Messages from the States

Print edition : March 21, 1998
BARUN DAS GUPTA

Total seats 14Asom Gana Parishad 0Congress(I) 10United Minorities Front 1BJP 1Autonomous State Demand Committee 1Independents 1

THE Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has the dubious distinction of being the only constituent party of the United Front that could not win a single seat in the Lok Sabha elections. It was wiped out; worse still, it finished third in as many as eight seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party emerged as the main rival to the Congress(I) which won 10 of the 14 seats.

The AGP's only Minister with Cabinet rank at the Centre, Minister for Steel and Mines Birendra Prasad Baishya, was defeated in Mangaldoi. He polled only 1.22 lakh votes against Congress(I) candidate Madhav Rajbanshi's 2.78 lakh votes and BJP candidate Munindra Singh Lahkar's 1.48 lakh votes.

The only serious setback the Congress(I) suffered was the defeat of its heavyweight, former Minister for Steel Santosh Mohan Deb, in Silchar at the hands of the BJP. Although it was the only seat the BJP won in Assam, its candidate Kabindra Purkayastha is already being called the "giant killer". Santosh Mohan Deb lost by a margin of over 21,000 votes.

Among the prominent Congress(I) winners are two former Union Ministers, Paban Singh Ghatowar (Dibrugarh) and Tarun Gogoi (Koliabor) who is also the Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president. Congress(I) candidate Nripen Goswami defeated Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta's wife Jayashree Goswami Mahanta in Nagaon. The party's Bijoy Krishna Handique won the Jorhat seat. The Congress(I)'s ally, the United Minorities Front (UMF), won the Barpeta seat, defeating the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Uddhab Barman, who had been returned from there twice. The UMF winner, A.F. Golam Osmani, a barrister, belongs to the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley but has made the Brahmaputra Valley his field of political activity.

The Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), which is based in the two hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar, won the Autonomous(S.T.) seat, while an Independent, Sansuma Khunggur Bwismutiary, won the Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar seat.

THE AGP's rout was caused by several factors. The first is the ruling party's failure on the development front, be it in the repairing of roads including the national highways which are in a pitiable state, or in the creation of jobs, or in attracting entrepreneurs to set up industries. The second is a definite swing of the Muslim vote in favour of the Congress(I). The AGP has lost whatever support it had from the minority community. Mohammad Sanaullah, a Congress(I) campaigner, said that the primary concern of the minorities was to prevent the BJP from coming to power at the Centre and as this could be done only by the Congress(I), they decided to vote for the Congress(I). The atrocities committed by the security forces in the rural areas in the course of anti-insurgency operations have also alienated large sections of the rural masses from the AGP.

The United Liberation Front for Asom's (ULFA) poll boycott call and threat that anyone who took part in the electoral process in any way would face "dire consequences" also went against the AGP and helped the Congress(I) and the BJP. It is well-known that the real target of ULFA. was the AGP.

In fact, PCC chief Tarun Gogoi said after the elections that neither he nor his party had faced any threat or obstruction from ULFA. He alleged that the AGP was blaming ULFA only to explain away its defeat. Going by the overall results, it seems that even without an ULFA threat, the AGP would not have fared well. This is perhaps evidenced by the fact that there was an 80 per cent voter turnout, despite the ULFA threat, in Majuli where AVARD-NE secretary Sanjay Ghose was killed by ULFA activists in July last year. In Chief Minister Mahanta's home district of Nagaon, his wife came third despite a high voter turnout.

AGP leaders are still reeling under the impact of the stunning defeat. They blame ULFA for the defeat and insinuate that there was a conspiracy between a section of Union Home Ministry officials, the Congress(I) and ULFA "so that the Congress(I) could have an easy victory". This explanation, however, is too far-fetched to convince anyone.

What impact will the defeat have on the stability of the State Government? The question is pertinent because even before the elections former Home Minister Bhrigu Phukan and his associate, former Education Minister Brindaban Goswami, had challenged Mahanta's leadership. Minister for Public Works Atul Bora has made it clear that he is "ready and willing"to take over the leadership of the party and the Government. The decimation of the party at the hustings, particularly the defeat of Jayashree Mahanta, whom the Chief Minister fielded in spite of opposition from some leaders, has become a weapon against Mahanta.

However, party insiders do not agree with this view. They say that the party's crushing defeat has made it impossible for anyone in the party to point an accusing finger at any other. For instance, as many as seven MLAs from the Assembly segments in the prestigious Guwahati Lok Sabha constituency are in positions of power. Four are Cabinet Ministers, including Atul Bora. Two are Ministers of State and one is the Deputy Speaker of the Assembly. "How can Bora hold Mahanta solely responsible for the debacle when in his own area (Guwahati) the party's candidate came third?" asks a colleague of the Chief Minister.

Even so, there is an element of uncertainty about the future of the Government. Tarun Gogoi has demanded the immediate dissolution of the State Assembly and the holding of fresh elections. He said that the Congress(I) did not want to come to power through the backdoor. The obvious conclusion is that if the Assembly is not dissolved for a front-door entry of the Congress(I), the party may try other methods.

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