By Seema Guha
The BJP is eyeing Assam with relish. It is a state which the BJP believes is ripe for the picking. Among the clutch of states that are going to the polls in the next few months, the party’s chances of breaking the Congress party’s age old stranglehold in Assam, the commercial and political hub of the north east, is the best. After its drubbing in Bihar, the ruling party desperately needs a big assembly win to boost its self image. Breaking new ground by winning Assam will help to restore its wounded pride. There is little hope of winning West Bengal, even less Tamil Nadu, Kerala or Puducherry.
Realising this, the BJP has already got its star campaigner Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address meetings in Assam. During his recent visit to the state, the crowds that thronged his meeting in the tea garden township of Moran signals that the gains made in the 2014 national elections may pay handsome dividends in the assembly polls. The BJP was able to wrest seven of Assam’s fourteen parliamentary seats from the Congress.
More important, the BJP is likely to tie up with the states regional party, the Asam Gana Parishad (AGP) to ensure that the vote of the local Assamese, which would otherwise be divided between the BJP and AGP will not go waste. Negotiations with the AGP is now at the last stage, with some differences over a few key constitutencies like Tezpur and Kamalpur which both parties want. But over 75 percent of the work has already been done, and unless there is a last minute hitch, the two will announce an alliance very soon.
The BJP and the AGP are natural allies. Even before the AGP was formed with the student leaders who organised a mass movement against infiltration of Bangladeshis into Assam, the BJP had staunchly supported the students against the Congress government of late Hiteshwar Saikia in the state and the Congress led by Indira Gandhi at the Centre. BJP leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Jaswant Singh would often visit Assam to show their support for the anti-foreigners movement in the state. Both the BJP and AGP are vehemently anti-Congress. Both blame the Congress for encouraging Bangladeshi immigrants into the state for electoral benefit. The anti-immigrant mood in the state is echoed by both AGP and BJP leaders and finds resonance among local Assamese, with exaggerated fears of a demographic shift in the state due to immigration. Fears of becoming a minority in their own state has fuelled middle class anger against the Congress.
For the last several decades, the Congress has never had the unstinting support of the Assamese, especially the middle class. But in the past, it had an unassailable winning combination of both the Bengali Muslim and the tea garden labour votes. Both these bastions have now been breached. The Bengali Muslim immigrant voters, largely confined to lower and central Assam, have for a few years now looked to Badaruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to lead them. Though chief minister Tarun Gogoi had been able to swing the state in the successive elections, this time around his hold is said to have weakened. An alliance between the Congress and AIUDF would work against the BJP-AGP. But there is little likelihood of the two parties getting together before the elections. That would be cobbled together only if the polls give no one party a majority.
The other Congress strongpoint down the years had been its hold on the tea labour votes. But now the BJP has made major inroads into the tea gardens, especially in Upper Assam. In the 2014 national elections, a strong tea labour candidate like Pawan Singh Ghatowar, who was also a DONER minister lost the Dibrugarh seat. The BJP’s fresh faces from Upper Assam tea areas — Kamakhya Prasad Tasa and Rameswar Teli are likely to play an important part in mobilising the communities votes.
But the Congress under Tarun Gogoi is not going to give up without a fight. Gogoi is an old war horse. Despite his age, he has suddenly become super active and is going out of his way to divide the AIDUF votes. He has been concentrating his energies in the immigrant islets or 'chor' areas and pointed to his governments record of service for these marginalized groups.
The problem with Gogoi is not that he is a poor administrator or a bad chief minister. But after three terms as CM people want a change. A fresh face would have made a difference. But the party cannot be underestimated as it has a good party organisation, unlike in several other states. Gogoi is stepping up the campaigning as he fight with his back to the wall.