By Sanghamitra Baruah
If political loyalty has its limits, politicians in Assam have crossed all limits. Switching sides is not new in any election season but Assam is witnessing an unprecedented trend with turncoats swiftly walking in and out of parties to join opposition camps.
Congress: Even though three-time chief minister Tarun Gogoi exudes confidence of coming back to power for a historical fourth time, the Congress in Assam received a major jolt in November 2014 when Gogoi’s once blue-eyed boy and former health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the BJP along with eight other Congress MLAs. While it was trying hard to recuperate from the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle (BJP won 7 out of 14 Lok Sabha seats while Congress managed only 3), former ally Bodo People's Front (BPF) forged an alliance with the BJP after ending its eight-year long ties with the Congress.
But nothing is permanent, a fact that was made more evident by the Rajya Sabha election results on 21 March, which the Congress has termed a trailer to the Assembly poll results. The ruling party won both the seats as opposition All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), BJP and BPF abstained from polling. What's more, five of the 18 AIUDF MLAs (the main opposition party in Assam Assembly) voted in favour of the Congress candidates.
The BPF, an ally of the BJP in the state poll, had declared its support to independent candidate Mahabir Prasad Jain but disowned him on the polling day--reason enough to make the saffron party wary of the permanence of its alliance.
BJP: The saffron party has more to worry about. Not all within the party were ready to welcome Sarma and the other Congress turncoats. Insiders believe Sarma's much-hyped entry into the party was a major reason behind hurriedly declaring a sulking Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate. The saffron party after its Delhi debacle (remember Kiran Bedi) had refrained from declaring a CM candidate in Bihar. However, it was forced to declare its CM face in Assam after the Union Minister reportedly threw a fit fearing that Sarma will spoil his chances.
The BJP, which till recently had no prominent faces except Guwahati MP Bijoya Chakravarty (former AGP member) and ex-party chief Ramen Deka, has seen a surge in its membership with Congress and AGP turncoats joining the party following the Modi "wave".
In March 2014, former AGP president Chandra Mohan Patowary and former AGP minister Hiten Nath Goswami had also joined the BJP. Interestingly, Sonowal was also a member of the AGP till 2011. But the saffron party still couldn't avert some major defections when BJP leaders Sankar Prasad Ray, former president of All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and noted lawyer Sabda Ram Rabha (had earlier dicthed the AGP to join BJP), joined the Congress after falling 'victims' to the saffron party’s new alliance (with AGP).
Asom Gana Parishad (AGP): The regional party, which came into existence in 1985 after a six-year-long Assam Agitation against illegal infiltration of Bangladeshis, was twice in power. But after losing all credibilty and clout in the state it has thrown in the towel and aligned with the BJP. Even though some leaders from both parties have floated breakaway factions--Trinamool BJP and AGP Anchalikatabadi Mancha--in protest against the arrangment, the alliance remains with leaders hoping to further avoid dividing the anti-Congress vote.
While infiltration of foreigners from Bangladesh remains the core issue for the alliance, the AGP does not distinguish between Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants. The BJP's stand is, however, different. Even though it has vowed to disenfranchise millions of Muslim immigrants in Assam (and detect and deport Bangladeshi infiltrators once the saffron party came to power, a promise made during Lok Sabha polls by Modi), the Modi government has decided to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees who migrated because of "religious persecution". Speaking on this, AGP president Atul Bora admits, "We have differences on certain issues." He, however, refuses to dwell on the subject more.
AIUDF: Often faced with allegations of protecting the illegal Bagladeshi immigrants, the state's main opposition party is led by Assam State Jamiat Ulema chief and perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal. The AIUDF, which has 18 MLAs in the Assembly, holds sway in Muslim-dominated areas in Lower (southern) Assam and is expected to steal the show in minority-dominated areas in western and central Assam as well. While the BJP's vote share in the Lok Sabha poll was 37% with seven seats, the AIUDF got 14.80% by winning three seats (Congress also won 3 seats). Muslim votes account for over 30 per cent of the electorate in the state.
Ajmal claims no one can form the government in Assam without its support even though the Congress has openly rejected all overtures made by the AIUDF. While the Congress and the BJP have been accusing each other of having a secret alliance with the AIUDF, Ajmal has kept his cards close to his chest.
The party faced its latest crisis when MLA Ataur Rahman Majhar Bhuyan, along with 4,000 AIUDF members, joined the Congress this month. Former AIUDF MLA Sherman Ali Ahmed, who was suspended by the party a year back, has joined the Congress. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi recently claimed that the five more sitting legislators from the AIUDF, who were denied tickets for the Assembly elections, are in touch with the Congress party.
Bodo People's Front (BPF)
The BPF rules the Bodoland Territorial Council that governs the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) comprising four districts--Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. Sixteen of the 126 assembly seats fall in these districts. In 2006 when the Congress fell short of the half-way mark of 64, it formed the government with BPF's support which had won 10 seats. In 2011, the Bodo party won 12 seats. The Congress chose to continue the alliance even though it had 14 seats more than the required majority. But after BPF broke its alliance with the Congress, the latter forged a partnership with the Bodo heartland-based United People's Party (UPP).
While parties and their candidates remain busy playing musical chairs, they are surely giving the voters a hard time keeping a track of who is from where, stands for what.