On Thursday evening, at the Kamakhya Temple that overlooks the Brahmaputra and Guwahati from atop a majestic hillock, panda (priest) Praveer Sarma, has two predictions to offer: One on cricket, the other on the elections in Assam.
A buffalo has just been sacrificed at the temple. Its severed head is lying at the feet of the Goddess in the sanctum sanctorum. The rest of its body is being carried by four men to a nearby village, where locals will later feast on it.
In the premises of the temple, goats with vermilion-stained heads and white pigeons are roaming around. They have been set free by devotees after a symbolic sacrifice — a fate that did not befall the buffalo.
Sarma begins with politics. But his prediction gets interrupted by an unfortunate event. A bitch that has just delivered a litter emerges from nowhere, pounces on a white pigeon, grabs it by the neck and leisurely strolls away with the prey in its canines.
"The Assam election is 50:50," says Sarma. "The general perception is that it will throw up a hung Assembly. And Badruddin Ajmal will become the deputy chief minister in a coalition government with the Congress."
Sarma's prediction would have made another Sarma — Hemanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP — extremely happy. Over the past few days, the BJP election strategist has held hundreds of rallies to convey just one message: Ajmal is coming.
It is an ode to his propaganda that priests in temples, common men in the streets and entrepreneurs in Guwahati's plush offices are talking in the same voice.
"Biswa Sarma has been successful in turning the election into a choice between Ajmal plus Congress on the one side and the BJP on the other. The fear of Ajmal is working for it. The election has been turned on its head by the BJP over the past few weeks. The Congress is getting squeezed out," says Shyam Kanu Mahanta, an entrepreneur and political analyst.
Analysts believe that the BJP realised it was losing the election because of some unpopular decision, and decisions it did not take. The land-swap deal with Bangladesh, when the two countries exchanged 162 enclaves in each other's territories. The other reason was its inability to seal the Bangladesh border and drive out illegal immigrants, a promise Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made before the Lok Sabha polls.
Wary of a setback, the BJP decided to cry wolf. And in Ajmal it found an easy target.
Ajmal is the founder of the All-India United Democratic Fund, a party that was floated by him in 2006 primarily to take care of the interests of Assam's migrant population. Among BJP supporters, Ajmal is seen as the man who wants to erase the identity of Assam by packing it with immigrants.
BJP propagandists argue Ajmal's rise could lead to Assam becoming a Muslim-majority state — they comprise nearly 34 percent of the population — and the radicalisation of its people. So, they portray him as a threat to the Assamese asmita (pride) and identity.
In the 2014 elections, Ajmal's party had won three Lok Sabha seats with nearly 18 percent votes. Convinced that his party will continue to grow, Ajmal announced before the polls that nobody will be able to form the government in Assam without his help.
The BJP has latched on to Ajmal's boast, arguing in debate after debate, rally after rally that the Congress has a secret understanding with the AIUDF. And that Ajmal will become either the deputy chief minister or the home minister.
It is now calling the election the last battle of Saraighat in which Assamese forces led by Ahom warrior Lachit Borphukan had defeated the Mughals near the Brahmaputra, ending their dream of extending their empire in the Northeast.
Its slogan for the election: Jati (nation) and mati (land) is aimed at striking an emotional chord and uniting the non-migrant population against the influx of outsiders.
The BJP believes Ajmal's rise has forced the Assamese people and the Bengali, Nepalese and Marwaris based here to form a coalition of sorts to keep Ajmal out. "This is turning out to be a contest between Indians and outsiders," says Mahanta.
The fear, obviously, has reached the Kamakhya Devi temple. The priests do not reveal their predilections and preferences — everybody comes to us, says Sarma, so we can't be biased — but it is apparent they too have Ajmal on their mind.
Meanwhile, the dog has skinned the pigeon it had grabbed at the temple and gobbled up the remains. "Shoo! It is coming back for you," a devotee tries to make the pigeons fly away to safety.
In another corner, a man is walking towards the bali vedi (sacrifice spot) in the temple. A white lamb, vermillion on its head, is merrily marching behind, tied to a rope, unaware of what lies ahead.
The dog doesn't return, the pigeons do not fly away. The lamb gets led to its slaughter.
If this were Life of Pi, their story could have meant a million things, depending on your faith and preferences. Try decoding.
PS: Sarma's other prediction was West Indies would win the semi-final against India.