A former rebel chieftain, among the most active insurgent leaders in Assam's Bodo heartland between 1996 and 2003, is today the BJP mascot and a key ally for the upcoming Assembly election.
Before this, from 2006 until mid-2014, he had been an ally of the ruling Congress party. This switching of sides makes Hagrama Mahilary the most important figure in Bodo politics ever since he disbanded the rebel outfit he headed, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), following a peace agreement with the government in February 2003.
A musician of some repute, Hagrama was among the most pragmatic of Northeast insurgent leaders. Unlike some of his rebel comrades, his BLT outfit pressed for a separate Bodo homeland within India, making the task for negotiations with New Delhi a lot easier.
The 2003 peace deal he signed with the government led to the creation of a 40-member elective politico-administrative structure called the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). Along with it came an annual allocation of Rs 100 crore for the Council, jobs in the paramilitary for most of the 2,600 BLT cadres who laid down arms and three new districts carved out in western and northern Assam.
Hagrama and his colleagues, besides some of his mainstream allies in the Bodo heartland, took over power at the newly created council and, in 2005, having floated a political party, won the first ever polls to the BTC. His Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) won two successive polls to the BTC — in 2010 and 2015 — making a hat-trick.
In 2006, the BPF entered into an electoral alliance with the ruling Congress and won 11 Assembly seats. BPF MLAs were inducted into the Tarun Gogoi ministry. BPF started as an ally of the Congress again in 2011, but snapped ties in mid-2014 following differences.
The BJP started wooing the BPF towards mid-2015, but realised Hagrama was a tough bargainer. He openly demanded an aid package of Rs 1,000 crore for the Bodo Council in exchange for support to the BJP. At one stage, Hagrama had openly announced, "We can support any party who is ready to give our Council Rs 1,000 crore for development programmes."
By this time, Himanta Biswa Sharma, a leading Congress leader who fell out with Tarun Gogoi, had joined the BJP and swung into action with his idea of forging a grand ethnic alliance for the saffron party. Himanta Biswa finally managed to take Hagrama and his senior colleagues to Delhi to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the alliance was clinched.
In fact, Modi began his campaign for the Assam Assembly polls this year with a massive public rally in Kokrajhar, the hub of Bodo politics in the state.
The BJP may have given just 16 of the state's 126 seats to the BPF as part of the electoral alliance, but Hagrama has become one of the saffron party's star campaigners, hopping in and out of places in a chartered helicopter, campaigning for BJP nominees where his party has not fielded candidates.
This is because in several constituencies in northern, western and southern Assam, there are a considerable number of voters who belong to the Bodo community. The BJP feels Hagrama's call to his Bodo brethren to vote for the saffron party could swing the votes in its favour.
With exit polls coming up with varying predictions — from a clear majority to the BJP to a neck-and-neck contest between the BJP and the Congress — performance of a party like the BPF could hold the key once the results come on 19 May. In the event of a hung Assembly (the magic figure being 64 in the 126-member House), the BJP may require the backing of the BPF, and, of course, those who fall in the "others" category.
The BPF had won 12 Assembly seats in 2011, and it is left to be seen if it could repeat the performance this time. Apart from perceived anti-incumbency against the ten-year rule of the BPF at the local Bodo Council, it is also facing opposition from a newly formed political party in the area, the United People's Party. The UPP has since entered into an alliance with the Congress with the latter leaving four seats to the fledgling party.
Another factor the BPF cannot ignore is the attempt by the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal to spread its tentacles in the Bodo-dominated areas that also has a sizeable presence of Muslim settlers and others. The AIUDF has fielded at least six candidates in areas considered as stronghold of the Bodos. This factor cannot be brushed aside as insignificant because at the Bodo Council polls in 2015, the AIUDF managed to win four seats, two of the winners being people belonging to the Bodo community.
Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based political commentator and television talk show host