Pengaree, Tinsukia, Assam: "Pehle lecture sunbe de. Phir bolbe kakei vote dibe." This translates into: "Let me hear the lecture first. Then I will decide whom to vote for." This was the response from a tea garden worker in Pengaree Tea Estate, one of the largest gardens that falls within the Margherita Assembly constituency.
And this Margherita is not a pizza. Being one of the largest and easternmost Assembly constituencies of Assam, Margherita—there is no clarity as to why it was so named—always has a special place in the minds of political pundits for its sheer linguistic diversity (that includes Telugu as well) and geographical vastness.
From covering vast swathes of land in tea gardens to displaying ugly hilltops ruined by reckless open cast mining for coal to a dwindling reserve forests cover, Margherita has a heterogeneous land profile too. This time as campaigning ended officially ahead of the first phase of polls on 4 April, the ring is pretty much open for a head on contest between four-time MLA and former minister Pradyut Bordoloi from the Congress and BJP candidate Bhaskar Sarma, a former dreaded Ulfa militant, who allegedly masterminded secret killings of those sympathetic to or connected with the militant organisation after he surrendered to the government. So much so that Ulfa(I) even warned the BJP against his candidature. Notwithstanding that 'bloody' past, the grapevine is equally vocal in sending out mixed signals keeping both the candidates on their toes.
"The people of my constituency don't believe in communal politics. Bhaskar Sarma belonging to BJP is resorting to it and I know the Nepalese people are going to reject this kind of politics," Bordoloi told Firstpost while on a campaign spree from Pengaree Tea Estate to Philiobari, one of the remotest pockets bordering Arunachal Pradesh where development is taboo. Bordoloi alleged that Sarma is focussing only on the Nepali community making it a 'communal one'.
It is significant that Bordoloi does not refer to the past of his opponent during his speeches. Sarma was allegedly involved in carrying out extra-judicial killings that were once planned in the notorious Usha Court complex in Guwahati in the late '90s particularly during the Asom Gana Parishad rule under then chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.
The incumbent Margherita MLA's speech at the Pengaree Tea Estate was far from impressive as he simply presented a statistical data of what he did in the last five years and what he plans to do, and a mundane narration of how BJP has failed to demolish him so far despite importing candidates including Kamakhya Prasad Tasa whom he defeated in 2011. Tasa is from the tea garden community and is the current Lok Sabha MP from Jorhat. The BJP has launched him against Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi from Titabor this time.
Although a four-time MLA since 1998, the first election being a bypoll, Bordoloi faces massive anti-incumbency as his connection with the electorate appears to be largely superficial. He, however, denied that his focus has been largely urban-centric particularly in his constituency. Bordoloi's winning equation would primarily depend on how the Buridihing Panchayat votes as he is hardly the 'darling' in this area under his Assembly constituency, which felt neglected.
"I was responsible for expanding electricity covering 26,000 villages of Assam. And I have always been in the villages. And now you tell me I am urban-centric. I am not. I am grounded," the former power minister said.
In the last 18 years, Bordoloi did look after a plethora of ministries from home to forests to power to education apart from the commerce and industry portfolio. However, his tenure as the state power minister remained constantly under fire as allegations of irregularities cropped up particularly during the implementation of Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana to enhance power infrastructure in rural areas. Last year, there were allegations of a Rs 3,900 crore scam over awarding of contract to a Gujarat firm by allegedly superseding prescribed norms. The government had, however, rejected the charges in the state Assembly. The former minister felt that he was a victim of a political conspiracy.
"I am no longer the power minister. But I would like to remind you barely two months ago, the Prime Minister tweeted that Assam did exceedingly well in building the power infrastructure in the last few years. None other than (Union Power Minister) Piyush Goyal gave the award on best power infrastructure to (Assam Chief Minister) Tarun Gogoi. It's on record. But I will tell you how it rather happened. My erstwhile colleague Himanta Biswa Sarma always considered me as his rival. He is a very resourceful person as you know. He owns television channels. His television channel mounted a very vilification, slanderous campaign against me," Bordoloi told Firstpost putting the entire onus on the BJP leader, a Congressman till last year.
"His television channel under his instruction showed all the bamboo poles (used for power distribution). The fact is that we were expanding the network in phases. Suppose one particular village, say its length is four kilometres. The first two kilometres we were doing with proper concrete posts. But the rest of the area from the last mile post, people got impatient because there was no electricity line for such a long time. So when they realised that electrification has been done in the first phase only up to a point, they would themselves put up bamboo poles, buy flexible wire, would tie it up and bring electricity to their households. At some phases they simply refused to wait till the second phase came in. They were so eager to get electricity," he said.
"What Sarma's television channel did it never showed the first two kilometres where we had built up good power infrastructure with concrete poles. They would show the balance two kilometres with bamboo poles and stuff which were all illegal. They were highlighting this," Bordoloi said.
His bitter political enmity with Sarma is well-known.
"I always considered Himanta Biswa Sarma as a cancerous part of Congress body. He was responsible for bringing instability in the government starting from 2012. He and his supporters were so indisciplined. There was no Congress ethos in them. They were openly criticising and abusing the chief minister. They should have been disciplined right at the beginning. Once he quit, all of us closed ranks and we worked hard. We are leaner and more efficient now. There was a harmful fat and that fat has been shed off," Bordoloi said.
The Margherita MLA, who holds a MPhil from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is also spearheading the Congress campaign in Assam as the head of its publicity committee. He rejects the recently conducted opinionpolls that predicted a BJP government.
"In Bihar the same group did the same thing and it turned out to be totally opposite. We don't believe in this kind of thing because BJP is capable of doing anything. They can engineer this kind of polls and we really don't believe because ground reality is something different. We have seen the pulse of the people, we have seen the body language and we have seen the response. I think it is another Bihar kind of sham," Bordoloi said.
He even went on to explain how the party planned to counter BJP including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"If you remember at the onset of the Bihar, election Prime Minister Narendra Modi started coming to Bihar and started giving all kinds of promises including the infamous Rs 1.25 lakh crore package for Bihar's development. But we preempted this kind of gimmickry from Modi because what we did is we took over the entire media thing much before him. We planned it in such a way so that we can expose Modi and BJP's this kind of gimmickry politics which they resort to. We exposed it in such a way that Modi when he finally came to Assam, he was very subdued. He did not utter a single word giving false promises and he was not as abusive as he was in Bihar. So he was restrained. I think we had cornered him we had cornered the BJP and right from the word go we had an edge over BJP," Bordoloi said.
BJP candidate Bhaskar Sarma did not speak to Firstpost despite repeated attempts as he replied in a text message that he was "busy with his campaigning schedule."
Margherita is heading for an intense direct battle between the Congress and BJP. In 2011, the Congress had won 39.4 percent vote share while the combined vote share of BJP and AGP stood at 27.8 percent with the former winning 11.5 percent. Sarma's candidature had sent shock waves within the internal ranks of the BJP as well and it is doubtful that he has been getting wholehearted support from within. With the AGP winning 16.3 percent vote share last time, it could well propel Sarma to Dispur if Bordoloi does not wave a magic wand for a fifth term.