Battle for Dispur

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi before filing his his nomination in Titabor constituency in Jorhat district on March 18. Photo: PTI

Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, addressing a public meeting after filing his nomination in Majuli in Jorhat district on March 16. Photo: PTI

Asom Gana Parishad president Atul Bora (centre) with senior BJP leader Hemanta Biswa Sarma (right) and Keshab Mahanta (left) at a rally before filing his nomination in Bokakhat constituency in Golaghat district on March 17. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Congress in Assam fights both the anti-incumbency sentiment and the alliances formed by its opponents.

ASSAM is gearing up for the 14th Legislative Assembly elections. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi will complete his tenure in June 2016. The election will be held in two phases to select legislators from 126 constituencies. In the first phase, 65 constituencies will vote on April 4; in the second phase, 61 constituencies will vote on April 11. The votes will be counted on May 19.

Dissidence, defection and new alliances mark the campaign of the major parties. Gogoi, who will contest for the fourth time as a chief ministerial candidate, will have to counter the anti-incumbency wave generated among the young people of the State. Hoardings and life-size posters have been installed all over Assam to showcase 15 years of “development” by the Congress.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stated objective is to win 84 seats (“Mission 84”), which would give it a two-thirds majority in the Assembly. The party has gone all out to get high-profile leaders to campaign in the last few weeks before polling. Unsurprisingly, the BJP has reposed faith in Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate; Sonowal will contest from Majuli. With alliances with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the BJP is set to make its presence felt in hitherto unconquered territory.

But that is easier said than done. The BJP, which won just five seats in the 2011 Assembly elections with a vote share of only 12.9 per cent, did put in an impressive performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It won seven of the 14 parliamentary seats with a total vote share of 37 per cent, riding on the “Modi wave” that swept the country then. But much has changed in these two years. Assam, with its dense forest cover, has competing ethnic groups, a history of insurgency, and livelihood problems. Clashes over linguistic identities are complicated by fears of losing space to “outsiders”. In this context, political loyalties on the ground keep shifting, and local parties command large followings. Among the strong “regional” parties are the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), perceived as protecting the rights of Muslim voters; the AGP, which was formed after the anti-foreigners movement; and the BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Area District) parties. In the last group, the BPF enjoys wide public support. The BPF was formed after the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) was disbanded in 2001 and is led by Hagrama Mohilary, former chief of the BLTF.

BJP-BPF Alliance

Earlier this year, the BJP formed an alliance with the BPF. Until 2014, the BPF was a Congress supporter. There was no alliance between the Congress and the BPF in the last Assembly election, but the Congress enjoyed post-poll support from the BPF. In 2014, the BPF cut its ties with the Congress and accused it of neglecting the BTAD. “There is no point in continuing in this government if we cannot fulfil the aspirations of the Bodo people,” Hagrama Mohilary said. In 2001 and 2006, the BPF played kingmaker when the Congress fell short of the magic number. The 11 seats of the BPF helped the Congress form the government after the 2006 elections.

Yet, for the BPF, an alliance with a national-level party is crucial in order to ensure that the voices of the Bodo people are heard. And the BJP, caught up in controversies in the rest of the country, is keen to prove itself in a region where ethnicity is a major driving force. The BJP-BPF alliance was finalised when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kokrajhar on January 19. Modi promised Scheduled Tribe (Hills) status for Bodo people living in the hills of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao districts, a longstanding demand of Hagrama Mohilary.

There was another promise from the BJP, but not honoured in full measure. BJP president Amit Shah said in a public speech at Kokrajhar in February 2016 that the Centre would allocate more than Rs.1,000 crore for the development of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). But when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented his Union Budget, the proposal was for a grant of Rs.100 crore for the 6th Schedule Councils in the State—Rs.50 crore for the BTC, Rs.30 crore for the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council and Rs.20 crore for the North Cachar Hills Autonomous District Council under the head of Special Development Package. A Rs.1,000-crore package has been one of the main conditions laid out by the BPF for support to the BJP. Hence the Budget proposals must have already generated tensions between the two alliance partners. The BPF will contest in 13 constituencies but has promised the BJP its support outside the BTAD area.

BJP and AGP: Natural Allies

The AGP, which was formed after the famous Assam Accord of 1985, was in power in Assam from 1985 to 1989 and again from 1996 to 2001. But the AGP’s record is marred by the reputation of being a party without a backbone. Dissidence, defections and corruption charges against its own president and former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta have reduced the party’s popular appeal. In July 2005, Mahanta was expelled from the party on the charge of involvement in anti-party activities. He went on to form the AGP (Progressive), which however merged with the parent party in October 2008.

In the Assembly election of 2011, the AGP won 10 seats with a 19.72 per cent vote share. In the 2014 general elections, it did not secure a single seat. Secret killings during the AGP regime became a serious issue. In 2011, Sarbananda Sonowal, who was then AGP general secretary, left the party over its inability to tackle the foreigners issue. In an interview, he said that “AGP is formed out of six years of Assam agitation in dealing with the illegal foreigners issue. Eight hundred fifty-five people laid down their lives for it. However, the party has failed to honour the sacrifice of the martyrs.”

Sonowal joined the BJP in February 2011. He rose quickly in the party, becoming a National Executive Member, State spokesperson and the general secretary. He was appointed State BJP president in 2012. Known affectionately as “Sarba” among his followers, he headed the BJP’s campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He was elected from the Lakhimpur constituency. He was made a Union Minister of State with independent charge. Now once again the BJP has demonstrated its faith in him by projecting him as its chief ministerial candidate. This was a well calculated move. Sonowal belongs to the Sonowal-Kachari tribe, and choosing him is a nod to Assam’s large tribal constituency. The National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre has also made promises on granting S.T. status to Other Backward Classes communities such as Moran, Motok, Ahom, Koch-Rajbongshi and Tea tribes.

The AGP had allied itself with the BJP in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections. The present alliance between the BJP and the AGP was inevitable. Neither has any chance of winning on its own. The AGP, in fact, has been dodging the question of an alliance for some time. But given the condition of the party, it had to eventually happen. The alliance was sealed in the presence of the BJP’s Amit Shah, Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma and AGP president Atul Bora. Atul Bora said at a meeting that his party “decided to join hands with the BJP” to ensure a total rout of the Congress in the larger interest of the State.

But workers of both parties are unhappy with the alliance. Some leaders of the BJP who have been with the party through repeated electoral setbacks are also unhappy with the decision to project Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate. AGP workers are also unhappy over the fact that six dissident MLAs of the Congress who defected to the BJP under Himanta Biswa Sarma’s leadership have got the party ticket.

Congress and its strategy

The 79-year-old Gogoi is hopeful of winning a record fourth term. Quashing Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president Anjan Dutta’s hopes of being projected as the chief ministerial candidate, Gogoi has made it clear that he will not make way.

After the drubbing that the BJP received in Bihar at the hands of the Mahagatbandhan or Grand Alliance, Gogoi invited Prashant Kishor, one of the key strategists of Bihar’s Grand Alliance, to work out an election strategy for the Congress in Assam. But Kishor’s assessment was not acceptable to Gogoi: Kishor felt a campaign focussed on one individual was not a good idea at a time when the party had been in power for 15 years. Kishor left once it was clear that his views would not be accepted.

The Congress did not have too many options for forming an alliance. There was never any question of an alliance with its arch rival, the AGP. The Congress shut the door on the AIUDF, too, calling it a “communal party”. But it managed to clinch a crucial pre-poll tie-up with the United People’s Party (UPP) led by the former Rajya Sabha member Urkhao Gwra Brahma. The deal is that the Congress will support the UPP in all the four constituencies inside the BTAD, while the UPP will support it in the rest of the State.

In an important clash before the elections, the Congress managed to secure both the Rajya Sabha seats from Assam. The independent candidate Mahavir Prasad Jain failed to garner a single vote. Only 86 of the 114 serving MLAs of the Assam Legislative Assembly came to cast their vote for the two vacancies. Ripun Borah of the Congress got 38 first-preference votes, while his colleague, Ranee Narah, managed to get 47 first-preference votes. One vote of the Congress MLA Robin Bordoloi was found invalid. Ten AIUDF MLAs cast their votes in support of Ranee Narah, taking all parties including the Congress by surprise, and pushing her tally up to 47, nine more than the first preferential candidate Ripun Borah.

The State is also facing a dilemma over ‘D’ voters, or “Dubious/Doubtful” voters. According to the government, they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. For more than 20 years they have been fighting their issue in the court. Now on the order of the Gauhati High Court, they have moved to the “D Voter” list, which simply means that they have no voting rights. The BJP accuses the Congress of using illegal migrants as a vote bank. The AIUDF has joined hands with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal-United, or JD(U), to form an alliance of secular parties. The AIUDF will contest 66 seats and has announced a list of 23 candidates for the first phase of the election. The RJD and the JD(U) will contest in around 12 seats.