By Chandan Kumar Sharma
Never before has Assam’s electoral scenario been as complex and frenzied as this time around with the state gearing up for Assembly election on the 4 and 11 April. The ruling Congress party that has been in power since 2001 suffers from serious anti-incumbency. That in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won seven out of the total 14 seats in the state was a clear testimony to that. This gives the BJP — with only five of a total 126 seats in the current state Assembly — the confidence to go for the big kill in this election. No doubt much of this new confidence stems from the fact that the party now firmly controls the reins of power at the Centre.
However, the BJP has, since then, found many hurdles along the way to seeing its dream fulfilled.
There is no doubt that the 'Narendra Modi wave' during the 2014 elections did serve the BJP well in Assam, where the voters had already turned quite unhappy with the ruling Congress steeped in intra-party squabbling and corruption. It was no mean feat for the BJP in a demographically-diverse state like Assam. The party’s strong posturing against immigration from Bangladesh, big dams and the land swap deal with Bangladesh emotionally connected the party with large section of voters across communities in the state.
However, the good performance in the parliamentary elections was never a guarantee for a similar performance by the party in the Assembly election. Besides, the Modi wave of 2014 has all but disappeared now. Additionally, finding candidates for 14 Lok Sabha seats was not much of a problem for the BJP. But fielding around 100 suitable candidates in the fray for Assembly elections was always going to be a difficult job for the party that does not have a strong organisational base across the state of Assam.
Further, in its bid to expand the base of the party, the BJP has enthusiastically welcomed and accommodated many leaders from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Congress and youth leaders from various nationalist student and youth organisations. This has no doubt expanded the social base of the party. However, this has sidelined many original BJP workers and created many more contenders for tickets in the Assembly elections, leading to internal discord.
However, despite the initial antagonistic rhetoric exchanged between them, the AGP and BJP have finally struck an alliance. Accordingly, BJP offers 24 seats for the AGP, the regional party which twice formed the government in the state but has been on a downswing in recent years. Although prior to 2011, a weak BJP with little organisational strength fought both the Assembly as well as Lok Sabha elections in the state with AGP support and won a few seats. In 2011, both parties fought the elections independently. Observers opine that politically BJP gained much more than AGP from this alliance and AGP was castigated for abandoning its regional agenda by many of its supporters.
Although, they have come together again this time around with the agenda of throwing the Congress out of power, the alliance is not without trouble. While many AGP supporters are against the alliance on ideological principle, others are extremely unhappy with the party for settling for a mere 24 seats. Similar anger prevails in the BJP camp as well. The seat-sharing formula has left many ticket hopefuls in both the parties very disgruntled. This resentment has not only led to public outcry against the alliance, but the disgruntled sections of both the parties have floated their own political parties ie AGP (Anchalikotabadi) and Trinamool BJP. How the BJP-AGP combine negotiates this situation prior to the elections will significantly determine their poll prospects.
The other political party with which the BJP has struck an alliance is the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which has been in power in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) since 2006. The party has 12 seats in the state Assembly and it had been part of the Congress-led state government till June 2014, when the party walked out of the alliance accusing the Congress of non-cooperation in the development of the BTAD area. However, the supremacy of BPF seems to be in some decline in the region. Other Bodo political formations such as the United People’s Party are posing a challenge to the BPF this time, besides the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Oikya Mancha, which is an agglomeration of several non-Bodo ethnic groups in the BTAD area. In fact, a candidate backed by this formation wrested the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat from the BPF in the 2014 General Election. The BPF is also unhappy at the AGP-BJP alliance, as it might have an impact on the BPF's performance in BTAD areas.
The ruling Congress party — which showed definite signs of nervousness about its electoral prospects until a month ago — seems to be taking some respite from the dissent within the BJP-led alliance. The Congress won an astounding 78 seats in the 2011 Assembly elections. But this time around, it is going to be a much more difficult situation for the party. Its powerful former minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was credited with party’s election victory in the 2011 elections, is now with the BJP along with a number of loyal MLAs. Although the Congress’ public posture has been to go to the elections on its own, it knows that forming a government alone will be impossible this time.
Therefore, it is engaged in informal dialogue with other ‘like-minded’ political parties. Evidently prodded by the Congress, a section of the AGP leadership sought to have an alliance with the Congress which was turned down by its leadership. The Congress also held a dialogue with the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the main Opposition party with 18 Assembly seats, on a possible alliance. The AIUDF has considerable presence in the immigrant Muslim-dominated areas. Although traditionally these areas contributed to the Congress’ electoral fortune, the scenario changed after the AIUDF emerged as a formidable force in these areas.
Understandably, their dialogue for an alliance with the AIUDF failed as the latter asked for a share of large number of seats. Since then, both parties have been trading verbal attacks against each other with the Congress accusing AIUDF of having a secret understanding with the BJP. Interestingly, in the elections for two Rajya Sabha seats from Assam on 21 March, the AIUDF voted for two Congress candidates while the entire Opposition abstained from the election. In such a situation wherein Congress candidates were sure to win the elections, the party has described this unsolicited support as only an attempt by the AIUDF to obfuscate its secret understanding with the BJP.
However, with its popular base lying with the minority Muslim community, the AIUDF also has its compulsions as to which side of the political spectrum the party can afford to be seen on.
Observers predict that the AIUDF will win between 15 and 20 seats in the forthcoming elections depending on how it manages simmering internal tension within the party. Will it have a post-election alliance with the Congress to form government or will it help the BJP-led alliance by playing a neutral role in the next Assembly? With neither the Congress nor the BJP-led alliance assured of forming government on their own strength — despite their aggressive public posturing, as of now the AIUDF appears to be all set to play the kingmaker’s role in the post-election scenario.
The author is a professor of Sociology at Tezpur Central University, Assam