Peace-time promises

Print edition : April 22, 2011

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi (centre) arrives at a campaign rally of the Congress in Sivasagar on April 1. - PTI

In Assam, the Congress showcases 'development' while the opposition highlights corruption as the major issue.

DEVELOPMENT, touted by the Congress and its coalition partner, the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), and corruption, the poll plank of the opposition parties, dominated the campaign for the Assembly elections in Assam, scheduled for April 4 and April 11, overshadowing most other issues mentioned in the election manifestos.

A total of 981 candidates are in the fray for the 126 Assembly seats; 896 of them are men and only 85 are women. Star campaigners of the ruling Congress, the BPF, the opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) rushed around in helicopters to reach out to as many voters as they could.

While the ruling coalition highlighted the development that had taken place in the 10 years of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's rule, the AGP and BJP manifestos promised strong legislation to prevent corruption and punish corrupt Ministers, legislators and bureaucrats.

The BJP, whose stakes are not very high in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, focussed its attention on Assam. High-profile leaders of the party camped in the State for days together, leading a vigorous campaign in the Barak valley, where the party has a strong base, and in the Brahmaputra valley, where it has been trying to consolidate the gains it made in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. BJP president Nitin Gadkari, former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi were among its star campaigners.

The Congress matched the line-up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, party president Sonia Gandhi and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and two of his young colleagues, Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Environment and Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain, led an aggressive campaign, along with Pradesh Congress Committee president Bhubaneswar Kalita and former PCC president and party MP from the Dibrugarh Lok Sabha constituency, Paban Singh Ghatowar.

AICC general secretary and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh helped State leaders devise the election strategy.

The two ruling coalition partners did not reach any seat-sharing agreement, but BPF president and Chief Executive Member of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Hagrma Mahilary and other leaders of the party hopped from one election rally to another in a helicopter, appealing to Bodo and other tribal voters to vote for Congress candidates.

In the post-Emergency period, this is the first time that a ruling party in the State is seeking the mandate for a third consecutive term. The party highlighted its achievements in the development front the number of roads and bridges built, the new hospitals and health centres opened, free textbooks distributed, job cards issued, hikes made in the salaries of government employees, the greater financial assistance wrested from the Centre, and the turnaround in the economy rolling out statistics relating to the past 10 years, and drawing comparisons with the situation during AGP rule.

The AGP and the BJP countered this line by reminding voters that the Congress had been in power in the State for more than 50 years after Independence and must take the blame for its backwardness. They cited development indices of more developed States to drive home their point that Assam lagged behind these States.

The opposition's strongest weapon, however, was corruption. The issue was taken up well ahead of the election, in and outside the Assembly, as the opposition tried to corner the government over the alleged Rs.1,000-crore scam in southern Assam's Dima Hasao Autonomous Council (erstwhile North Cachar Hills) and corruption in the implementation of various Central government schemes and in the public distribution system.

However, campaigning on the issue prior to the announcement of the elections was carried out mostly through the media, so it reached primarily urban voters.

CPI(M) LEADER BRINDA Karat along with the party's State secretary Udhab Barma meets party supporters during an election rally in Ranagpara constituency in Sonitpur district on March 29.-PTI

A major worry for the Congress is how to regain the support of Muslim voters. Perfume mogul Badruddin Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) ate into the traditional Congress vote bank among immigrant Muslim settlers. Despite internal feuds and the defection of some of its leaders and legislators to the Congress, the AIUDF hopes to be able to play a key role in the formation of the next government.

In the 2006 Assembly elections, the AIUDF, contesting for the first time, secured 10 seats. The BPF secured 11 and was chosen by the Congress to be its coalition partner. This time the AIUDF hopes to get a share of the power pie if the Congress-BPF coalition falls short of the magic number of 64. There were enough indications from the Congress and the AIUDF that the two were ready for a post-election alliance despite their bitter rivalry in the run-up to the election.

In 2006, the AIUDF (then called the Assam United Democratic Front) played upon the fears among immigrant Muslim settlers in the wake of the scrapping of the Illegal Minorities (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, by the Supreme Court. It whipped up a strong anti-Congress campaign, accusing the ruling party of not having put up a strong legal fight to prevent the scrapping of the Act. This time, in the absence of a comparable emotive issue, the AIUDF is banking on the anti-incumbency factor and focussing on the lack of development in minority-dominated areas.

The Left parties had hoped for a secular opposition alliance led by the AGP. But it did not happen because the AGP vacillated over the issue and finally went in for a tie-up with the BJP. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the CPI(ML) reached a seat-sharing arrangement in 49 seats. In 2006, the Left won three seats, the CPI(M) two and the CPI one. The Left is trying to increase its strength in the Assembly this time. CPI(M) Polit Bureau members Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat and Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar led a meticulous Left campaign.

Insurgency and poll equations

Election rallies of all parties drew huge and enthusiastic crowds. Poll watchers say this was because it was the first election since 1991 that was being held at a time when almost all insurgent outfits were engaged in talks with the Central and State governments. The two notable exceptions are a faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) led by Paresh Barua and a faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) led by its founder chairman Ranjan Daimary, currently lodged in jail. All elections in the State after 1991 were held under the shadow of insurgency and violence, calls for election boycott and intimidation of candidates and party workers.

This time, too, Paresh Barua's faction of the ULFA tried to attract media attention by triggering a bomb blast at the Congress headquarters in Guwahati, called a bandh to oppose the Prime Minister's campaign visit and threatened more attacks on the Congress. But such tactics could not dampen the spirit of either Congress workers and supporters or the voters.

Paresh Barua's targeting of the Congress did, however, provoke bitter exchanges. Gogoi accused the AGP and the BJP of reaching an understanding with the ULFA faction. They, in turn, accused the Congress of having taken the ULFA's help in the past to win elections. The Congress also made the secret killing of relatives of ULFA leaders during the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government's tenure a major poll plank. It is a charge that the Congress has harped on through the 10 years of its rule.

FORMER CHIEF MINISTER Prafulla Kumar Mahanta with his wife, Jayashree Mahanta, and supporters after filing his nomination papers in Nagaon on March 24.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Mahanta and other AGP leaders such as party president Chandra Mohan Patowary, while denying the charge, promised a thorough probe into the alleged secret killings should they come to power. They accused the Congress of keeping the issue alive for political mileage. The BJP, too, promised a genuine probe into the secret killings.

The Congress, while continuing with its mantra development cannot wait for peace, showcased its government's success in bringing insurgent outfits to the negotiating table. Arun Jaitely, however, accused the Congress of initiating the dialogue with various outfits only for votes. Assam needs peace. For peace there has to be dialogue. But the dialogue should not be for vote, he said.

Poll freebies

The Congress-led government was generous with freebies such as blankets, medicated mosquito nets, bicycles and rice at Rs.6 a kg to BPL families. The AGP and the BJP said that the move exposed the government's claims of rapid progress and development.

But their own manifestoes also promised sops. The AGP promised rice at Rs.2 a kg to the poor and free health cards to students up to the university level. The BJP's promises included rice at Rs.3 a kg.

The opposition parties claimed that scams and corruption had contributed to a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. But in the absence of pre-poll alliances of opposition parties based on an agreed minimum programme, the voters were split in different camps, which seemed to put the ruling Congress and the BPF in an advantageous position.

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