Assembly Elections: Assam

Vigorous voting

Print edition : April 29, 2016

More than 80 per cent of voters turned out to exercise their franchise in the first phase of polling in Assam on April 4. Here, at a polling booth in Silchar. Photo: PTI

Assam records a high voter turnout in the first phase of polling as the Congress fights the anti-incumbency factor.

The first phase of polling in the Assam Legislative Assembly elections on April 4 saw a voter turnout of over 80 per cent. A total of 539 candidates, including 46 women, were in the fray for 65 constituencies. The ruling Congress contested all the 65 seats, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contested 52. With the Congress seeking its fourth straight term in office and therefore inevitably facing anti-incumbency sentiments, the heavy voter turnout in the first phase seems to augur well for the BJP.

The Barak valley, the hill districts and Upper Assam, including Majuli and Titabor constituencies, went to the polls in the first phase. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress contested from Titabor, and Sarbananda Sonowal, chief ministerial candidate of the BJP, contested from Majuli.

Apart from the candidates from the two major parties, there were 70 other contestants from different political parties in the first phase of polling. There were nine candidates from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), 10 from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), 10 from the Communist Party of India (CPI), 11 from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), 27 from the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and three from the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). A total of 12,190 polling booths were set up; 3,739 polling stations were “sensitive”, including 1,992 marked as “hypersensitive”, apart from 1,241 critical polling stations.

Speaking to reporters, Chief Electoral Officer Vijendra said: “Critical voting stations are identified as those where the last election saw 90 per cent polling and where one candidate cornered around 70 per cent vote share. Provision for webcasting and videography has been made in these stations.” Out of the total 24,888 polling stations in Assam, 3,663 have been marked as hypersensitive and 7,629 as sensitive by the Election Commission.

Referring to the share of polling stations across Assam, Vijendra said that only 12 per cent polling stations are based in the urban areas. The remaining 88 per cent are in the rural areas. There are around 1.98 crore voters in the State, and 95 lakh of them are women. Around 6.78 lakh voters are in the 18-19 age group. The heavy turnout of young voters lends credence to the theory that people are looking for a change.

The 1985 Assembly election recorded 79.12 per cent polling and resulted in the AGP sweeping to power. In 1991, 74.61 per cent voter turnout was recorded and the Congress came back to power. The AGP was elected to power in 1996, when 78.92 per cent polling was recorded. The Congress won all the elections that followed, in 2001(75.05 per cent polling), 2006 (75.77 per cent polling) and 2011 (76.08 per cent polling).

The BJP’s chief election plank is illegal immigration, which is also its most important weapon against the ruling Congress. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley visited Guwahati on March 25 to release the BJP’s Vision Document. Picking on the issue of immigrants crossing over illegally from Bangladesh, he accused the Congress of being complicit in efforts to change the State’s demography.

“The Congress tried to destroy and change the demography of the State by encouraging infiltration,” he said. He promised that Assam would get 148 per cent more funds under the 14th Finance Commission (2015-2020) compared with what it got under the 13th Finance Commission (2010-2015) because of higher tax devaluation of 42 per cent against the 32 per cent earlier. He said that this time tax devaluation for Assam would be Rs.1,43,239 crore against the earlier Rs.57,850 crore.

Sarbananda Sonowal said that the BJP’s Vision Document had been created by a participatory process. “It’s a unique way to connect with the people and address the problems of Assam,” Sonowal said.

Gogoi released his party’s election manifesto with the promise of speeding up development. He also promised a Rs.500-crore package for Majuli island, which is facing rapid erosion. A special package for tea farmers, who form the Congress’ core constituency, and upliftment of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes were among the other promises of Gogoi.

Campaign

There was aggressive campaigning by both the Congress and the BJP in the latter half of March. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tinsukia and Jorhat in upper Assam and also Majuli. Majuli is a Congress stronghold, but this is where Sarbananda Sonowal is in the fray against Rajib Lochan Pegu of the Congress. Modi urged the people of Assam to give the BJP a chance to correct 60 years of Congress “misrule” but did not harp on illegal immigration. Not unexpectedly, he used his own background as a tea-seller to connect with voters, especially the tea tribes. In one rally he said: “'I have three agendas. Development, fast development, and all-round development.”

BJP president Amit Shah campaigned vigorously in the State, lacing his speeches with anecdotes and sloganeering. He stressed that the BJP was the only party that could flush out illegal immigrants from the State.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh spoke on similar lines in election rallies in Mahmora, Thowra and Moran constituencies. He asserted that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government would “completely seal” the border with Bangladesh within a reasonable time frame and questioned the Congress government’s failure to do so in the last 15 years. He added that the largest number of riots in Assam and in the rest of India had taken place under Congress rule and referred to the Nellie killings of 1983 in Assam and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi was not slow to counter the BJP’s claims. “Those working in the tea gardens as well as the tea tribes are still waiting anxiously for ‘achhe din’ [the BJP’s election promise ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election]. But it’s been two years since Modi promised, and nothing happened,” she said at an election rally at Amguri constituency in Sivsagar district in the State. Accusing Modi of ‘insulting” Assam and its people by not keeping his election promises, she said that the “era of peace and development that the Congress had brought to this State would be completely erased if the BJP-AGP-BPF came to power”'. She added: “When they [the AGP, fighting this election as an ally of the BJP] ruled the State, it was known as a State of anarchy and insurgency. Fifteen years of sparkling Congress rule crushed the insurgency and brought peace to the whole State.”

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi termed the 2016 Assembly elections in Assam as a fight between two ideologies. He campaigned aggressively for the second phase of the elections due on April 11. “On the one hand there is an ideology that fought against the British, brought the Constitution, and respects the citizens of the country, which goes by the name of Congress. And then there is this second ideology which believes in breaking things apart, imparts communal hatred, the name of which is Narendra Modi, BJP and RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh],” he said at a rally in Goalpara on April 4.

ULFA

The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was created on April 7, 1979, with the aim of forming a “sovereign state of Assam” through an armed struggle. The group’s blood-splattered history and internal conflicts have left it fractured into two camps. The ULFA (I) was formed by Paresh Baruah after his parting of ways with the pro-dialogue insurgents. Paresh Baruah reportedly has 300 armed cadres in his group. The BJP was keen on coming to an understanding with the ULFA, given its importance in Assam politics and especially after the ULFA general secretary, Anup Chetia, was extradited from Bangladesh where he had been serving a life sentence. But its hopes of securing an understanding with the ULFA were stalled by the election code of conduct. The ULFA’s present demands include Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status for six more communities in Assam, which would render it a tribal-majority State. The six communities collectively form more than 40 per cent of the State’s population.

Unsurprisingly, the ULFA is not happy with the BJP-AGP alliance. It sees the AGP as the “mastermind” of the secret killings that took place in the State between 1998 and 2001. Seeking clarifications on a number of points, the group has appealed to the people of Assam not to vote for the BJP and its allies. The group led by the fugitive Paresh Baruah has asked for clarifications on the following issues.

1. The BJP needs to come clean about the whereabouts of 16 ULFA cadres who went missing during Operation All Clear.

2. Sarbananda Sonowal, who was with the AGP before he joined the BJP in 2011, is accused of not chanting Joi Aai Axom in the land of Assam and instead shouting Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

3. The AGP should clear its position on the secret killings.

4. Taking exception to the nomination of Bhaskar Sarma from Margherita constituency, a former member of the insurgent group, Paresh Baruah has warned voters that there will be grave consequences if the voting goes in favour of the BJP and its allies.

Tea tribes

There are around 820 tea gardens spread across the seven districts of Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Sivsagar, Dhemaji, Tinsukia and Golaghat. The workers of these tea gardens constitute 17 per cent of the State’s population. Their votes are therefore potentially decisive in about 35 constituencies in Upper Assam. The BJP won just one of these seats in the 2011 Assembly elections, while the Congress won 26. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, however, tea garden workers voted for the BJP in large numbers and pushed up the party’s vote share in the region from a meagre 13 per cent to a staggering 45 per cent.

In the two years that the Modi government has held power at the Centre, communities hoping for S.T. status seem no closer to getting it; free rations for tea garden workers have been stopped; a long-standing demand for the raising of the minimum wage from Rs.130 to Rs.250 remains unfulfilled.

The Congress, of course, does not let go of any chance to point out that the BJP’s election promises have not been honoured. It will be interesting to see how the people of this region vote this time.

The All Adivasi Students Association of Assam (AASAA) has declared its support for the BJP and its allies, accusing the Congress of neglecting the AASAA’s interests. The Assam Tea Tribes Students Association has also sided with the BJP in this election. This is no surprise because Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, belonging to a tea tribe and the BJP’s candidate against Gogoi in Titabor constituency, was a member of the Tea Tribe Students Association.

Appeal by intellectuals

On April 2, at a meeting with the media in Guwahati by a group of 42 people, former Gauhati University professor Dr Hiren Gohain, who led the group, appealed to voters not to vote for the BJP. He accused the BJP of exploiting Assam by stoking communal tensions.

Former college principals such as Udayaditya Bharali, Dinesh Baishya, the noted poets Nilamoni Phukan and Nalinidhar Bhattacharyya, the writers Nirupama Bargohain and Anima Guha, and the activist Loknath Goswami were part of the group. The group’s appeal has been criticised as “anti-democratic” in some quarters, coming as it did just before the first phase of polling.

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