New regional parties and 25 marginal seats hold the key in Assam, which can swing either way
It is too close to call with small margins and the untested pulling power of new regional parties likely to spring surprises despite the tough fight put up by the INC-AIUDF Mahajot
Results of polling in Assam, where the three-phased poll concluded on April 6, may well come as a surprise to poll pundits on Sunday. The wave-less election with no central issue affecting the entire state, with neither strong anti-incumbency against the Government nor a strong pro-incumbency sentiment for the chief minister either, made the election wide open. The contest has been reduced to local equations in the constituencies and to a limited extent regional issues.
Three months prior to the election BJP-led NDA was looking to be in the driver’s seat as the opposition Congress was not perceived to be tough and strong enough to pose a serious challenge. Barring two terms by the AGP and one by NDA , Assam was always ruled by the INC.
AGP came into being after the historic Assam accord of 1985 and evolved from the All Assam Students Union commonly known as AASU. However the 2nd term of the AGP between 1996 to 2001 was so bad that it led to a straight 15 year rule of the Congress from 2001 to 2016 and the AGP losing its prime spot as the main opposition party.
In the 2014 general election BJP emerges as a pan-Assam party with almost 37% of the votes and winning 7 out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, while the ruling Congress shrunk to 30% of the votes and bagged just three Lok Sabha seats. This momentum was carried forward to the 2016 Assembly election when the BJP led alliance, including regional players like AGP and Bodo Peoples Front (BPF), won 86 out of the 126 seats with BJP alone securing 60 seats. The 2019 Parliamentary Election further consolidated the position of the BJP in the State when it won nine out of the 14 Lok Sabha Seats and Congress again managed to win only three seats. This left the Congress with no option but to forge an alliance with regional parties and that is how the concept of Mahajot emerged.
CHHATTISGARH PUSH :
If Congress led Mahajot was able to put up a fight and is seen to have a fighting chance, it is largely because of the Chhattisgarh team led by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, who was appointed as Observer in January, and his advisors like Vinod Verma, Rajesh Tiwari and Ruchir Garg. Right from booth level training to striking alliances to pumping resources, were all done by Congressmen from Chhattisgarh. They actually camped in almost every assembly to manage the election for the party.
The talk of creating a Mahajot or a grand alliance was on for the past six months but parties like BPF were sceptical about Congress’s ability to contest with full force and also because BPF leader Hagrama Mohilarey, who felt deeply hurt by BJP dumping BPF in the Bodoland Territorial Council in favour of a BJP-UPPL (another Bodo Party) alliance, wanted to have a head on fight with NDA this time. BPF agreed to become part of the Mahajot only after it was satisfied that Congress would put up a fight. This took BJP and NDA by surprise and an election which they had taken for granted suddenly looked tougher than ever.
CAA / NRC and emergence of Raijor Dal (RD)/ Ahom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the role they are playing :
With 24 Muslim candidates, many of whom are Bangla speaking Muslims, politics of the AJP and RD needs to be understood. The issue of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) commonly referred as “KAA” in Assam is a sensitive issue for the Assamese specially in Upper Assam area. Right from the days of the Assam Accord to this date there is a sentiment to keep all Bangladeshi migrants out. While BJP is committed to ensure this, the CAA is designed to keep only Bangla speaking Muslims out, not Hindus who are entitled to get citizenship under this Act.
This did not go down well in Assam and there were large scale protests against CAA in December 2019. Local activists Like Akhil Gogoi and leaders like Lurin Jyoti Gogoi of AASU background who were in the forefront of this movement floated the Raijor Dal (Meaning People’s Party) and Ahom Jatiya Parishad (AJP). Akhil Gogoi is still in jail but has contested the election from Sibsagar, which is the ancient capital of the Ahom dynasty in Upper Assam; whereas Lurin Jyoti Gogoi has contested from two seats Dulia Jan and Naharkatia from the Dibrugarh District of Upper Assam.
It is curious to note that while the Anti “Kaa” sentiment in Assamese is mostly prevalent in Upper Assam only, both these political parties have fielded their candidates in all other areas as well where they have little or no chance of winning and might actually end up dividing opposition votes and benefitting the BJP.
For example in Hajo constituency of the Kamrup District of the Lower Assam, AJP has fielded Dulu Ahmed who has been an INC candidate in 2016 and came 2nd. This time Congress has fielded Anwar Hussain and Dulu is contesting from AJP. Here the BJP MLA Suman Haripriya is the beneficiary of this fight. Similarly the Karim Ganj North seat, where Congress has its sitting MLA Kamal Purkayasth, the Raijor Dal which has no base here otherwise has fielded Shabul Islam Choudhary who has been AIUDF candidate in 2016 and had bagged 26% votes. Following AIUDF's alliance with Congress, Cachhar area has been witnessing polarization and any division of Muslim votes would help BJP candidate Dr Manas Das who is not very popular otherwise.
Both AJP and RD have fielded 6-7 candidates in such a manner and may impact the outcome. It is true that in Upper Assam the movement created by the leaders of the AJP and RD has weakened the support base of the BJP; however it remains to be seen who ultimately benefit from their electoral foray. BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma is on record saying that BJP sees benefit in these parties contesting elections.
The First Phase :
47 Assembly constituencies which went to the poll in the first phase, spread from Upper Assam to the Naogong District of Central Assam, are where BJP is hoping to repeat its performance of 2016 when NDA had bagged 40 out of 47 seats. This time the Anti “Kaa” sentiment coupled with the non fulfillment of the promise to Tea Garden Workers for raising their wages to Rs. 351 from Rs. 167 are the two main election issues. To counter this, the Government has deposited Rs. 3000 in each tea garden worker’s account and also attacked the Mahajot, claiming that AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal may also become CM one day with Congress support.
With less than 10% minority living in these areas except Naogong District the communal polarization worked in favour of the BJP in 2016. However the AJP and RD also contesting this time, the said consolidation is not happening in favour of the BJP. It is true had the AJP and RD had not been in the fray, all anti “Kaa” votes would have gone to Congress resulting in big losses to BJP, however now the outcome would depend on AJP/RD vote share in these seats.
Beside Akhil Gogoi, Lurin Jyoti Gogoi in two seats and Chittranjan BasumatRai from Dhemaji, hardly 2-3 candidates of these parties have a fighting chance of winning; thus in the remaining 40 seats, they can be potential spoilers and damage the Mahajot. On a fair assessment the BJP, Congress and AJP/RD may win 30, 15 and 2 seats in the first phase.
THE SECOND PHASE :
39 Assembly constituencies went to polls in the second phase with 15 seats in Cachhar, 5 seats of Tribal District and 19 seats of Central Assam, with five seats are of Bodoland Territorial Council. The Cachhar area has three Districts, namely Silchar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, where BJP had won 8 seats and Congress AIUDF 7 in the last round. This time the voting in this area has happened more on communal lines and on a fair assessment Mahajot due to consolidation of the Muslim votes may win 8-9 whereas the NDA is likely to win 6-7 seats. In tribal hill districts BJP may not be able to repeat its 5-0 performance of 2016 and may concede 2 seats to Congress this time. In the 19 seats of Central Assam honours are going to be shared equally and a fair assessment suggests that Mahajot may win around 20-22 seats whereas the NDA will bag 17-19 seats.
THE THIRD PHASE :
40 Assembly constituencies in Lower Assam include 4 seats in and around Guwahati and seven seats in the Bodoland Area. Remaining 29 are mostly with substantial Muslim population which is rallying round the AIUDF Congress alliance. The Bodo area holds the key for the outcome of this region as BPF and its leader Hagrama are facing anti-incumbency and young Boros appear to be more in favour of the UPPL, a party led by Pramod Boro.
A fair assessment would place around 27 seats to be bagged by the Mahajot in this round with the remaining 13 going to the NDA.
The likely tally of the Mahajot and NDA could be 61-64 for Mahajot and 60-64 for NDA and 1-2 for others. It is important to note that there are around 20 seats in which margins are going to be very close. Whichever way they swing may spell the difference between victory and defeat. The result is anybody's guess and may swing either way.
( The writer is a lawyer with interest in poll analysis. Views are personal)
Published: 29 Apr 2021, 8:00 PM