Assam Assembly Election 2021: In Barak Valley, Congress battles religious fault lines; local factors bother BJP
Suddenly the Barak Valley has become a difficult terrain for the BJP despite its strong hold in the urban areas
Editor's note: Election in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley of south Assam is both intense and unpredictable this time. This two-part series examines the battle lines drawn around more local calculations that are often different from the state and national situation. This is the second and last part of the series.
The Congress-led opposition alliance and ruling BJP-led alliance are locked in a complex rubric of localised politics for the 15 Assembly seats of the Barak Valley. The pattern of the contest and electoral battle-lines are drawn quite differently in the three districts, having certain common threads of similarity as well. The similarity emanates from the common history, common geography and demography of the three districts which are very different from the other districts of Assam.
Barak Valley holds 15 seats in the 126-strong Assam Assembly. The district of Cachar contributes seven of these MLA, followed by Karimganj, represented by five with only the remaining three coming from Hilakandi.
Little more than half of the approximately 40 lakh plus people of Barak Valley are Hindu by religion while around 48 percent are Muslim. Linguistically Bengali is the mother tongue for majority of the Hindus and almost all Muslims. A considerable number of the Hindu families have come from erstwhile East Pakistan before and after 1947.
Electoral polarisation along the religion has become a larger than life phenomenon here, particularly during the last decade. Illegal migration of Bangladeshis has never been an important issue here. However, the thought of a Muslim becoming chief minister of Assam is not a pleasant idea to a larger section of Hindu people. On the other hand, that has become a catchy sublime ambition to play for electoral consolidation for AIUDF led by Badruddin Ajmal.
Even in this election, the main plank of the campaign of BJP has been, “if you want Ajmal as chief minister of Assam, then vote for Congress”.
In 2011, Congress had won 13 out of 15 seats of Barak Valley leaving out only one seat each to AIUDF and AGP.
Riding on a Modi wave and anti-incumbency against the then state government led by Tarun Gogoi, in 2016 BJP won in eight seats, reducing Congress to only three. The AIUDF tally increased to four.
One Congress MLA, namely Rajdeep Goala defected to BJP in 2020. This is an important dynamics as his family had a traditional support base in his constituency Lakhipur, which earlier elected his father Dinesh Goala seven times in a row since 1983.
Silchar, the headquarters of Barak Valley used to be a traditional stronghold of the Deb family, with the Silchar parliamentary constituency repeatedly represented by the late Congress leader and former Union minister Santosh Mohan Deb. His daughter Susmita Deb had also represented Silchar in the Lok Sabha for one term.
However, this stronghold of the Deb family is also unpredictable at times with such history of CPM leader Nurul Huda and former Union Minister of BJP Kabindra Purkayastha winning from the seat. Presently the Silchar parliamentary constituency is represented by Dr Rajdeep Roy, who is the most prominent BJP leader of Barak Valley right now. He is also the general secretary of the BJP State Executive Committee as well as a member of the core committee overseeing the distribution of BJP tickets.
This ongoing election is to a great extent a battle between BJP led by Dr Rajdeep Roy and Congress led by Susmita Deb, who is also the president of All India Mahila Congress as far as the Barak Valley is concerned.
There is a strong undercurrent of contradictory sentiment regarding the Citizenship Amendment Act, among the two major religious communities of the Barak valley. In order to understand this one has to remember the geo-political history of Barak Valley, which was briefly discussed in the first part of this series.
This region is the most peaceful area of the North East. Indira Gandhi once described it as the island of peace. Simultaneously, being the confluence of a maximum number of boundaries it is also one of the most sensitive areas of the North East. Four other states are located on three sides of the valley with one other international border apart from another international border (that with Myanmar) just 200 kilometres away.
On the east side of Barak Valley, it is Manipur. On the south, Mizoram and Tripura. A larger part of the western side is the international border with Bangladesh with a small state border with Meghalaya. Only the northern side of Barak Valley maintains geographical contiguity with the rest of the state of Assam albeit only theoretically. That contiguity is rendered completely impossible as a link as the Barail Range of mountain linking south-western projection of the Himalayas in the Nagaland and Manipur with Meghalaya stands just there. As a result, this northern side of the valley is a completely porous area.
Barak Valley is accessible both by railway as well as roadways only through Meghalaya even from its own ‘state capital’ Guwahati. A much talked about Assam–Assam link for Barak has remained almost a non-starter for such other practical reasons as a sanctuary and land erosion.
This peculiar geographical location could have been very advantageous to Barak Valley for trade and commerce. It had a positional advantage to grow as a potential gateway to three North-East states (Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura). Only for political mismanagement, Barak Valley could not reap the full benefit of this advantage.
The minority community votes were earlier consolidated in favour of INC. With the rise of AIUDF during the last two Assembly elections, Congress no more enjoy their support. The alliance this time has made it possible for consolidation of these votes against BJP. As a result, AIUDF is very sure to win all three seats of the Hilakandi district.
The Congress is trying hard to out-manoeuvre this polarisation of the voters in Barak Valley along religious lines. Entangled in various local factors, BJP is facing difficulty in some of the seats it had won in the previous election.
Karimganj district is divided into five Assembly constituencies. Ratabari among the five is the most secure seat for BJP in the entire Barak Valley. In 2016, BJP polled 48.08 percent, with Congress and AIUDF trailing with 26.23 percent and 21.31 percent.
AIUDF is in an advantageous position at Badarpur, the railway township with a strong minority population. Karimganj, the district headquarters falls under North Karimganj constituency. This LAC was held by Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha, two-times MLA of INC. Apparently, he is sure of his reelection. But this time he is facing a stiff challenge from Dr Manas Das of BJP and Sahabul Islam of RD. In case the RD candidate can cause a big swing in his favour from the traditional Congress vote bank, the results of Karimganj North can go in favour of any of the three. There is an undercurrent against Dey Purkayastha among the minority voters about his alleged support to CAA.
Patharkandi seat is being held by BJP and the present MLA Krishnendu Pal is seeking reelection. Sachin Sahoo of Congress is the dark horse candidate there who may win this time unseating him if the AIUDF support to Congress is really transferred to the EVM machines. Last time the pattern was BJP 37.93 percent, Congress 32.04 percent, and AIUDF 30.38 percent of the votes polled. This time, it would be advantage Congress in Patharkandi.
Karimganj South is having a peculiar contest with the seating AIUDF MLA contesting as AGP candidate against the INC strongman Siddique Ahmed. Like Patharkandi, here also the results depend on AIUDF actually transferring their votes in favour of Congress, in which case it would be a similar cakewalk for INC. Otherwise, the BJP-AGP combine will win this seat. In 2016, BJP got 9.23 percent, Congress got 41.76 percent while AIUDF won the seat with 45.2 percent of the votes.
Cachar alone yields seven MLAs among the total kitty of 15 for the entire Barak Valley. No party is very sure of winning any seat in Cachar. BJP is facing rebel candidates in a couple of seats including Silchar. Independent candidates against the official BJP candidates are enjoying the support of party workers in at least one more seat.
In Dholai (SC), Parmal Shuklabaidya, Minister for Forest, Fisheries and Excise is facing a stiff challenge from Kamakhya Prasad Mala of INC. AGP has fielded a candidate here for a friendly contest.
In Lakhipur, BJP district president Kaushik Rai is contesting INC candidate Mukesh Pandey, with an AGP candidate in a friendly contest. In case the AGP friend can take away a big chunk of the traditional vote bank of INC, then only Kaushik can win the seat.
In Sonai, the present Deputy Speaker Aminul Haque Laskar is contesting against Karimuddin Barbhuiya of INC. His fight has also become very difficult for the alliance of INC and AIUDF which is expected to have some impact in this constituency. A former BJP worker Asish Haldar has made his future even bleaker.
Results of Silchar, Lakhipur and Kathigora –- these three seats are difficult to predict this time. Former Congress minister of state Gautam Roy is contesting from Kathigora as BJP candidate. His son Rahul Roy is contesting from Udharbond as an Independent candidate against the sitting BJP MLA Mihir Kanti Shome.
In Kathigora, BJP, INC and AIUDF got 44 percent, 12 percent, and 37 percent votes in 2016. With a proper consolidation of alliance votes, the result apparently goes against the BJP candidate, even without any anti-incumbency factor. But the veteran former INC leader who is contesting as the BJP candidate this time is known to be extremely resourceful and expert for toppling such electoral arithmetic.
The precarious situation of Barak Valley has prompted Assam chief minister Sarnananda Sonowal to address six public meetings on the last day of the campaign.
To summarise, the most possible scenario is BJP may have to be satisfied with only one-third of Barak Valley seats with an equal number going to Congress and AIUDF. Even in the best possible scenario, BJP will not get more than seven seats, in which case it would be two less than their present tally. In any case, the opposition is going to win more than half of the seats of Barak Valley which is going to be an advantage for the grand alliance led by Congress.
The author is the former head of news in Doordarshan Agartala, Akashvani Itanagar and Kohima, presently is a teacher at Assam University, Silchar.
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