Tough battle

Published : Apr 08, 2011 00:00 IST

The ruling Congress hopes to pull off another victory in the two-phase Assembly elections scheduled to be held on April 4 and 11.

in Guwahati

DISSIDENCE and a series of resignations over the selection of candidates have overshadowed the election campaign of the ruling Congress and the two main opposition parties, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The elections in the State will be held on April 4 and 11 to elect a 126-member Assembly.

If the Congress pulls off another victory, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi will make history as the second Chief Minister after Bimala Prasad Chaliha to occupy the seat for three consecutive terms. The ruling party is pinning its hopes on the sops it has given people yarn, blankets, medicated mosquito nets, bicycles, cash assistance of Rs.3,000 to farmers and hike in the salaries of State government employees and the infrastructure projects and schemes it has initiated for rural development and improvement in public health and education over the past 10 years. The party went on an overdrive to publicise the existence of a pro-incumbency factor in view of its development programmes.

The Congress hopes to reap the dividends of bringing all the insurgent organisations, barring the anti-talks factions of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), to the negotiating table. It sees this as a major achievement in helping improve the law and order situation in Assam. The State had witnessed bloodshed for three decades following insurgent activities and counter-insurgency operations. While the Congress draws strength from the steps it has taken for the overall development of the State, it faces the tough challenge of containing dissidence, which has the potential to mar the party's prospects.

After sharing power for five terms, the Congress and the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) have decided not to have an alliance this time. But they are understood to have agreed on a post-poll alliance for government formation. The BPF has decided to contest in 15 constituencies outside the area coming under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which is its stronghold. The BPF won 11 seats in the 2006 elections.

AGP's calculations

The AGP, which has faced successive defeats, in the elections to the Assembly, the Lok Sabha, the local bodies and autonomous councils, is trying all permutations and combinations to make a breakthrough this time. The regional party believes that there is a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress-BPF coalition because of rampant corruption and failure on all fronts, and hopes to ride on this wave to recapture power.

The return of the two-time Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta to the party's fold and the merger of his AGP (Progressive) and the Trinamool Gana Parishad (TGP) with the parent party have bolstered the AGP's hopes of victory. In 2006, the AGP (Progressive) and the TGP, led by former Minister Atul Bora and former Speaker Pulakesh Barua, contested against each other. Another small regional party, Purbanchaliya Loka Parishad (PLP), has also merged with the AGP.

The AGP lobbied hard to form a grand alliance of all opposition parties as an extension of the floor coordination among them inside the Assembly. This Assembly-level unity helped build a strong anti-Congress campaign across the State and corner the Congress government on the issue of corruption, particularly the alleged Rs.1,000-crore scam in the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council (the erstwhile North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council). To take this further, the AGP announced that it would not field any candidate in constituencies held by the other four opposition parties the BJP, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). However, all the four parties rejected the grand alliance formula.

The two Left parties have given a call to defeat the Congress and the BJP. They hoped that the AGP, after snapping its ties with the BJP, would take the lead in forming a tie-up with the left, democratic and secular parties to defeat the Congress and the BJP. This did not happen.

The AGP's argument in favour of the grand alliance, as put forward by party president Chandra Mohan Patowary, was that the Congress secured only 31.08 per cent of the votes in 2006, while the combined votes of the other parties was a little less than 70 per cent. However, an analysis of previous Assembly election results shows that this argument is erroneous. Moreover, election outcomes are not based only on simple arithmetic. In 2001, the Congress secured 65 seats when its vote share was 29.32 per cent. In 2006, although the Congress' vote share increased to 31.08 per cent, the number of seats it won decreased to 53.

Although the BJP and the AIUDF also rejected the grand alliance formula and decided to go it alone, insiders in the BJP and the AGP say that an understanding has been reached between these parties to field lightweights in some constituencies to avoid the division of anti-Congress votes.

This secret deal triggered resignations by several top leaders from both parties on the grounds that weak candidates had been fielded at the cost of strong and winnable candidates. When the AGP and the BJP struck a seat-sharing deal for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, with the latter as the bigger partner, they had agreed to continue the alliance for the 2011 Assembly elections with a reversal of roles. Accordingly, the AGP should have got higher number of seats this time. However, the AGP general house decided to snap the party's ties with the BJP on the grounds that the tie-up for the Lok Sabha elections did not help the regional party although the BJP benefitted from it.

The BJP increased its tally to four from two in 2004, while the AGP's number declined from two in 2004 to one. Emboldened by its performance in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP claims that the party will play a crucial role in the formation of the next government in Assam. However, although there has been a gradual increase in the BJP's vote share in the State, the number of seats it has won in the Assembly elections has not crossed 10.

The AGP has reached a seat-sharing agreement with the Bodoland People's Progressive Front (BPPF) and the Sanmilita Ganashakti. The two parties have been allotted six and two seats respectively. The AGP's decision to allot the river-island constituency of Majuli to the Sanmilita Ganashakti has fuelled rebellion in the party.

Disgruntled AGP and BJP workers vandalised the parties' offices in Guwahati to register their protest against the choice of candidates. Several top AGP leaders, including two former Ministers Jatin Mali and Zoiinath Sarmah, resigned from the party along with the respective local units to form new parties; the lone Lok Sabha member, Joseph Toppo, has decided to back an independent candidate against the party's official nominee in the Dhekiajuli Assembly constituency, which is a segment of the Tezpur parliamentary constituency. Arun Sarma, former AGP MP and senior leader, quit the steering committee to protest against the choice of former Minister Utpal Dutta for the Lakhimpur constituency.

The AGP received the first jolt when one of its general secretaries and former president of the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), Sarbananda Sonowal, quit the party and joined the BJP. One of the reasons he cited for his resignation was the AGP's tie-up with the AIUDF. He pointed out that the AIUDF (erstwhile Assam United Democratic Front) was formed following the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, in 2005 by the Supreme Court on a petition filed by Sonowal himself challenging the Act. He said the AGP had always opposed the IM(DT) Act as a piece of legislation that protected illegal Bangladeshi migrants and was a stumbling block to the exercise of detecting foreigners, deleting of their names from the voters' list and expelling them, and to the upholding of the Assam Accord.

AIUDF president Badruddin Ajmal told mediapersons that the party would back Prafulla Kumar Mahanta if he decided to contest from the Samaguri constituency, where polling is scheduled to take place in the second phase, against Rockybul Hussain, the Minister for Environment and Forests.

In the 2006 elections, the BJP contested 125 seats and won 10 and secured 11.98 per cent of the votes; the Congress contested 120 seats, won 53 and secured 31.08 per cent of the votes; the AGP contested 100 seats, won 24 and secured 20.39 per cent of the votes; the AIUDF contested 69, won 10 and secured 9.03 per cent of the vote share; the CPI(M) contested 16, won two and secured 1.48 per cent of the votes; the CPI contested nine, won one and secured 1.02 per cent of the votes.

The AIUDF's debut electoral performance in 2006 caused severe erosion in the traditional Congress base among immigrant Muslim voters and as a result the Congress fell 11 seats short of the magic number and had to fall back on the BPF and independents for government formation. This time, the AIUDF does not have a strong emotive ground to retain the support of the immigrant Muslim voters and so has been forced to depend on what it believes is a strong anti-incumbency factor working against the Congress.

The initiation of peace talks with the ULFA had raised hopes of return of peace in the insurgency-ravaged State and the prospect of the elections not being held under the shadow of the gun. But two recent incidents have made the Election Commission's task of holding a free and fair election and providing security for the leaders and candidates of political parties a little difficult.

In the first instance, the anti-talks faction of the ULFA led by its self-styled commander-in-chief Paresh Barua launched a bomb attack on the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee headquarters in Guwahati on March 14, injuring three office-bearers. In the second, an ambush by the Ranjan Daimary faction of the NDFB on a Border Security Force (BSF) patrolling party killed eight jawans. An equal number of jawans were injured in Ultapani forest in Lower Assam's Kokrajhar district.

The Paresh Barua faction, claiming responsibility for the bomb attack, has threatened more attacks on the Congress. This has triggered a bitter war of words between the Congress on the one hand and the AGP and the BJP on the other. Tarun Gogoi accused the AGP and the BJP of taking the support of the Paresh Barua faction for the elections. The opposition parties not only refuted the charge but also levelled a counter-allegation that it was the Congress that had taken the support of the ULFA in the past to win elections. The developments so far give an indication that the State is poised for an interesting but tough electoral battle.

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