The grassroot revolt in both the local BJP and the AGP in Assam has given a whole new dimension to state politics and unravelled the smooth plans of all the leaders of the two parties. It has also opened up the space for the Congress which, according to all calculations, would have found it difficult to breach the rock solid BJP-AGP wall. But now with the disaffected from all parties making a bee line for the Congress, the contest is wide open and talk of a hung assembly is very much in the air.
The situation may change in the course of the campaign but for now, no clear winner is in sight. At one point, the BJP-AGP alliance was called off due to opposition from the rank and file. But leaders of both parties realised that unless they combine, it would be difficult to carry the state. This is especially true for the regional party, which grew out of the anti-foreigner agitation launched by the student leaders in the early eighties. The AGP has been consistently losing ground. The top leadership of the AGP knows this well, so despite protests from the cadres, they decided to go for an alliance with the BJP. The AGP has got just 24 seats in the 126-member assembly though the original demand was for 40 seats. This has infuriated the workers and led to disappointed aspirants crossing over to the Congress. The alliance was hammered out between the AGP and the BJP central leadership in New Delhi.
The tussle over seats finally led to the revolt by a section of the AGP and BJP hopefuls. Two senior BJP leaders have gone over to the waiting arms of the Congress. They are Sankar Prasad Ray, a former AASU president and well-known lawyer Rabda Ram Rabha, an important tribal leaders from lower Assam. Rabha was with the AGP but quit the regional party to join the BJP bandwagon in 2014. He was hoping to contest the Assembly polls from the Tamalpur assembly segment. The BJP had, however, promised the seat to its other ally the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) An angry Rabha quit the party and joined the Congress. Sherman Ali and Ataur Rahman Bhuyan, two prominent leaders of the AIUDF, have also quit and hot footed to the Congress. A breakaway group has also formed the Trinamool AGP, but chances of them winning appear dim.
The BJP-AGP combine in 2001 state assembly electins had yielded little. The two were together also for the 2004 and 2009 national polls without much success. The best results for the BJP was in 2014 national elections, when riding on the countrywide Modi wave, it won seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. In 2009, the BJP managed to win 4 seats. The BJP graph has been steadily rising in Assam, where there is the xenophobia of Bangladeshi immigrants taking over the state.
The BJP, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had in the past often spoken out against illegal migrants from Bangladesh. So when as Prime minister, he had asked Assam to give a little land to Bangladesh when fixing the land border with India, there was resentment in the state. The UPA government, which had worked it out with Dhaka earlier, had been severely criticised by the AGP and student leaders for this. The local unit of the BJP had warned the party leadership about this, but Prime Minister Modi, realising the importance of getting the Land Border Agreement sealed, did not heed the party plea.
The other niggle with the BJP in Assam was the Prime Minister asking the state to take some Hindu Bangladeshi refugees. Despite these minor hiccups, Narendra Modi and the BJP continue to be embraced by the Assamese middle class.
Considering that the Congress has been in power for three consecutive terms, many want a change. However, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, leading the Congress campaign, is unfazed about incumbency. "People are happy with my government. You can take it from me, we will form the government by ourselves." The three-time chief minister shrugged off incumbency, saying that people are happy with him, including the Assamese middle class. He refuses to accept that by and large, the Assamese living in urban centres have long been alienated from the Congress. "No, who said so? Government school teachers, lecturers in private colleges, our government regularized all their jobs and these people will vote for the Congress," Gogoi claimed.
Tarun Gogoi is supremely confident, and perhaps this may have something to do with the fact that sections of Muslims in Assam are getting back to the Congress. This is more so in lower Assam, where there is a drift away from the All India United Democratic Front of Badruddin Ajamal, a prominent Muslim leader of the state. Ajmal’s AIUDF is responsible for breaking the Congress parties Muslim vote bank.
Gogoi has also wooing the rural masses. This winter, his government distributed blankets and cotton thread to the poor. The thread is for the home looms. Assamese women usually have a loom in their backyard, where they weave their traditional clothes at home. Whether these free bees will do the trick for Gogoi is hard to foretell.
The fact is whether he wins or loses, the Congress is giving the BJP a run for its money. Many believe this is not so much a reflection of the Congress strength as the weakness of the BJP.