Assam Assembly Election 2021: In Silchar, BJP's prestige is at stake as ousted rebel challenges official candidate
Unless BJP does a last-minute wonder in electioneering, BJP is at disadvantage in Silchar
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.
Silchar has become an instantly famous destination in this election just for one person -- Dilip Kumar Pal. He is the outgoing BJP-MLA and former Deputy Speaker of Assam, who is now contesting as an Independent candidate against the official BJP candidate. Virtually the contest in the Silchar Assembly Constituency has reduced between either him or the official BJP candidate Dipayan Chakraborty and Congress candidate Tamal Banik, though a dozen other candidates are in the fray.
In fact, the electoral importance of Silchar as one of the first few cities of Assam is now more than overshadowed by the electoral phenomenon of Dilip Pal: a trending rebel of BJP fighting his own party. The question troubling every BJP voter of Silchar is who will get the majority of BJP vote: Dilip Pal or Dipayan Chakraborty to defeat Tamal Banik! A parallel intriguing question is if riding on an anti-incumbency factor, will Banik win the elections taking advantage of this confusion among BJP voters?
The fight is very close for all three important candidates. It has been also very seriously taken by both BJP and the Congress which is evident from the fact that on Tuesday, the last day of the campaign for Silchar, both Assam chief minister Sarnananda Sonowal and Rahul Gandhi are coming to Silchar.
Silchar is the most important town of the Barak Valley of South Assam. This is the area adjacent to Sylhet, which was historically a part of Assam from 1874 to 1947. In fact, when Sylhet was bifurcated during the partition of 1947, part of it was annexed with Cachar. The population of Barak Valley is thus by and large primarily Bengali speaking population, with some Dimasa and Manipuri speaking people living there as well. Only a very minuscule Assamese speaking population stays there, mostly being government employees posted by the state government.
Historically being a region of the non-Assamese speaking population in Assam it has got a specific context of deprivation and linguistic conflict. In 1961, 11 people were gunned to death near Silchar railway station by Assam Police when they were agitating against a language circular of the Government of Assam. As a result, Bengali has been recognized as the official language of Barak Valley, though to date it has not been recognised as a state language of Assam. In contrast, Boro has been included in the list.
Recently, a mini State Secretariat of the Government of Assam has been sanctioned and inaugurated in Silchar. This was a promise of the last Assembly election. Whatever has been inaugurated is not properly functional yet. But at least, the inauguration has helped Chief Minister Sonowal and BJP to claim that they have fulfilled their promise of the last election.
Within this context, the battle for Silchar is not anymore a simple case of just a single person rebelling against the denial of a ticket to him. Dilip Pal’s campaign has snowballed into a ground-level pitched battle between two factions of BJP karyakartas (workers) over the last three weeks.
The larger section being backed by the official party line is backing the officially nominated candidate Deepayan Chakraborty. They are now the official BJP in Silchar right at this moment. However, another group, who was earlier in local organisational power, is solidly backing Dilip Pal, with some more providing silent support to him.
The whole episode is unique as Pal is no turn-coat former Congressman who had joined BJP just for a ticket. Even before a week of getting denied, Pal started a parallel election office of his own where people continuously started flocking in and parading out to campaign for him as an Independent candidate. Located in an incomplete building, hastily putting bamboo fences instead of walls of the first floor RCC structure, this new office of Pal is equipped with a big hall and antechambers, computers and bare minimum furniture, reflecting a real serious and Spartan workspace look.
The cadres who are flocking in and out with copies of the voters’ list in their hand are sounding even more serious in getting their leader reelected. The fight is against Congress candidate, they say, Dwipayan Chakraborty, the official BJP candidate, stands nowhere except the third position, according to them.
BJP being a regimented party with the discipline of Sangh, all these are very unique. It’s not entirely unusual to issue a statement or two for a person denied nomination only to retract later and return as an obedient soldier. But the seriousness of this incident soon had started developing and snowballing into a major political crisis brewing for BJP for a few reasons.
First, Pal is a well known old timer of BJP, who has put in 37 years in the party as well as well connected to RSS.
Second, he had an iron grip over the organisational structure of Silchar town BJP. As a result, two out of four mandal presidents in charge of the organisation of the main city of Silchar resigned from the party supporting Pal.
Third, the veteran party leader and former Union minister Kabindra Purkayastha, former BJP district president Uday Shankar Goswami and some other leaders of Hindi speaking population of Cachar are also not very happy on the official BJP line in Cachar led by MP Dr Rajdeep Roy.
Fourth, a reason which has less importance as far as Silchar is concerned is the reason for more worry for BJP. The Dilip Pal phenomenon has somewhat influenced a sporadic spread of similar rebellion throughout the state. Denying a party ticket to two times MLA cum former Deputy Speaker could have been contained by BJP leadership within no time. But in this Assam Assembly Election, this type of rebellion has become a phenomenon larger than normal scale, impact reverberating throughout the state.
As a result, the state president of BJP Ranjeet Kumar Dass has to expel 15 people throughout the state for their rebellion on not getting the nomination and contesting as Independent candidates in their respective constituency on 18th March. Pal's name figured in the number one position on the list.
The most ironic fact is that the notice is signed by no other than the MP of Silchar Dr Rajdeep Roy in his capacity as state general secretary of BJP. For the supports of Pal, Roy is the villain who had cancelled the re-nomination of two times MLA as the core committee member deciding ticket distribution of BJP. Earlier the Silchar BJP was controlled by loyalists of Dilip Pal. Now after the denial of the ticket to Pal and his resignation, Roy has taken full control.
Pal himself has said that Sonowal himself assured him about the nomination and directed Pal to start the election campaign as late as 3 March. Despite that on 5 March, Pal was dropped and Dipayan Chakraborty was allotted the candidature of Silchar constituency just for Dr Rajdeep Roy.
There is a “syndicate of corruption and bribe” operating in the state, said Pal, claiming that he had not compromised with that syndicate. “That is the cause of my not getting nomination this time, and this was already in the air even before the declaration of candidates’ list” Pal explained. “Now I seek the blessings of the people for fighting against the syndicate. Please support the helicopter for supporting my surgical strike on the ruling syndicate of corruption!” Dilip Pal was almost melodramatic in his appeal mentioning.
In fact, the electoral battle of Dipayan Chakraborty is also equally a battle for Dr Rajdeep Roy whose momentary dominance in Cachar BJP right at this moment will weaken considerably if Dipayan loses the election. No wonder Himanta Biswa Sarma, the key person of BJP’s election management this time in Assam has been very actively monitoring and participating in the campaign for Silchar during the last three weeks apart from the deployment of such big guns like Yogi Adityanath. The meeting of Adityanath however was a not so well attended one, to put it in most polite form.
The Left parties are seen very actively campaigning for Congress candidate Tamal Banik. Whereas the Congress candidate is more focusing on quickly reaching his voters directly through the door to door campaign, padayatra through different wards and small meetings, the Left supporters are focusing on street corners and cultural programmes in support of the ‘grand alliance’ opposing policies of BJP, in particular D-Voter, NRC and CAA, apart from economic policies of privatisation. However, they could not bring the glaring demands like the revival of Cachar Paper Mill of HPC or immediate payment of the due salary to its employees to such level that BJP taken a political cognizance of the issues.
BJP started this election campaign in Silchar against Banik saying that a vote to Tamal is a vote to Ajmal (AIUDF leader who is supporting INC). It went on to the extent that the still loyal cadres of BJP in Silchar started campaigning more against Ajmal who does not have a candidate in Silchar than in favour of their own party. Rebel BJP - Independent Dilip Pal has much gained because of this and successfully claimed his political share of Hindu voters throughout the mohallahs of Silchar posing himself as the honest hardworking presently deprived messiah of the common people.
Banik on other hand through his direct contact building and using the Bengali style of this election posed two important messages through songs: “Khela Hobe” (there will be fight), and Tamal Pal-ke chai / asche Tamal Pal (popular demand is Tamal Pal, and he is coming).
In the last Assembly Elections of 2016, the then MLA Dilip Kumar Paul of BJP bagged 94,787 votes to get re-elected, defeating Congress candidate Bithika Dev, who could manage only 54,867 votes. The margin was a whooping 39,920 – almost 40,000 - 25.49 percent of total valid votes. Almost 7,000 (6,940 to be exact) votes were not cast in favour of either the winner BJP or defeated Congress candidates. This includes the Left votes and a very small part of AIUDF votes – the bulk of the latter was cast in favour of Congress in any case.
BJP’s worry about the Silchar constituency in this election is very simple. If Dilip Pal can secure even 30,000 votes, then the present ambience of total consolidation of anti-BJP votes will ensure Congress to win back Silchar even in the same voting pattern as last elections. In case there is a further anti-incumbency factor in play, this will be further guaranteed. MP Rajdeep Roy and Assam election manager of BJP Himanta Biswa Sarma is therefore trying their level best to win back the local organisation from Dilip Pal at the shortest possible time.
Otherwise, Dilip Pal will prove his mettle as the real Hindu-leader of Silchar, the headquarters of Barak Valley. And, more than that, INC may get their candidate Tamal Banik winning the seat as right three days before the elections, he is in clear advantage. Both Dilip Pal and Dr Rajdeep Roy said they are fighting with Tamal Banik. Dr Roy told Dilip Pal will be nowhere in the results with only a few thousand votes. Dilip Pal said that he will win over Tamal Banik and Dipayan will come third. Despite Dr Roy saying Dilip Pal will be nowhere, Sarma himself was compelled to take the name of Mr Nowhere-man, - Dilip Pal to attack him in his public programme at Silchar this week, which shows how BJP is finding it very tough to consolidate its own votes.
Unless BJP does a last-minute wonder in electioneering, BJP is at disadvantage in Silchar. The chief minister’s visits to Silchar as well as Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Silchar on the last day of electioneering -- both are attesting the same fact.
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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