by Wasbir Hussain
In 2006 Assam Congress heavyweight and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi snubbed the billionaire chief of the then fledgling All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) by asking, ‘Who is Badruddin Ajmal?’ During the next Assembly elections in 2011 Gogoi, then on a hat-trick run, invited the AIUDF to come and align with the Congress, but made a U-Turn when the Maulana apparently asked the party to field ‘weak candidates’ against the AIUDF in some seats outside the agreed ones. This time, too, Gogoi confirmed having met Maulana Ajmal, a perfume baron with outlets across the world, twice, but subsequently denied all talk of a covert understanding with the AIUDF, currently Assam’s largest opposition party with a strong support base among the Muslim settlers.
Putting up a brave front in the wake of key challenger BJP having struck an alliance with four regional parties, the Congress maintains it is confident enough to go near-solo in Assam this time, except for a tie-up with the nascent United People’s Party (UPP) in the Bodo heartland. But, Chief Minister Gogoi and his colleagues in the Congress have failed to stop speculations that it has an unstated understanding with the AIUDF of a post-poll tie-up to thwart the BJP’s power-grab bid. Providing meat to such speculations was the AIUDF chief himself. “We are contesting in 60 plus seats, and in the rest of the seats (60 odd), I would like to urge the Muslims of Assam to vote for the Congress. There are anywhere between 5,000 to 25,000 Muslim votes in the constituencies where the AIUDF is not contesting. These votes must go to the Congress,” Maulana Ajmal said in his appeal made before television cameras. Adding to the confusion is Chief Minister Gogoi who has, of late, being going around accusing the AIUDF of having a secret nexus with the BJP with an aim of defeating the Congress.
Neither the Congress nor the AIUDF are in a position to openly acknowledge an understanding exists between the two because that would lead to a revolt among workers and aspirants in both parties much like what one has seen in the BJP-AGP rank and file following the alliance. The AIUDF is a new player in Assam politics having been formed only in 2005, targeting voters who are predominantly Muslim settlers in vast areas spreading over 40 or more of the State’s 126 Assembly constituencies. It bagged ten seats in its maiden poll venture in 2006 and increased its tally to 18 in 2011, more than the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which was in power twice.
Aside from the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which is an ally of the BJP, the only other party in Assam which can hope to corner bulk votes polarised on community lines, is the AIUDF. Although the AIUDF does not regard itself as a party that targets only the Muslim voters, the fact remains that it thrives on fear among the Muslim settlers of their future in view of the lingering issue of illegal migration (read illegal Bangladeshi migration) in Assam. Although the Assam Accord of 1985, signed at the end of a six-year-long mass uprising against illegal migrants, has fixed 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of illegal aliens, there is an attempt by certain political forces to bracket all Muslims who live in the ‘char’ or sand bars along the Brahmaputra and other rivers as ‘Bangladeshis.’ In this backdrop, the AIUDF, that backs these people while opposing illegal migration, has grown in influence over the years.
The Congress knows only too well that the surge in the Assam BJP would have automatically boosted the AIUDF’s prospects in the party’s strongholds. The AIUDF has, of course, been exhorting voters to thwart the rise of the BJP although Maulana Ajmal has been making it a point to say that his party is firm on its ‘anti-BJP-anti-Congress’ stand. So, from the Congress’ point of view, more the AIUDF bags seats, more the merrier for it. After all, Chief Minister Gogoi and other Congress bigwigs have made it clear they would have no problem having the AIUDF in its fold after the polls to prevent the BJP from forming the government in Assam.
Hit by inner-party dissidence until last year when ten party MLAs led by a veteran leader Himanta Biswa Sharma quit and joined the BJP, the Congress in Assam is also expected to be affected by the perceived anti-incumbency of the past 15 years. In 2011, the Congress had won 78 seats, managing to retain 42 of the 53 seats it bagged in 2006. This time round, things are not looking that bright, and, therefore, the AIUDF could come in handy after the results on May 19. After all, statistics show the erosion in the Congress vote share over the years. In 2014, the BJP grabbed seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats with a 36.86 per cent vote share. The Congress won just three seats with a vote share of 29.9 per cent. In the 2011 Assembly polls, the Congress got 39.42 per cent votes, and the BJP cornered only 12.9 votes. One has to wait and see whether the Congress’ confidence is because the party is banking on the AIUDF even without an overt deal as of now.
Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based political commentator and television talk show host.