Return of Sarbananda Sonowal: Why Congress is not losing sleep over BJP's tactical moves in Assam

Numbers of the latest Lok Sabha poll do put the Congress in a spot but the Assembly election is a totally different ball game.

Simantik Dowerah November 26, 2015 07:22:14 IST
Return of Sarbananda Sonowal: Why Congress is not losing sleep over BJP's tactical moves in Assam

For those willing to let their hair down this is the best time to be Assam. The weather is pleasant and there’s a comforting calmness in the air. But scratch the surface a bit. If you are interested in politics we would find tension building up. Hectic preparation is afoot from all players, big or small, for the big political battle in April next year.

The BJP has already made its initial moves by wining over Congress heavyweight Himanta Biswa Sarma and making Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal the party chief in Assam; now it’s for the Congress to respond. Smaller parties such as Badruddin Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) are planning their strategies too. Even the political barbs are getting sharper on a daily basis.

Return of Sarbananda Sonowal Why Congress is not losing sleep over BJPs tactical moves in Assam

Union Minister and Assam BJP chief Sarbananda Sonowal with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB

Are the BJP’s moves making the Congress nervous? Not exactly, if you go by the remarks of party leaders.

"The BJP is on a U-turn spree now. So Sonowal taking over as BJP state chief makes no difference to us. Moreover, there is a big quantitative and qualitative difference between general and assembly elections. We have strengthened our organisation at the grassroots by reviving booth level committees and having a permanent observer in each constituency," said senior spokesperson of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, Mehdi Alam Bora. "BJP's Mission 84 will not be a reality," he added.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP had won seven out of 14 seats, upping its tally from four in 2009. The party won the entire Upper Assam belt constituencies -- Jorhat, Lakhimpur and Dibrugarh -- ruthlessly uprooting the Congress dominance of decades. All these three parliamentary constituencies add up to 28 assembly seats. In 2009 general elections, going by its Lok Sabha tally, the party had only 34 assembly seats under its belt. This time around the number is an impressive 66. That of the Congress fell drastically from 61 in 2009 to 22 in 2014. Although first time Congress MP Sushmita Dev could clinch the Silchar parliamentary seat from the BJP, the AIUDF rubbed salt to its wound by snatching away Karimganj and Barpeta.

Numbers of the last Lok Sabha show that the Congress could be in trouble, but party leaders feel assembly election is a totally different ball game.

For example, they say, the demographic pattern comes into play as the constituency size shrinks considerably when compared to parliamentary ones. Even if the BJP decides to field candidates in all 126 seats, it is highly unlikely that it would end up with something like the Aam Aadmi Party did in Delhi, winning 67 out of 70 seats.
There are pockets of local influence like the Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodaland People's Front in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas covering four districts of -- Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. Apart from BTC, in the other five autonomous councils of the state -- Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council, Mising Autonomous Council, Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, Tiwa Autonomous Council, Deori Autonomous Council, Thengal Kachari Autonomous Council and Sonowal Kachari Autonomous Council - the inroads made by BJP, if any, is largely superficial.

The BJP might get into trouble among the tea community voters as 'subsidised rations' have become an issue of conflict after the NDA government took over at the Centre. Then there are the 'char' (river islands) areas where the Muslims form the majority apart from other belts where the Muslim population is burgeoning fast.

As a matter of fact, Assam witnessed a rapid rise in Muslim population between 2001 and 2011, according to the 2011 Census report, going up from 30.9 percent to 34.2 percent. This is way above the national average from 13.4 percent in 2001 to 14.2 percent in 2011.

"The proportion has increased by 28.8 percentage points in Darrang district, 14.88 points in Kamrup, 13.86 points in Nalbari, and 11.37 points in Barpeta. The rise in these districts, in fact, is higher than in districts bordering Bangladesh, where the Muslim population has been traditionally high. Among these border districts, Dhubri has seen a rise of 5.67 points and Karimganj of 4.08 points."—said a report in The Indian Express.

Given the 'intolerance' debate that is going on for some time now and the insecurity that has crept into some sections of the Muslims, the Congress must be counting its chances. The failure to perform as promised so far by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre is only adding to Congress' ammunition against the BJP.

"We are ready to fight the communal forces in the country. We will fight the BJP which has forgotten the developmental needs of the poor. The morale of the BJP workers are already low after the Bihar defeat and we will take to the battlefield under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi," Congress MP from Assam's Kaliabor constituency Gaurav Gogoi told Firstpost from Guwahati.

The lawmaker also said that all dissidence has come to rest after the defection of Himanta Biswa Sarma and his loyal MLAs to the BJP and the party has "become even stronger and united".

In fact, the Congress successfully wooed back many of the rebel MLAs from the Sarma camp who had earlier in an interaction with Firstpost in August this year said, "I would present them (BJP) an a la carte menu of 52 MLAs. It is for them to decide whom they want to bring in." So far, only nine of them have joined the BJP.
When asked about this minuscule figure last week, Sarma said, "Many more from the Congress and AGP will join the BJP later. The party is now trying to figure out who will be an asset to them and who has the winnability factor. In the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress lost very badly. The state government is suffering from anti-incumbency and we will have to bring in people who are free of anti-incumbency. We cannot risk transferring of anti-incumbency from Congress to BJP."

In 2011, the Congress won a record 78 seats while the BJP managed only five although there was a talk of anti-incumbency after two tenures of Tarun Gogoi. Very soon, the chief minister will complete his third term and time will decide if BJP can unsaddle him this time.

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