Asom Gana Parishad

Rise and fall

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Asom Gana Parishad president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta with Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio at a rally in Sivasagar, Assam, on April 3. Photo: PTI

THE events before the byelection to the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency in Assam in 1978 (following the death of Janata Party MP Hiralal Patowary) contained the seeds of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) demanded that the election be postponed, alleging that the electoral rolls, which were being revised, contained the names of “lakhs” of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Launching an agitation, it wanted an intensive revision of the electoral rolls in the entire State in order to detect foreigners, delete their names from the list and deport them.

In no time the agitation led by AASU president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and general secretary Bhrigu Kumar Phukan assumed the form of a mass movement popularly known as the “Assam Movement” or the “anti-foreigners movement”. A number of outfits such as the Asom Sahitya Sabha, the Purbanchaliya Lok Parishad and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Dal, the Sadau Asom Karmachari Parishad, the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva-Chatra Parishad, the Asom Yuvak Samaj, and the All Assam Central and semi-Central Employees’ Association came under an umbrella organisation called the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP).

The AASU-AAGSP combine transformed the perceived fear of the “Assamese people”—about losing their identity and being reduced to a minority by the influx of foreigners through the porous India-Bangladesh border—into a strong identity-based movement clamouring for constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for them. The six-year-long agitation witnessed violence at times and, at its peak, led to the infamous Nellie massacre in 1983. The movement culminated in the signing of the tripartite Assam Accord by its leaders, the Centre and the Assam government on the midnight of August 14, 1985. Among other things, the accord fixed March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date for the detection and expulsion of foreigners who had entered Assam without valid travel documents and stayed on and sought to seal the India-Bangladesh border to check illegal immigration.

Two months later, on October 14, 1985, AASU leaders launched the AGP at a convention in the upper Assam town of Golaghat. The party swept the 1985 Assembly elections in its electoral debut on the plank of making Assam free from illegal immigrants, sealing of the India-Bangladesh border and implementing the Assam Accord. The AGP won 67 seats in the 126-member Assembly and became the first regional party to form a government in the State. Mahanta became the youngest Chief Minister in the country at the age of 33. But before the AGP government completed its term, the Centre dismissed it and imposed President’s Rule, citing the deterioration of the law and order situation owing to a spurt in the activities of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a secessionist outfit which was formed in 1979 to fight for “Assam’s sovereignty”. The AGP returned to power in 1996 with 59 seats (29.70 per cent of the votes) with the support of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) and the United People’s Party of Assam (UPPA). Mahanta was crowned Chief Minister for a second term. With five parliamentary seats, the AGP also shared power in the H.D. Deve Gowda led-United Front government at the Centre.

After the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre, the AGP forged an electoral alliance with the BJP for the 2001 Assembly elections. This prompted the Left parties to snap ties with the AGP. The AGP-BJP alliance did not work; it secured only 28 seats (AGP-20 and BJP-8, the AGP’s vote share being 20.02 per cent) and the Congress recaptured power with 71 seats.

In 2006, the AGP’s tally increased marginally to 24 (20.39 per cent) and in 2011 it came down to just 10 seats (16.29 per cent), the party’s lowest tally since its formation. The number came down to nine when the party lost the Algapur byelection in 2013, which was necessitated by the death of AGP heavyweight Sahidul Alam Choudhury.

In the current Assembly, the AGP is the second largest opposition party with nine legislators, after Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which has 18 legislators. The BJP has only five legislators. Of the nine AGP legislators, Sootea MLA Padma Hazarika was suspended from the party following the controversy over the casting of an invalid vote in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. The party has had a chequered mandate in the Lok Sabha elections too since 1985. From seven of 14 parliamentary seats in 1985, it came down to one seat in 1991 (17.62 per cent of the votes), five seats in 1996 (32.64 per cent), zero in 1998 (12.72 per cent) and 1999 (11.92 per cent), two seats in 2004 (19.95 per cent), and one seat in 2009 (14.60 per cent). The electoral performance of the AGP in the past shows that it gained considerably in terms of both vote share and the number of seats in 1996 and marginally in 2006, when it had an alliance with the Left parties. However, it failed to derive benefit from its alliance with the BJP in the 2001 Assembly elections and the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. In 2009, the AGP won only from the Tezpur seat, while it had won two seats in 2004. The BJP, on the other hand, gained from the alliance with the AGP, and its tally doubled in 2009 from the two seats it had won in 2004.

Wavering about allies

In the 2011 Assembly elections, though the AGP suffered a humiliating defeat, Mahanta emerged stronger within his party. Most of the AGP candidates who got elected were known to be his lieutenants. Mahanta, who had been expelled from the AGP in 2005 for alleged anti-party activities, returned to the parent party in 2008 by merging his AGP (Pragatisheel) with it. Despite the efforts of the AGP to present a face of unity before the electorate, the party stood divided on the choice of an electoral ally from among the BJP, the AIUDF and the Left parties. Because of the AGP’s vacillation in choosing an ally, the Left parties distanced themselves from it. Unable to make a decision, the AGP came up with the proposal of a grand alliance of all opposition parties, which the Left parties, the BJP and the AIUDF rejected outright.

The AGP’s vacillation in choosing an ally has continued in this Lok Sabha elections too. The Left parties distanced themselves from the regional party after the AGP leadership approached the central leadership of the BJP for a pre-election alliance. However, they could not reach an electoral understanding as the State unit of the BJP adopted a resolution opposing any tie-up with the AGP. Following this, the AGP set up its candidates in 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. The party also approached the CPI(M) and the CPI for seat adjustments and for support in the constituencies where it had not fielded its candidates.

The CPI(M) is contesting from three seats (Tezpur, Barpeta and Silchar), while the CPI has fielded a candidate from Jorhat. The Left parties remained noncommittal and, instead, urged the AGP to take a clear stand against both the Congress and the BJP. The electioneering witnessed the AGP leadership going full steam against both the Congress and the BJP, in the hope that this would help the party overcome its organisational weaknesses, and using the current Lok Sabha elections as a trial run for the Assembly elections due in 2016.

The key planks of the AGP’s campaign have been checking illegal Bangladeshi immigration, updating the National Register of Citizens, time-bound implementation of the Assam Accord, fighting corruption, and protecting the linguistic, cultural and social identities of every ethnic group in the State. The AGP manifesto for this election states that it will maintain friendly relations with like-minded parties that are keen to find solutions to the burning issues of the State. It also states that the party, after taking the opinion of the people of Assam, will forge an alliance with such parties.

The AGP roped in Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio for campaigning despite the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the ruling party of Nagaland, reviving its ties with the NDA ahead of this election. Rio is also the convener of the North East Regional Political Front (NERPF), a conglomeration of 10 regional parties formed at the initiative of the AGP. Mahanta is the chief adviser of this conglomerate. This has triggered speculation that the AGP has kept its options open on supporting the NDA if it manages to win any seats.

In the event of a non-Congress, non-BJP government at the Centre too, the regional party will have no reservations about supporting or joining it. But getting the numbers appears to be a Herculean task for the AGP given the decline in its support base and the party’s loss of a host of its influential leaders and cadres to the BJP. The exodus from the party began with Sarbananda Sonowal, who quit the AGP in 2011. He is now the State BJP president.

AGP leaders, however, are confident that whatever may be the outcome of this election the regional party will emerge stronger as regionalism is still relevant for Assam and other north-eastern States. They feel national parties have failed to address the burning issues of the State and there still exists regional disparity in terms of connectivity, infrastructure, trade, commerce, and socio-economic indices.

Sushanta Talukdar

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