Revolt in Assam BJP and allies over seat-sharing deal

Election to the 126-member Assam Assembly, scheduled to be held in three phases, sees the BJP, AGP and UPPL forge an electoral alliance. But the Congress-led ‘mahajot’ is likely to change the poll arithmetic and make the going tough for the ruling coalition.

Published : Mar 12, 2021 06:00 IST

Home Minister  Amit Shah, flanked by Assam BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass and Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal, at a rally at Kendukuchi in Nalbari district on January 24.

Home Minister Amit Shah, flanked by Assam BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass and Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal, at a rally at Kendukuchi in Nalbari district on January 24.

ASSAM is poised for a three-cornered contest in the election to the 126-member State Assembly that will be held in three phases, on March 27, April 1 and April 6. .

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies reached a seat-sharing deal on March 4-5. The talks between the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) reached the doors of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP national president J.P. Nadda in Delhi as the parties failed to finalise the deal at the State level. The BJP will contest in 91 seats while the Rabha Hasong Aikya Manch will contest in one seat on the BJP symbol. The AGP, the BJP’s coalition partner in the State, will contest in 26 seats, and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) in eight. (The BJP, the UPPL and the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) share power in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).) The BJP has announced its first list of 70 candidates. The party has dropped 11 sitting legislators, including a Cabinet Minister.

Mahanta denied ticket

The AGP is not fielding Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the party’s founder president and two-time Chief Minister, in his home constituency, Barhampur, in Nagaon district. The seat has been allotted to the BJP in the deal. The regional party has left five of the 14 seats it won in the 2016 election to the BJP, while the BJP has left four seats it won to the AGP. Mahanta, who was undergoing treatment in Delhi, has returned to Guwahati. He has been protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and has said he will support any party opposed to the Act. Mahanta has been elected from Barhampur seven times in a row since 1985 when the Assam Movement he spearheaded culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord and the formation of the AGP.

There are indications that the AGP may split, with Mahanta and his followers reviving the AGP (Pragatisheel), formed in 2005. Sources close to Mahanta said the AGP (Pragatisheel) might contest in 15 seats and that he was in touch with leaders of the Congress-led mahajot (grand alliance) to form an electoral understanding. Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president Ripun Bora said Mahanta was in touch with them. Mahanta floated the splinter group after he was expelled by the AGP on charges of “anti-party” activities. He merged the AGP (Pragatisheel) with the parent party in 2008.

Also read: Opposition forms anti-BJP alliance in Assam

The seat-sharing deal between the AGP and the BJP sparked off protests by workers of both parties. Those opposed to the deal vowed to work against the official nominee of the ruling alliance and back rebel candidates. In Patacharkuchi constituency in Bajali district, BJP workers are against the candidature of State party president Ranjeet Kumar Dass. AGP workers in the constituency are not in favour of his candidature. Ranjeet Kumar Dass won from Sarbhog constituency in 2016 and 2011, which used to be the stronghold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The mahajot has allotted the seat to the CPI(M) this time, which made the BJP field Ranjeet Kumar Dass from a new constituency. The BJP, however, is yet to announce its candidate for Sarbhog. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal will be contesting from Majuli, while Himanata Biswa Sarma, senior BJP leader and Health, Education and Finance Minister in the Sonowal Cabinet, will be contesting from Jalukbari.

Revolt in the BJP over the candidates list and seat sharing is seen in the State’s political circles as a manifestation of battle between Sonowal and Sarma, the two power centres in the saffron party, and a bid by the Sarma camp to sideline the Chief Minister in the matter of selection of candidates.

Congress alliance

The Congress has formed the mahajot with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), three left parties—the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist- Leninist)—and the Anchalik Gana Morcha, a newly formed regional party. The Congress has left 21 seats to the AIUDF, two seats each to the CPI(M) and the Anchalik Gana Morcha and one seat each to the CPI and the CPI(M-L), while in three or four seats the party is likely to enter into a “friendly contest” with the AIUDF. The BPF has urged the mahajot allies to leave all the 12 seats in BTR to the party but the Congress is under pressure from its leaders and workers in the Bodo heartland to contest in some seats in the BTR to keep organisational bases intact. The seat-sharing deal among the mahajot partners has triggered protests among Congress workers in some constituencies that have been allotted to other parties. Transfer of votes will remain a critical factor in the determination of the electoral prospects of the common candidates of the grand alliance.

The Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the jailed peasants activist Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal, two regional parties born out of the vigorous movement against the CAA, have not been able to reach a consensus on seat sharing, forcing the AJP to unilaterally announce the first list of 18 candidates at a press meet in Guwahati. The Raijor Dal skipped the meeting. The AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi will be contesting from Duliajan while former Minister Jagadish Bhuyan will be contesting from Sadiya. This has triggered speculation that the alliance of the two new parties may crumble in view of differences over seat sharing. The AJP was formed at the behest of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Jaityatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), while the Raijor Dal was formed by Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a peasants rights body, and 69 allied organisations.

The anti-CAA movement lost its steam following the nationwide lockdown in view of the COIVD-19 pandemic in 2020, but the issue has returned as a major election plank with the formation of the two new regional parties.

In the 2016 Assembly election, the BJP won 60, the AGP 14, the BPF 12, the Congress 26, the AIUDF 13 and independent one. The BJP formed a rainbow alliance with the AGP, the BPF, and organisations representing Tiwas, Misings and Rabhas tribes to defeat the Congress, which had ruled the State for three consecutive terms from 2001 to 2016. In 2016, the BJP contested in 89 seats and the AGP in 30. The two parties had friendly contests in four seats.

Also read: Electioneering amidst the pandemic in Assam

The BJP polled 42.12 per cent of the votes in the seats it contested while the party’s share in the total votes polled was 29.51 per cent. The AGP polled 33.37 votes in the seats it contested and its share in the total votes polled was 8.14 per cent. The AASU and the AJYCP had played a key role in the victory of the BJP-led alliance in 2016 but this time the two influential organisations have given a call for defeating the BJP for “imposing” the CAA and going back on its election promise of implementing the Assam Accord and providing constitutional safeguards under Clause 6 of the accord.

The Congress-led alliance has changed the poll arithmetic. In 2016, the Congress contested in 122 seats, the AIUDF in 74, the CPI(M) 19, the CPI 12 and the CPI (M-L) seven. The split in votes of the Congress and the AIUDF helped the BJP-led coalition win many seats. The Congress secured 32.06 per cent of the votes and the AIUDF 21.34 per cent of the votes in the seats they had contested. The total vote share of the Congress and the AIUDF was 30.96 and 13.05 per cent respectively. The vote share of the CPI(M), the CPI and the CPI(ML) in the seats contested by them was 3.38, 2.10 and 2.01 per cent respectively.

The BPF’s exit from the BJP-led coalition was apparent as the two parties fell out in the BTC elections held in December 2020. The BJP chose the UPPL as its new ally and dumped the BPF. The BPF emerged as the single largest party in the BTC areas but after ruling the BTC for three consecutive terms since 2005 it lost power to the BJP-UPPL-GSP coalition. The three BPF Ministers in the Sonowal government are yet to quit. The BPF was a partner in the Congress-led government headed by the late Tarun Gogoi from 2006 to 2014 but quit it in the aftermath of the Congress’ defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

The AJP and the Raijor Dal failed to adopt a clear approach to the mahajot. Akhil Gogoi, who is in custody since December 2019 in a case registered by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) after his arrest during the anti-CAA agitation, has described the Congress alliance with the AIUDF as a “historic blunder.” In an “open letter”, he appealed to all opposition parties, including his own party and the AJP, barring the “communal” AIUDF, to unite and field common candidates to defeat the “communal and fascist” BJP. The AJP distanced itself from Akhil Gogoi’s position and reiterated its political position not to forge any alliance with national parties and “communal forces” such as the BJP and the AIUDF. The Congress and the AIUDF have been appealing to all opposition parties, including the AJP and the Raijor Dal, to join the mahajot to defeat the BJP-led coalition but the two new regional parties have rejected the appeal.

The noted public intellectual, Professor Hiren Gohain, quit as chief adviser of the Raijor Dal after the party released Akhil Gogoi’s letter at a press conference. Announcing his decision, Gohain said that Akhil Gogoi’s appeal had gone against his long-held opinion about the AIUDF. Gohain pointed out that the grand alliance not only included the AIUDF but also left and other parties. He maintained that the BJP was indulging in “misleading propaganda” by dubbing the AIUDF and its president Badruddin Ajmal as “communal”.

Also read: Interview with Hiren Gohain

The BJP and the AGP have been pushing the campaign that the AIUDF was formed to oppose the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, which had posed hurdles to the implementation of the core clause of the Assam Accord dealing with detection, deletion of names, and expulsion of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”.

Akhil Gogoi’s letter, which was written from his temporary prison cell at Guwahati Medical College and Hospital, where he is undergoing treatment, is likely to bolster the BJP-AGP campaign that the Congress’ alliance with the “communal” AIUDF is “detrimental to the interests of the indigenous communities in the State”.

Campaign rallies

Election rallies addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and the campaigns of Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have set the tone for a high-stakes battle for both the parties. Modi and Amit Shah harped on development works, such as construction of roads and bridges to improve connectivity, cash assistance to tea garden workers, self-help groups, students, and beneficiaries of different schemes. The BJP described the 2016 election as the “last battle of Saraighat” and promised to implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit playing on the apprehension of the Assamese and other indigenous communities of being overwhelmed by “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”. Modi and Amit Shah, however, refrained from referring to the Assam Accord, the CAA or the National Register of Citizens (NCR) in their speeches.

Also read: Who is an Assamese citizen?

The Congress has launched the “Save Assam Campaign” and has made the CAA, implementation of the Assam Accord, rising unemployment, rise in prices of petrol, diesel, liquefied petroleum gas cylinders and essential commodities, and the BJP’s failure to keep its poll promise of increasing daily wages of tea garden workers its major campaign planks.

The Congress is making an all-out effort to regain its lost support base among tea garden workers. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi promised to pay tea garden workers Rs.365 as daily wages if elected to power. The Sonowal government, in its last Cabinet meeting, decided to increase the daily wages of tea garden workers to Rs.217 but it is yet to take effect. Garden workers are still paid at the current rate of Rs.167 a day against the BJP’s promise in 2016 to pay Rs.351.

The consolidation of the BJP among tea garden workers helped it increase its tally in the 2019 Lok Sabha election even though the State witnessed a vigorous movement against the CAA. The BJP won nine of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress won three, and the AIUDF and independent candidates won one seat each. This increased the confidence level in the BJP that the ruling alliance has an edge over the opposition.

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