A photo-finish race for the Congress in Assam

Congress is likely to sweep polls in Assam particularly in the Silchar and Karimganj constituencies. BJP’s polarising Hindutva politics might fail as the issue of unemployment comes in the forefront

Rahul Gandhi in Assam (Social media)
Rahul Gandhi in Assam (Social media)

Ashlin Mathew

It is a battle for prestige in both Silchar and Karimganj Lok Sabha constituencies in Assam, but more so in the former than the latter. This can be seen in the heightened political activity in the districts constituting these constituencies despite them going to polls only in the second phase on April 18.

Silchar, the largest town of Cachar district in Barak Valley, is also from where PM Narendra Modi sounded his poll bugle for Lok Sabha elections as early as January 4. To understand this, one must know the history of the region. Before the BJP’s victory in 2016 Assembly elections, its presence was more or less confined to the Valley where Bengali Hindus hold considerable political capital. The saffron party has been using Hindutva to rally Bengali Hindus here. And ever since the BJP’s recent rise, the region has seen several low-intensity communal clashes.

Many of these Bengali Hindus have crossed over from Bangladesh even as late as 2018, making them illegal migrants, but they all have voter IDs, live in pucca houses with electricity connections. It is mostly to consolidate this voter base that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was brought in as it hopes to facilitate citizenship of non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hardly any Muslims have come after 1971. And now, many of these recently-arrived Hindus have started calling original Muslim residents ‘foreigners’. And it is from here that incumbent MP Sushmita Dev won the seat in 2014 despite the Modi wave. In the neighbouring Karimganj constituency, the Congress has fielded a down-to-earth, dedicated worker named Swarup Das who comes from Katlicherra in Hailakandi district. The sitting Karimganj MP, Radheshyam Biswas from AIUDF, had won in 2014, defeating both the Congress and the BJP, but has since then lost much ground. Moreover, the party performed dismally in the recent Panchayat elections.

It is in this polarising political space that Congress president Rahul Gandhi held his rally at Panchgram, the village straddling both Karimganj and Silchar constituencies. As a result of whirling winds and incessant rain, Gandhi was delayed by more than two hours, but the 1.5-lakh strong crowd stayed put. They were standing up to the Highway, waiting for him and were seen milling around the site even three hours after he left. The people at the meeting came from all communities – there were Muslims, OBCs, SC/STs, members of tea-garden communities.

“Karimganj is a reserved SC seat. AIUDF is not a factor this time. What did the incumbent MP Radheshyam Biswas do for the last five years? It is a seat which has 55% minority votes, which includes SC/ STs, OBCs and Muslims. BJP is unlikely to garner any sympathy here even though their candidate Kripanath Mallah is from the tea garden community. During the previous election, Modi had promised that wages would be increased to Rs 350, but it is still Rs 145,” highlighted Congress candidate Das. Mallah is currently the state Deputy Speaker.

“After the BJP government came to power, they shut down the government-owned Hindustan Paper Mill, which was the source of income for several in the area.

During the 2016 election, PM Modi promised that it would be opened, but what has he done,” asked Bishwajeet Gowala.

Echoing this sentiment were several of those who attended the meeting and Gandhi’s announcement of opening the mills if they voted Das to power was music to their ears.

“I am a graduate but I haven’t been able to get a job here. All job avenues are drying up. One of our few options was the paper mill and the BJP government refuses to open the mill. It doesn’t matter to us who becomes the Prime Minister. But if we elect a Congress candidate, we have been promised Rs 6,000 a month. Moreover, this is the first time a candidate in the district has come from Hailakandi district,” points out Bandhan Rajat who comes from one of the tea communities.

“They have also promised to increase the allocation for education. I have to look at that too. Otherwise, how will our children study, get scholarships? The BJP has cancelled funds for several research institutes,” said Baharudeen Chaudhary, one of those who attended the rally. Rajat added that even Badruddin Ajmal, the AIUDF leader, had come to Hailakandi, where he had stated that the “citizens should cast their votes intelligently after assessing who will work for them.”

“Rahul Gandhi said he would make Sushmita Dev a Union minister. So, why would we not want that? It will work for us if there is a Union minister from the region,” pointed out Aninda Gowala.

For several who came from rural parts of Cachar district to attend the rally, primary concerns remain livelihood and education. They were confident of consolidating votes in favour of Dev, especially since there is no AIUDF contesting in Silchar. The locals concede that there could be an urban wave for sitting MLA and BJP candidate Dilip Paul but add that in the rural areas, Dev holds a clear edge.

Nazia Yasmin, a local from Silchar, who used to be with the Congress but has now joined Meghalaya Chief Minister’s Conrad Sangma’s NPP, is contesting from the same constituency. There is a worry that she will fill in the vacuum created by AIUDF in the constituency. She is hoping to get the votes of the aggrieved Congress workers. But that is easier said than done.

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