Assam records a heavy turnout in a closely contested election in which a number of factors come into play. By Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahatiin Guwahati
ASSAM recorded an overall turnout of 76.03 per cent in a closely contested two-phase Assembly election held on April 4 and 11. The turnout was higher 78.60 per cent in the 64 Assembly constituencies where polling was held on April 11. The turnout on April 4 was 73.11 per cent. In the previous Assembly election the turnout was 75.72 per cent and in the 2009 Lok Sabha election it was 69.60 per cent.
The ruling Congress has high stakes in the 62 seats of upper Assam, northern Assam and the Barak valley, where polling was held in the first phase, as it won 35 of them in the previous election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won nine seats and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) eight. In the 64 seats that went to the polls in the second phase, both the Congress and the AGP have almost equal stakes. The Congress won 18 seats and the AGP 17 in 2006. The BJP, which got only one seat, is desperate to achieve a breakthrough this time.
The Congress, the AGP and the BJP cannot expect a dramatic improvement in their electoral achievements in lower and central Assam, except some seats wrested from one another, because of the presence of two other important players the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The BPF, the coalition partner of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government, won 11 seats last time. The AIUDF, led by the perfume mogul Badruddin Ajmal, won 10 seats (including seven in lower and central Assam) in its debut electoral performance and prevented the Congress from securing a majority. Its presence caused heavy erosion in the Congress vote base among immigrant Muslim settlers. As in 2006, the Bodo- and minority-dominated constituencies in these areas witnessed a very high turnout of 80 to 90 per cent this time too.
The minority-dominated Mancachar constituency in Dhubri district recorded the highest turnout of 90.50 per cent. Gauhati (East), which is the only urban constituency comprising areas in the heart of Guwahati city, recorded the lowest turnout of 56.34 per cent. The polling was by and large peaceful barring some stray incidents of clashes between voters and security personnel and group clashes between supporters of various parties and candidates. Re-polling was held in 16 polling stations where polling had to be stopped because of clashes or snags in the electronic voting machines or following complaints that the presiding officer was canvassing for a particular party or candidate.
The government's efforts to engage the insurgent groups, barring a few factions, in a peace dialogue was an important contributing factor that contributed to the good turnout as the truce facilitated a high-voltage electioneering, enabling people's participation in the electoral process.
With the fate of all the 981 candidates, including 85 women, sealed in electronic voting machines, the political parties are busy making calculations on the basis of the feedback from party workers, media projections and post-poll surveys. Tarun Gogoi is confident of his party doing a hat-trick. He claimed, a day after the final phase of polling, that the Congress would get at least 63 seats and would form the government in coalition with the BPF, whose chief, Hagrama Mahilary, also expressed confidence about the coalition returning to power. In 2006, the Congress secured 53 seats, 11 short of a majority, and met the shortfall with the support of the BPF.
The AGP and the BJP are also exuding confidence that a non-Congress government will come to power in the State. They are banking on the BPF's support to see their dream come true. The AGP claimed that it had received a spontaneous response as the electorate wanted a change of government because of the rampant corruption during the past 10 years of Congress rule.
However, much will depend on the performance of the AIUDF and that of the Congress in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas. The AIUDF secured only one seat less than the BPF in 2006. Gogoi chose to take the support of the Bodo political party in order to project his party as a strong opponent of the AIUDF. The latter is seen by the majority indigenous Assamese and ethnic groups as a party championing the cause of Bengali-speaking immigrant Muslim settlers, despite the fact that the 10 AIUDF legislators in the outgoing Assembly included two Hindus and though the party has been fielding Assamese and tribal candidates. Such a perception is attributed to the fact that the AIUDF (formerly Assam United Democratic Front) was formed to protest against the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, by the Supreme Court in 2005. The Act was seen by the majority Assamese and tribal groups as a hurdle in the identification and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The majority tribal groups view them as encroachers.
If the AIUDF gets more seats this time, it might upset the power equilibrium to the disadvantage of Gogoi. It has ruled out joining the BJP as a coalition partner, and has, thereby, kept the options open for joining a Congress-led or an AGP-led government.
The power tussle between Gogoi and Pradesh Congress Committee president Bhubaneswar Kalita was a major reason why the Congress could not arrive at any understanding with the BPF. Apart from the 12 seats falling under the BTC, ruled by the BPF, the Bodo party has fielded candidates in 17 other seats. The BPF is expected to influence the outcome of the election and may even cause upsets in a number of these 17 seats, which have sizable Bodo votes. Kalita led an aggressive campaign against the BPF even though Mahilary campaigned for Congress candidates in upper Assam. This prompted Mahilary to announce that the BPF would not extend support to the Congress if Kalita was chosen as Chief Minister. He said it would only support a Congress government formed by Gogoi.
The differences between Gogoi and Kalita came out in the open in the run-up to the second phase of polling with Gogoi maintaining that the Congress and the BPF were engaged in friendly contests and that the BPF would continue to be a coalition partner though the Congress would be able to form a government on its own. Kalita maintained that there had been no electoral alliance with the BPF, and the question of who would be the next Chief Minister would be decided by party legislators and the high command.KINGMAKERS
Both the BPF and the AIUDF are trying to emerge as kingmakers. A fractured verdict will throw up several possibilities. If the Congress emerges as the single largest party, there is the possibility of another Congress-BPF coalition government. However, in that case the combined strength of both the parties will have to be either the same as in 2006 or close to that. Another possibility is the Congress and the AIUDF forming a coalition government.
Yet another possibility is a Congress-BPF-AIUDF government. If the AIUDF, by winning more seats, emerges as either the lone kingmaker or one of the kingmakers, the chances of Gogoi becoming the second leader after Bimala Prasad Chaliha to become the Chief Minister of Assam three times in succession will be less.
Badruddin Ajmal sees Gogoi as a major hurdle in his party getting a share of the power pie. He stated his strong anti-Gogoi position at election rallies when he asked: Who is Tarun Gogoi? During the run-up to the 2006 elections, Gogoi indulged in similar rhetoric when he asked, Who is Badruddin? Gogoi also resisted an electoral alliance with the AIUDF even as some Congress leaders lobbied hard for it in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. This made Gogoi popular among a sizable section of the majority Assamese voters, among whom the AGP has had a strong base since 1985.
If the combined strength of the AGP and the BJP touches the figure of 50, it will open up the possibility of new power equations, and in such a situation the BPF can be expected to play a crucial role. It is an anxious wait until May 13 for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) to find out if the response they received during electioneering has actually been translated into votes. The CPI(M) won two seats and the CPI one in 2006.
The 2011 election will not only be crucial for Gogoi, but decide the political fate of a number of heavyweights, like former Chief Minister and Leader of the Opposition Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, AGP president Chandra Mohan Patowary and State BJP president Ranjit Dutta, and several present and former Ministers. For these leaders it is not just their individual victory that matters; their political fate is dependent on the overall poll outcome and the performance of their parties.
Mahanta is the only candidate to have contested from two seats Barhampur, which he represents, and Samaguri, where he contested against Environment and Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain. Barhampur recorded a 72.37 per cent turnout, while Samaguri, which drew wide attention because of the high-profile contest between two political heavyweights, recorded a high turnout of 83.54 per cent.
The political parties are making tall claims about the election outcome. But making a prediction is not easy as it was a very closely contested election with multiple factors at play.