Assam Congress president Anjan Dutta was busy attending a Gandhi Sabha on boats over the river Brahmaputra in Baghbor on Tuesday almost at the same time as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was addressing a rally at Khanapara in Guwahati. The dates of the Assam Assembly polls are yet to be announced, but the state has already plunged into election mode, albeit quietly.
The Congress public rally was held on boats so that it could draw Modi's attention to the massive erosion that has hit the Baghbor block in Assam's Barpeta district. That apart, more than the erosion in Baghbor, perhaps what the Congress is silently worried about is the erosion of public support towards the country's Grand Old Party ahead of the state polls to be held in March-April.
Ruled by a Congress government under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi for the last 15 years, the fear of anti-incumbency for the party is real and losing its most potent weapon in the form of former minister Himanta Biswa Sarma a couple of months ago to arch-rival BJP only compounded its woes.
Notwithstanding his interaction with engineering students at IIT-Guwahati, the tonality of the prime minister's two other rallies in Kokrajhar and Guwahati respectively were loud enough to indicate that the election juggernaut has indeed begun rolling in the state.
"Despite giving a prime minister to the country for 10 years (Manmohan Singh) and despite having Tarun Gogoi as chief minister for the past 15 years, it has brought no difference to the state. Barring a few years, it was Congress-ruled state all the way. Others got little chance. Today they are asking me about my achievements of 15 months when they have failed to give their report card for 15 years. Isn't that injustice?" Modi asked a cheering crowd of over a lakh in Guwahati.
Yes, the cheers were there. The question is how many would turn into votes?
Tarun Gogoi's Man Friday-turned-bête noire, Sarma sounded optimistic when he was asked about how the prime ministerial visit would benefit the BJP in the forthcoming state polls.
"The Guwahati meeting was a party affair. The objective was to get Modiji to galvanise the youth workers of the BJP. It is a first-ever meeting in Assam where over a lakh youths assembled for a political rally at one venue. This also shows the youth power of the BJP as these youths are from the 20,000 polling booths committee we have formed over the year. They will carry the message of the prime minister to the villages. This is statement of the party's strength in Assam," Sarma told Firstpost from Guwahati.
Sarma's USP has always been his popularity among the youth even when he was with the Congress. If this was a show of strength involving the youth, the Congress will certainly consider brainstorming over an effective response. Not that the BJP is having a dream run like it did in 2014 ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. The Modi wave, or the tsunami as the party and media had called it then, is now part of history. Modi's charm still exists but the appeal has reduced considerably.
The Assam poll is going to be a political battle but fought on the plank of the development agenda. This was the prime minister's thrust on Tuesday in Assam, but this is where Congress found gaps to launch a counter-attack.
"We had hoped that the prime minister would answer our development-related questions on tribal fund, the relaxations for industry in the Northeast, particularly Assam. The past government at the Centre gave Assam a lot of financial aid, but this government has stopped all of that. When will they start helping the state again? There is inflation in food and medicine, but the Centre has no plans for the restoration of the packages Assam had earlier. There is no development promise made by Modi," said Assam Congress Lok Sabha MP Gaurav Gogoi.
Assam was a major beneficiary of flagship UPA programmes like the National Rural Health Mission and MGNREGA, thanks to the Congress regimes both at the Centre and state. However, the implementation of the programmes took a hit in the state when the BJP government did not accord the same importance as it enjoyed during Manmohan Singh's tenure.
"Elections will be fought on the basis of development. But the BJP has avoided development-related ideology. The BJP is losing municipal polls of late. A simple fact-check would make everything clear. The Silchar broad gauge conversion and the Bogibeel bridge project were given the status of 'project of national importance' by the previous government. But it was taken away by the current government. The model school project, which was conceived by the UPA government, was also taken away. The current Central government has done much less for Assam than the earlier government and facts don't lie," Gaurav said.
Both national parties have started attacking each other on issues ranging from political to the economic, but it is abundantly clear that voters no longer buy bogus promises or noisy tom-tomming of pseudo achievements. Although the public show has been of brimming confidence, both parties steered away from predicting an absolute majority. This is evident from the stand they have taken on forging alliances.
"The idea of having Modi in Kokrajhar was to bless the BJP-BPF alliance. He also announced a few projects for the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD)," Sarma said.
In June 2014, the BPF broke its 13-year-old alliance with the Congress accusing it of non-cooperation in the development of the BTAD. BPF is led by its president Hagrama Mohilary. It is the second coming for the regional party as it was part of the prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA in 2003 when the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was formed. The love soon evaporated once the BJP lost the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Notwithstanding the re-found love, Modi on Tuesday neither made reference to the Rs 1,000-crore package demand for BTAD, nor did he touch on the sensitive statehood issue for the Bodos.
"Hagrama Mohilary himself told me that he didn't invite the prime minister for the Rs 1,000-crore package. It is all portrayed that way by the media only. BTAD will benefit from the coming Union Budget," Sarma said.
The Congress, however, appeared unperturbed by the alliance.
"The BPF is a small regional party. It is free to choose its ally. It won't harm the Congress. Our foundation is solid on the ground and we are poised to do much more," said Gaurav, reiterating the stand taken by the state Congress leadership that the "party won't go for pre-poll alliances". That keeps the door open for post-poll alliances.
This of course was received with a smirk by the BJP.
"Did the Congress forget that in 2006 the party could form the government in Assam with the support of the BPF? In this 126-member Assembly, the party was forced to seek support from the 12 BPF MLAs. It is alright that they have only one MP. It might be a small party for the Congress, but it is big for us," Sarma said.
Perhaps the Congress MP summed it up well when asked about the number of seats his party is going to win in the Assembly polls ahead. No, he did not say 64, which is the majority mark.
"People in Assam want peace. The party with a better track record of delivery would win. It is a dynamic situation. It would be premature to predict now," Gaurav said.
And no, there was no noise about BJP's 'Mission 84' on Tuesday either.