Assam: Quiet flows the Brahmaputra
There is no wave in Assam. It is a close contest. Win or lose, it all depends on how elections are ‘managed’
Ravishankar Ravi Guwahati
Even though all parties have announced their candidates for the Assam Assembly elections, there is no clear wave in favour of any party. There is a belief among the public that there was a wave in support of the BJP earlier, but that belief seems to have lain in a mood for change. Due to multiple reasons the BJP graph has dipped decisively and the discourse has shifted in favour of the Congress yet again, the incumbency of three terms notwithstanding.
Rebel candidates remain a headache for the BJP-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) alliance. Due to the clout of influential leaders, the BJP had to cancel the ticket from Nalbari of Jayant Malla Baruah, who had left the Congress to join the BJP, and give it to an old-timer of the party, Ashok Sharma. Many rebel AGP candidates are also in the fray, while the BJP is still trying to make its rebel candidates come round. Some rebel candidates of the Congress had also thrown their hats in the ring but the party has been able to persuade them to withdraw.
All the parties have reasonable influence in lower Assam, and all of them have achieved success there. Hence, who wins and who loses in the final tally will be decided in upper Assam. There, the Congress is far better placed than during the Lok Sabha elections when the Narendra Modi wave was felt in the state as well. The return of Paban Singh Ghatowar, a tall leader of the tea garden labourer community, seems to be bringing gains to the Congress in the tea gardens to the south of the Brahmaputra in upper Assam. He is contesting from Moran, the constituency of his wife, Jibantara Ghatowar. The Congress could gain from this in seats around Moran, but the BJP-AGP alliance seems to be ahead of the Congress in the region north of the Brahmputra. Clearly, this time there will be a close fight.
Hence, election management will be key in these elections. Winning or losing will depend upon success in bringing supporters in larger numbers to the polling booths. An interesting contest and increased readiness will likely ensure voters taking more interest in the elections and that will translate into a higher turnout.
Parties will need to create an army of workers, and that will require money and organisation. The BJP can do this, with its money, muscle power and clout at the Centre, and it is doing everything to push its luck and agenda
The most important aspect of election management will be to deal with rebels. At the booth level, dedicated party workers will play an important role because while the leaders can create a certain electoral shift in terms of the big picture, it’s only the party workers who can draw people out of their houses and take them to the polling booths. Parties will need to create an army of workers, and that will require money and organisation. The BJP can do this, with its money and muscle power and clout at the Centre, and it is doing everything to push its luck and agenda.
Many star campaigners, including Modi and Amit Shah, among others, will campaign to create a wave in favour of the BJP. For the Congress, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, along with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and state Congress chief Anjan Dutta are the main campaigners. The Congress is certainly excited after winning two Rajya Sabha seats. It has been emboldened to refuse tickets to two sitting MLAs.
Other parties’ candidates are already engaged in campaigning. The drive to connect with voters has begun. Flags, banners and pamphlets have started arriving. Politicians’ vehicles are plying and kicking up dust on village roads. Candidates are busy collecting workers and booth committees are being activated. Candidates of one party are levelling allegations against those of other parties; all outfits are claiming to be the catalysts of ‘development’.
While the BJP is accusing the Gogoi government of inaction and is calling for a Congress-mukt government, the Congress is alleging that the BJP is a divisive party and has ignored Assam. The BJP is assuring it will make Assam a developed state whereas the Congress is promising relief to ordinary people. On the issue of infiltration, the BJP is accusing the Congress of failure whereas the latter is arguing that its government has decided to update the National Register of Citizens in order to identify illegal immigrants.
The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), formed to protect the Bengali-speaking minority, doesn’t seem to have a clear issue. Its leader, Syed Badruddin Ajmal, had promised that it wouldn’t allow people of Bangladeshi origin who had settled in Assam to be troubled. The Congress also made the same promise and under its rule the Bengali-speaking minority didn’t face any coercion. Because of this, Ajmal’s influence declined and he was constantly trying to enter into an alliance with the Congress. Now he is apprehensive of the election results and so has decided to contest the Assembly elections as well. As part of these efforts, in the recent elections for two Rajya Sabha seats, AIUDF legislators voted for Congress candidates even though the Congress had neither asked for their support nor had the AIUDF announced in advance that it would be voting in this manner. But state Congress president Anjan Dutta made it clear even after the victory of the Congress candidates that there would be no understanding with the AIUDF.
During elections, amidst all the allegations and counter-allegations, all parties should be raising creative issues so that the state’s basic problems can be solved. State BJP president and chief ministerial candidate Sarbanand Sonowal says that he wants to give Assam a government that is devoid of the Congress, devoid of illegal immigrants and devoid of corruption.
Gogoi says the BJP won’t have its way in Assam because it plays the politics of division, and is trying to divide communities in the state in the same way as it did in Haryana. He believes the Congress has the support of all communities and it will form a government for the fourth successive time.
But the emergence of differences between him and Dutta could adversely impact the Congress’s chances. People close to Gogoi say that if someone crosses a certain line, he doesn’t like it. The way Dutta took the Congress forward during adverse times endeared him to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Every decision taken by Dutta was endorsed by Rahul. In a way, Dutta got a free run in the politics of the state. In return, he put effort into making Rahul’s rallies and padyatras successful. Even in the list of candidates for the Assembly elections, Dutta’s choices were being given precedence over Gogoi’s wishes. In the first list, most of the candidates were of Dutta’s choosing. Although he tried to deny Assembly speaker Pranab Gogoi a ticket for the Shivsar constituency with the consent of Tarun Gogoi so that he himself or Kalyan Gogoi could contest the elections, at the last moment Tarun Gogoi backtracked from his position and became adamant that Pranab Gogoi should get the ticket and advised Dutta to fight the elections from Amudi. Gogoi argued that Ahom voters had become angry. Dutta’s rejoinder is that if the state chief doesn’t have the freedom to choose his seat then how can he organise the campaign. Meanwhile, this internal spat might have queered the pitch for the Congress.