Peaceful battle

Print edition : April 21, 2006

All political parties barring the ruling Congress have predicted a hung Assembly in Assam.

SUSHANTA TALUKDAR in Guwahati

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN Singh with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi at a press conference in Guwahati on April 1.-ANUPAMA NATH/AP

THE April 2006 Assembly elections in Assam were different from all elections in the past two decades on many counts. For the first time in at least 15 years, the polling booths did not witness violence or boycott calls from insurgent outfits.

That, however, does not seem to have made the way to Dispur any easier for the political parties. The ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went it alone. The major Opposition party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), could only work out seat adjustments with the Left parties and the Samajwadi Party; there was no alliance based on a common programme.

A split in the regional party, with the formation of a new party - AGP (Progressive) - by twice Chief Minister and former AGP president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, ahead of the polls made the battle more challenging for the AGP, which has projected its chief Brindaban Goswami as the chief ministerial candidate.

The Congress kept insisting that it was the party that "brought back peace and put the State on the path of progress". But it, too, faced a tough battle, with the Opposition making "corruption and misrule during the last five years" the major poll plank. Infighting, too, did not help its cause. In two traditional strongholds - the minorities belt and the tea belt - the Congress had a tough time defending itself.

The Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), a conglomerate of 20 religious and linguistic minorities led by State Jamiat Ulema-E Hind president Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal, posed a threat to the Congress base among religious minorities, especially the immigrant settlers in the Char areas. The Congress campaign in the minority belt was focussed on "protection of minorities" from harassment in the name of detection and deportation, an issue that the party has taken up in all parliamentary and Assembly elections in the past 23 years.

The Congress harped on how, after the Supreme Court repealed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, the United Progressive Alliance government amended the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964 to ensure that "genuine Indian citizens" were not harassed. At election rallies, the refrain of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and prominent Muslim leaders of the party was: "The IMDT Act may have been repealed but the minorities should not be afraid because we are committed to ensuring that no genuine Indian citizens are harassed in the process of solving the infiltration problem."

Brindaban Goswami, who is projected as the chief ministerial candidate of the Asom Gana Parishad.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

However, the AUDF dismissed the Congress stress on "protection of minorities" as an election gimmick, and got religious leaders such as the Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, to appeal to Muslim voters to reject the Congress this time for its "betrayal of the minorities in the name of protecting them".

A businessman and religious leader-turned-politician, Maulana Ajmal, countered the Congress promises by telling minority community voters that any legislation for dealing with the issue of illegal immigration must be framed with the consent of both the majority and the minority communities.

Maulana Ajmal, who himself contested two seats - South Salmara in Dhubri district, where he opposed Char Area Development Minister Wajed Ali Choudhury, and Jamunamukh in Nagaon - highlighted the issues of backwardness of the Char areas, poor roads, absence of educational and health care infrastructure and loss of agricultural land because of erosion.

Muslim voters have a crucial role in at least 28 of the 126 Assembly constituencies. The AGP, which hoped to benefit from the possible division of Muslim votes between Congress and AUDF candidates, also promised protection to immigrants who settled in Assam before March 25, 1971. It alleged that the Congress had been using the minority community as a "vote bank" in the name of giving it `protection'.

The tea tribe communities, which play a deciding role in at least 35 seats, are considered to form another traditional base for the Congress. The BJP and the AGP did their best to dent the Congress fortress. They highlighted the poor socio-economic conditions of the workers and former workers of 800-odd tea gardens.

In the five years of Congress rule under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the tea garden areas witnessed labour unrest. An outbreak of diarrhoea is said to have claimed thousands of lives. These were all issues that the Opposition could use against the ruling Congress. However, tea tribe leader and former Pradesh Congress Committee chief Paban Singh Ghatowar claimed that the community would back the Congress again.

The campaign rallies of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) drew huge crowds. Though the CPI(M) and the CPI made seat adjustments with the AGP, there was no alliance based on common programmes. The AGP left seven seats to the CPI(M) and the two parties were engaged in "friendly contests" in nine. The CPI, too, was supported by the AGP in seven seats but was locked in "friendly contests" with it in two. In Karbi-Anglong and North Cachar Hills, the CPI(M) extended support to the CPI(ML) in all the five seats while the AGP supported the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC).

In 1996, the Left parties had five seats in the Assembly, three for the CPI and two for the CPI(M). They drew a blank in the May 2001 Assembly polls, but this time they hope to play a decisive role in government formation. "There is every possibility of a hung Assembly," said Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar at election rallies of CPI(M) candidates. The Left parties appealed to the voters to elect a "non-Congress and non-BJP" government.

The BJP, which accorded top priority to Assam among the five States going to the polls, organised a high-profile campaign. Its star campaigners such as former party president L.K. Advani, his successor Rajnath Singh, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Sushma Swaraj participated in the electioneering. Party general general secretary Pramod Mahajan, who was in charge of Assam, made sure that the campaigning reached every corner of the State.

The BJP's main poll plank was illegal immigration, "illegal" applying to only Muslim immigrants; Hindus from Bangladesh are "refugees". Its chief slogan was that "an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant" would one day become the Chief Minister of Assam. The intention, clearly, was to polarise Hindu votes in its favour. The BJP initially tried to work out an election tie-up with the AGP, but when that failed it projected itself as an alternative to both the Congress and the regional party. The appeal, as usual, was: "You have experienced both Congress and AGP rule. Please give us a chance."

The Bodo vote is crucial in government formation, with some 10 Assembly seats falling in Bodo-dominated areas. For the first time, the Bodos fought elections as splintered groups.

One faction of the Bodo People's Progressive Front (BPPF) was led by former Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) chief Hagrama Mahillary. Another faction was led by the former All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) chief Rabiram Narzary.

The five seats in Karbi-Anglong and North Cachar Hills are also crucial in government formation. Barring the ruling Congress, which hopes to make a comeback on its own, all political parties, including the AGP, have predicted a hung Assembly.

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