alliance was opposed and undermined by workers of both parties. The BJP split, with Hiranya Bhattacharya forming the Asom BJP.

The survey shows that the AGP and the BJP could persuade only 60 and 56 per cent respectively of their traditional supporters to vote for the alliance. The AGP lost its supporters owing to its poor performance in government, but the BJP lost its supporters only because of the alliance. Those who were still willing to vote for the AGP supported the alliance. But the BJP failed to transfer more than 30 per cent of its votes because of its supporters' resentment against the alliance. In response to a direct question, as many as 7 per cent of the State's voters said that they decided to vote against the AGP-BJP alliance because they were against the alliance. Clearly, besides its unpopularity the alliance was the most important factor in the AGP's defeat. But that does not mean that the AGP and the BJP would have done better if they had stayed apart. The responses to the question about their preference if there were no alliances show that the AGP would have increased its vote-share from 20 per cent to 22 per cent, a gain of 2 percentage points; the BJP would have gained 6 percentage points, taking it vote-share from 9 per cent to 15 per cent. But despite this gain in vote-share they would have got fewer seats because of triangular contests. It was a no-win situation for the AGP either way.

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