A sudden burst of crackers filled the Guwahati sky a few hours after the first phase of polling in Assam on Monday.
Since the noise was the loudest at a busy intersection on the city's GS Road, where the Congress has its office, some passersby joked that perhaps the party was celebrating in advance.
Turns out it was.
After the polling in 65 assembly constituencies, spread across Upper Assam (eastern part) and Barak Valley (southern region), the Congress feels it is returning to power, winning two-third of the seats at stake in the first round.
"It is a one-way contest. We will win at least 40 out of these 65 seats. Our tally can go up to even 50 if some of the 50:50 contests tilt in our favour," state Congress chief Anjan Datta said.
The BJP laughed away the claim saying the Congress should consider itself lucky if it crosses 20 seats in the first round. "We are sweeping the election," its spokespersons said.
Congress hope vs hype
Till 2014, Upper Assam—a division based on the direction of the Brahmaputra—was a traditional Congress stronghold. In 2011, the party won most of its seats in this region when it swept to a two-third majority to win the Assembly election for the third time in a row.
In 2014, however, during the Lok Sabha elections, it saw heavy reverses, down from 41 to less than 34. The BJP made heavy gains in the region; its share went up more than three times, rising from 13 to 45.
The defining trend of the 2014 elections in Assam was the electoral demise of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The regional party lost nearly 20 percent votes and was reduced to a non-entity in Upper Assam.
The BJP was the single beneficiary of the decline of the AGP and the Congress. Together the two parties lost 27 percent votes, just a little less than the 32 gained by the BJP.
Therotically, the BJP stands to gain more in this election because of its alliance with the AGP. If the regional party can transfer its four to five percent votes in Upper Assam to the alliance, the Congress runs the risk of getting wiped out.
So, why is the Congress bursting crackers?
Chai pe charcha
The Congress can hope to win Upper Assam, and the state elections, only if it retains the votes of the religious minorities—around 34 percent of the total electorate—and manages to win back the support of Assam's tea tribes and Ahoms.
In 2014, the tea tribes had rejected the Congress. Post-poll surveys showed almost two-third of the tea tribes had voted for the BJP. While the swing away from the Congress was primarily a result of the Narendra Modi wave in Assam, the shift in voting pattern was also because of the sustained campaign of the VHP among the tea tribes.
The result of the VHP campaign on the ground is now clearly visible. While the indigenous Hindu tribes are now in favour of the BJP, the Christians who work on the tea gardens support the Congress.
Congress leaders believe tea tribes have returned to them because Modi failed to deliver. "What has the BJP done for the tea gardens? Last year when there were floods, the PM did not even bother to visit the state," says Prakash Kumar, a Congress secretary who coordinated the party's election cell.
But, tea tribes are willing to give Modi one more chance. "We are thinking of a change," says Lakshman Ram as he plucks leaves at a garden in Sonapur, a few kilometres east of Guwahati.
Lakshman's parents had migrated from Ranchi several decades ago to work in the gardens. He gets Rs 125 for plucking leaves for eight hours. On days he doesn't report for work, there is no money. "Our lives have deteriorated over the years. Our parents sold whatever little mati (land) they had. Now we live on day to day basis, with no savings or social security. Let us see if Modi can change this," he says.
In the absence of a wave in its favour among tea tribes, the Congress will have to rely heavily on the Ahoms—the Tai people who ruled Assam for several centuries—to back Chief Minister Tarun Gagoi, who is from the community.
But, would that be enough to cover a deficit of 15 percent votes (BJP and AGP combined)?
It seems the Congress is celebrating a bit early.