Congress(I)'s comeback

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

The failure of the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led Asom Gana Parishad government on several fronts and revolts in the AGP and its ally, the BJP, facilitate an easy win for the Congress(I) in Assam.

WITH Tarun Gogoi sworn in Chief Minister, the Congress(I) is back in power in Assam after five years. It defeated the four-party alliance led by Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the party that was in power, in the May 10 Assembly elections, winning 71 of the 125 seats. The alliance, which included the AGP, the BJP, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and the Autonomous State Demand Committee (United) secured 39 seats. The Congress(I) would have won 15 more seats had there been no party rebels challenging official candidates. (The rebels had the backing of former Union Minister Matang Singh.) The election in the Dibrugarh constituency was countermanded following the murder of the BJP candidate, Jayanta Dutta, allegedly by United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants.

Despite large-scale violence by ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), more than 70 per cent of the electorate exercised its franchise in largely peaceful polling. About 50 people had lost their lives in the run-up to the elections, when militants selectively attacked candidates and campaigners of almost all political parties.

Immediately after the swearing-in, Gogoi said his government would evolve a comprehensive plan to resolve the insurgency problem and hold the long-pending panchayat elections by the end of the year.

The Congress(I)'s victory was not unexpected. Both the AGP and the BJP faced revolt in their ranks over the conditions their leaders had accepted to forge the alliance. The AGP, which came to power in 1991 by defeating the Congress(I) with the help of the Left parties, abandoned its former allies and joined hands with the BJP hardly a month before the electoral process began. The alliance was not acceptable to a section of BJP leaders and workers. Some of them left the party to form the Asom Bharatiya Janata Party (ABJP) under the presidentship of Hiranya Bhattacharya, one of the founder-members of the BJP in the State. The AGP was also faced with a similar revolt. Some of its leaders crossed over to the Congress(I).

The Congress(I) virtually wiped out the AGP from Lower Assam (comprising mainly Kamrup and Nalbari districts) in the 2001 polls, though these areas were formerly AGP strongholds.

From the electorate's point of view, the alliance was a potent "cocktail of the AGP's chauvinism and the BJP's communalism." The minorities, who account for 28 per cent of the State's population and who had largely voted for the AGP in 1996, shifted en bloc to the Congress(I) camp. Even caste Hindu voters, who had always backed the AGP, switched their allegiance to the Congress(I). The principal reason for this is perhaps the AGP government's failure to improve the law and order situation. The government had no answer to the series of killings in the State. The AGP's last hope, a sympathy wave in the wake of repeated ULFA attacks on its workers ahead of the polls, evaporated when Congress(I) activists also faced similar attacks. Voters were left wondering whether there was any truth in the allegations of the AGP and the BJP that the Congress(I) had a nexus with ULFA.

The anti-incumbency factor played a part in the AGP's defeat. The record of the AGP government headed by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who is also the party president, was unsatisfactory. The government failed to tackle the insurgency problem; its financial mismanagement resulted in an empty treasury; it failed to attract industrial investors; and there was a substantial increase in the number of unemployed persons in the State. Mahanta blamed everybody and everything but bad governance for the defeat. He said that the Congress(I) used insurgents to win the elections.

The AGP won 20 seats, while the BJP, the ABSU and the ASDC(U) won eight, nine, and two respectively. The Nationalist Congress Party won three seats, the Samata Party one, the Samajwadi Party two, the Trinamul Congress one and independents six. For the first time in the State's history, the Assembly has no members from the Left parties. The CPI and the CPI(M) had three and two seats respectively in the previous House.

The most shocking result for the AGP-BJP alliance was Mahanta's own defeat in the Dispur constituency. He, however, won the Berhampore seat by a margin of about 5,000 votes. But he will not be able to live down the humiliation of finishing third in Dispur, behind the Congress(I)'s Robin Bordoloi, the winner, and Atul Bora, his one-time trusted lieutenant. Bora contested the elections as the Trinamul Ganaparishad candidate.

The results came as a shock to several Ministers and senior AGP leaders. The AGP losers included eight Ministers - Chandra Mohan Patowary (Agriculture), Pradip Hazarika (Transport), Thaneswar Boro (Education), Rekharani Das Boro (Social Welfare), Romendra N. Kalita (Sericulture), Nurul Hussain (Cooperation), Kamala Kalita (Health), and Moidul Islam Bora (Sports).

The AGP, even as it lost power, made sure that its ally, the BJP also lost most of what it had achieved over the last few years through organisational work. The BJP doubled its strength in the Assembly by winning eight of the 44 seats it contested but this has not cheered the party. The party had performed creditably in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections by winning about 33 per cent of the votes and its stock had been soaring since then. The mood was upbeat when the Assembly elections were announced. The party planned to put up candidates in over 80 constituencies.

Problems, however, began the day the party decided to ally itself with the AGP. The BJP's State leadership, which foresaw the danger that lay ahead, resisted, but the Central leaders bulldozed it into the alliance with the single-point agenda of preventing the Congress(I) from coming to power. A force to reckon with until a month earlier, the BJP thus sank with the sinking AGP ship. No matter what the BJP leadership says now, the fact remains that the party will now have to start from scratch. What probably hurts the party more than the defeat is the split, which rendered it a considerably weaker force on the day of polling. The deserters included some of the most dedicated grassroots-level workers.

There is no reason to believe that the Congress(I)'s victory is a fluke. The party has a substantial support base in Assam. The Congress(I), which had 34 members in the outgoing Assembly, was defeated in the 1985 Assembly elections, which were held immediately after the Assam accord was signed following the violent anti-foreigner agitation between 1979 and 1985. It had an unbroken stint in power (except during the Emergency) from 1952 to 1985.

The Congress(I) returned to power in 1991 and ruled Assam until 1996. However, it lost to the AGP in 1996 and functioned as an effective Opposition party under the leadership of Tarun Gogoi, who was also the Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president. In the Lok Sabha elections held in 1996, 1998 and 1999, the party steadily increased its tally to five, nine and 10 seats respectively. In sharp contrast, the AGP failed to win even one of the total 14 seats in the 1998 and 1999 elections.

Born in 1936, Gogoi turned to politics in his student days at the J.B. College in Jorhat and became the vice-president of the students' union. He entered Parliament in 1971 when he won the Jorhat seat. Gogoi retained the seat in 1977 and was elected from Jorhat and Koliabor for another four terms. He became Assam Pradesh Congress(I) Committee general secretary in 1985 and APCC chief for the first time during AGP rule between 1986 and 1990. Following the 1991 Lok Sabha polls he joined the P.V. Narasimha Rao Ministry.

The AGP may blame the "Congress(I)-ULFA nexus" for its defeat, but the militant outfit itself does not appear thrilled about the Congress(I) victory. It has, however, applauded the fall of the AGP. Reacting to the Congress(I) victory, ULFA said in the editorial of the latest issue of its mouthpiece, Freedom, that the people of Assam had no reason to be pleased about the change of government. Of the AGP, the editorial said the ballot had dethroned the party that had collaborated with the "Indian occupation forces" and pretended to be fighting for regional interests. "The AGP came to power deceiving the people of Assam that it would fight for the right to self-determination and address all other burning problems. Instead, the party stained the history of Assam by allowing its government to indulge in secret killings. And, as a reward for such collaboration with the occupation forces, the ruling BJP at the Centre took the AGP in as an ally to grab power in the State," it said.

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