Head start for the Congress

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Rahul Gandhi, Congress vice-president, on the campaign trail at Nagaon in Assam on February 26. Photo: UTPAL BARUAH/REUTERS

Badruddin Ajmal, president of the AIUDF. He is perceived as being soft on the Congress this time. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta releasing the AGP's manifesto in Guwahati on March 14. Photo: ritu raj konwar

In Assam, the failure of the BJP and the AGP to form an alliance and the AIUDF’s “soft approach” are likely to work to the Congress’ benefit. In the rest of the region, too, the Congress appears better prepared.

IN the Lok Sabha elections in Assam, to be held on April 7, 12 and 24, the main contestants are the ruling Congress, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

In 2009, the BJP, in partnership with the AGP, doubled its tally to four seats and expanded its organisational base in the Brahmaputra Valley. However, the AGP failed to derive much benefit from the alliance. It could win only one seat, Tezpur, which it wrested from the Congress, and lost the two seats it held, Lakhimpur and Dibrugarh.

In 2009, AIUDF president Maulana Badruddin Ajmal wrested the Dhubri seat from the Congress. The AIUDF was also responsible for the erosion in the Congress support base among Muslims, which helped the BJP win the Gauhati seat and regain Silchar. In Gauhati, the AIUDF candidate, Sonabor Ali, secured 73,316 votes and caused the defeat of the Congress’ Captain Robin Bordoloi. The BJP’s Bijoya Chakrabarty won the seat by 11,855 votes.

This time the Congress has pinned its hopes on winning the Gauhati seat because the AIUDF has fielded a non-Muslim candidate—the party’s MLA from Boko, Gopinath Das. It is hopeful of the Muslim votes, which earlier went to the AIUDF, going to the ruling party candidate this time. Besides, the sitting BJP MP will have to face the AGP heavyweight and former Rajya Sabha member Birendra Prasad Baishya. The AIUDF was floated by Badruddin Ajmal after the Supreme Court, in July 2005, scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act. It accused the Congress of not doing anything to prevent the scrapping of the Act, which was seen as a piece of soft legislation that protected the minorities from undue harassment during the identification of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. The AIUDF won 10 seats in the 126-member Assam Assembly in the 2006 elections. The party increased its tally to 18 in 2011 and emerged as the principal opposition party in the Assembly, pushing the AGP, which had 10 seats, to the second position.

The AGP’s attempts to forge a pre-election alliance with the BJP this time failed because of differences within the leaderships of both parties and opposition from the State BJP unit. AGP president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta blamed the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the State BJP leadership for the parties’ failure to forge an alliance. The AGP’s overtures towards the BJP pushed the party away from the two Left parties. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India have fielded candidates in three and one seat respectively.

The Congress hopes to reap dividends from a possible split in the anti-Congress votes among candidates of the opposition parties. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is confident that his party will get more seats than last time and claims that the “Modi magic” will not work in Assam. He downplays the dissidence within the party and says that despite differences the party will rise in unison to win the maximum number of seats from Assam.

The AIUDF’s choice of candidates for this election has fuelled speculation that the party has reached a tacit understanding with the Congress. Both the Congress and the AIUDF have denied allegations of such an understanding and of having fielded weak candidates in any constituency.

Election watchers pointed out that in 2009 Badruddin Ajmal himself contested the Silchar seat apart from Dhubri, which he won. However, this time the AIUDF first announced the name of Pervez Ahmed, son of former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, as its candidate for Silchar. However, Pervez Ahmed joined the Trinamool Congress the next day and the party named him as its candidate for the Barpeta seat.

The AIUDF’s vacillation fuelled the speculation about its alleged understanding with the Congress, which has renominated its MLA from Silchar, Sushmita Dev, daughter of former Union Minister Santosh Mohan Dev, as the candidate. The BJP has renominated the sitting party MP, Kabindra Purkaystha, for the seat.

The Congress won nine Lok Sabha seats in Assam in 2004 when the AGP and the BJP did not have an alliance and the AIUDF did not exist. The AGP and the BJP won two seats each, while the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), the Congress’ ally, won one seat.

The BJP in the State is hopeful of the “Modi wave” causing a severe erosion in the Congress’ support base in favour of the BJP to balance the split in votes between the AGP and the BJP. BJP leaders argue that leaders and workers have deserted the AGP and joined the BJP. They cite the instances of former AGP president Chandra Mohan Patowary and former Minister Hitendra Nath Goswami quitting the AGP and joining the BJP. Patowary is the BJP candidate from Barpeta where the AGP has fielded its senior leader Phanibhushan Choudhury.

The exodus of top AGP leaders to the BJP began in 2011 when the present State BJP president, Sarbananda Sonowal, quit the AGP along with his supporters. Sonowal, who won the Dibrugarh seat on the AGP ticket in 2004, is contesting from Lakhimpur this time against sitting Congress MP and Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Ranee Narah.

Dr Nani Gopal Mahanta, Professor of Political Science in Gauhati University, observes:

“Assam’s complex demographic mosaic will not provide a smooth ride for the so-called wave of the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi. However, the Modi image is discernible for those dissatisfied with the performances of the Congress governments in the State and at the Centre. At a time when the State is highly polarised on religious lines on the issue of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, the BJP may secure a sizeable chunk of the Assamese caste-Hindu and Bengali Hindu votes, which went to the Congress in 2009. However, the challenge for the BJP is that it has to contest with the prominent regional party of the state, the AGP, for its vote share. A BJP-AGP combination would have been a formidable challenge for the Congress and the AIUDF as the two parties draw their support from a similar political base. The AGP may be spoiler for the BJP this time.”

As the election dates approached, the ruling Congress appeared better prepared. It was ahead of others in choosing candidates, while the opposition parties had to settle for party hoppers in some constituencies.

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