So the dye is finally cast and the stage is now all set for the Assembly elections in Assam.
And though the BJP-led ruling alliance took the plunge into the electoral battle much ahead of its rivals by organising several high profile visits of central leaders, including multiple visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and announcing/launching grandiose projects and populist schemes, the opposition picked up the thread much later to regain some of the grounds it had ceded to the ruling dispensation in this regard.
But as things stand now, the game is still wide open for either side to make a last-minute dash to the finishing line.
Realising the high stakes involved, the Sarbananda Sonowal-led AGP-BJP ruling alliance pulled out all stops to launch a mega poll campaign – holding rallies, launching populist schemes and key infrastructure projects, including laying of foundations of two major bridges over the Brahmaputra, flyovers in Guwahati, medical colleges, hiking wages of tea garden workers, direct bank transfer to social beneficiaries, etc, in addition to giving away land pattas (deeds) to over a lakh of people.
And besides Sonowal, a familiar face of the ruling party’s campaigning blitzkrieg has been its charismatic leader and Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is holding padyatras, cycle rallies, etc., across the length and breadth of the State for over two months now.
Perhaps better understanding the import of carpe diem, the BJP was first off the block in the campaigning trail to give the public impression of a well-oiled party with a strong leadership against a deeply-divided opposition.
The opposition did appear directionless as its principal characters – the Congress and AIUDF – were still vacillating between forming alliance and going it alone, while the jatiyatabadi forces (newly-floated regional outfits) were just trying to break into the scene.
The Congress appeared to be more on a sticky wicket after the demise of its stalwart and three-time Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi last November.
However, the opposition parties have since closed ranks and floated two new fronts – the jatiyatabadis comprising AASU-backed Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Akhil Gogoi-led Krishak Mukiti Sangram Samiti-backed Raijor Dal (RD), and the mahajot (grand alliance) consisting of the Congress, AIUDF, three left parties of CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML) and Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM).
And with the firming of the two opposition alliances, besides the ruling AGP-BJP coalition, Assam will for the first time witness an Assembly election with three pre-poll alliances. The Congress is also trying to match with the BJP by flying in its star campaigners Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra and launching its “5 Guarantees” campaign.
While the jatiyatabadi camp is naturally upbeat at having formed an alliance, it is the mahajot that clearly received a shot in the arm when the Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) joined the group. It may be noted that BPF was part of the AGP-BJP alliance before the BJP dumped it recently in favour of United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) to form an alliance to rule the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).
The BPF had earlier partnered with the Congress, before ditching it during 2014 Lok Sabha polls and then joining hands with the BJP in 2016 Assembly elections and has 11 MLAs in the outgoing Assembly.
Now, how these alliances fare in the ensuing unprecedented three-phase polls remains to be seen. For almost a decade now, the BJP has been assiduously working hard to build up its voter base, especially among the tea community, the greater Axomiya samaj (society) comprising of various ethnic groups, the Bengali Hindus, the Hindi-speaking people, etc., through its outreach programmes – both through its parent organisation RSS and the government machinery.
The party reached out to the tea community, once considered a Congress stronghold, like never before with a slew of welfare measures. At the same time, it quietly experimented with social re-engineering by stitching together a disparate Axomiya samaj through soft Hindutva by hyping and building on the fear of illegal Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants.
However, realising the deep faultlines within the greater Axomiya samaj, it stopped short of playing the aggressive brand of Hindutva that many accuse it of pursuing in other mainland states. This explains as to why the party made deep inroads in the tea belt, besides wining several tribal council elections in the past few years.
The sanction of Rs 150 crore for development of Batadrava Than, birthplace of Assam’s 15th-16th century religious reformer Srimanta Sankardeva, and its mega launch by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who also inaugurated Maha Mritunjay temple, the world’s largest linga-shaped temple, at Puranigudam, along with grant of Rs 2.50 lakh to 8,000 namghars and unveiling of Swami Vivekananda’s statue in Barpeta, seem to be all part of this strategy.
However, the jatiyatabadi coalition could play spoilsport in the BJP’s bid to have a shy at Dispur for the second time, especially if the former is able to build on the latent anti-CAA sentiment. CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), which was passed in Parliament in December 2019 amidst widespread protest in Assam, could in fact prove to be the BJP’s Achilles’ heel.
Though it’s too early to predict anything, some experts feel that the jatiyatabadis could eat into the votes of BJP on the anti-CAA plank by positioning themselves as a strong regional force, especially in Upper Assam.
Actually, the greater Axomiya samaj is largely secular with ethnic and linguistic faultlines being more pronounced than the religious ones, which are often blurred. So, with the jatiyatabadi coalition upping the Axomiya sentiment ante, things could horribly go wrong for the BJP.
Hence, the 12 seats in Bodo belt and five in the twin hill districts of Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong could prove critical for the party. But the latest developments in Bodo belt haven’t been reassuring as though the BJP might have dumped it, but BPF still emerged the largest party in the recently-concluded BTC polls. Also, the AJP-RD combine has struck deal with local parties in the twin hill districts.
Similarly, the 15 seats in Barak Valley are also critical as Bengali Hindus determine the outcomes in most of these. But the community is apparently livid at the NDA government’s failure to notify rules for CAA.
On the other hand, the coalescence of Muslim votes due to coming together of AIUDF and Congress could prove the task of winning seats in the valley much more daunting for the BJP. However, with dissent brewing within the Congress over allotment of seats to AIUDF, it could work either way.
So, how does the Congress fit into the scheme of things? Well, the grand old party might have formed the mahajot with the objective of keeping the BJP juggernaut at bay, but ironically this could be its biggest undoing as well.
The alliance with AIUDF is likely to further reinforce its image among the Axomiya samaj as a party that panders to Bangladeshi immigrants, particularly Muslims. And notwithstanding its high anti-CAA pitch, whatever little support base it still has among the Assamese-speaking people could be lost forever and it could very well be relegated as an insignificant entity.
Its dual stand on CAA – stridently opposing it in Brahmaputra Valley, but muted in Barak Valley where Bengali Hindus comprise 50% of population – isn’t also likely to help matters.
Meanwhile, with some jatiyatabadi leaders now calling for fielding common opposition candidates in certain constituencies to thwart BJP, the game is now even more interestingly poised, even as dissension within most political parties over ticket distribution is leading to leaders switching camps overnight.
Thus, with a few days remaining for the polls, it could still be anybody’s game.
(The writer, who is an independent journalist based in Guwahati, can be reached at [email protected])