ASSAM: Assembly Elections: Close Fight between Congress & BJP

Isfaqur Rahman

IN this assembly election 2016, Assam has registered highest ever polling percentage in its electoral history. The overall poll percentage has been recorded at 84.72 percent. While the first phase recorded 82.72 percent voter turnout, the second and final phase held on April 11 witnessed record breaking 87.03 percent voters exercising their franchise.

In fact, Assam had set a state record in 2014 Lok Sabha elections with a voter turnout of 80.08 percent. In the last assembly elections in 2011, 76.05 percent electorate had cast their votes. Since 1985, the overall poll percentage has always been above 75 percent.

In the first phase of polling held on April 4, 65 assembly constituencies, stretching from upper Assam and the two hill districts to the Barak Valley, went to the polls. In the second phase, polling was held in the remaining 61 constituencies spread across central and lower Assam. There are 126 seats in the state assembly.

A total of 1,064 candidates contested the elections, of whom 122 are from the Congress, 89 from the BJP, 74 from the AIUDF, 30 from the AGP and 13 from the BPF. The Left parties, including the CPI(M), fielded candidates in 45 constituencies (The CPI(M)-19, CPI-15, CPI(ML)-7, RCPI-2, RSP and AIFB one each). There are 497 independent candidates. The remaining are from the other minor parties.

 

MAJOR

ALLIANCES

The Assam elections were fought mainly among three alliances– (i) The Congress and United People's Party (UPP), a newly formed rival of the Bodo People's Front (BPF), (ii) The BJP-AGP and BPF combine and (iii) The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)-RJD-JD(U) alliance.

The six Left Parties – the CPI(M), CPI, CPI(ML), RCPI, RSP and AIFB – fought the elections together as a 'Left Block' and decided not to have any alliance or understanding with any of the non-Left parties. The united platform of the Left gave a call to oust the Congress from power, defeat the BJP and their allies and to ensure Left representation in the state assembly. The Left also called upon the electorate to ensure peace and communal harmony, strengthen the unity among various sections of the people and to strengthen Left and democratic forces for all-round development of Assam. In the constituencies where Left candidates were not in the fray, the parties appealed the voters to vote for strong democratic and secular candidates who have brighter chances to defeat both the Congress and the BJP.

 

DIVIDED

ELECTORATE

In spite of the unprecedented voter turnout, Assam's electorate remains divided over a vote for 'continuity' or 'parivantan' (change) – the Congress or BJP-AGP-BPF combine. The two phase elections present a hazy picture regarding the formation of the next government in the state. The BJP and their allies have been claiming they will form the next government with absolute majority. The ruling Congress, too, exudes confidence to retain power for the fourth successive term with comfortable majority. Claims and counter-claims notwithstanding, most of the independent observers and poll analysts predict a hung assembly. No parties or combinations will reach the magic figure of 64, the observers assert.

The BJP, which had announced "Mission-84" (two-thirds of the 126 member house) in Assam after the 2014 Lok Sabha victory, is now contesting only in 89 seats, leaving 24 seats to the AGP and 13 to the BPF. The AGP, however, fielded 30 candidates, six of which are 'friendly' contest with the BJP. The Congress, on the other hand, is contesting in 122 seats, leaving four seats to its last minute ally, the UPP. However, the UPP, backed by All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU) and some other Bodo organisations, have fielded 16 candidates. In the 2014 LS elections, the BJP took the lead in 69 constituencies, while the Congress was leading in 23 and AIUDF in 24 assembly segments.

In the event of a hung assembly, perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF will probably emerge as the 'king-maker'. While the BJP had been talking of a 'secret understanding' between the Congress and the AIUDF, the ruling Congress has strongly refuted the charge and claimed 'match-fixing' between the BJP and the AIUDF.

In the 2011 assembly elections, the Congress won in 78 seats while the AIUDF emerged as the second largest party with 18 seats. The regional AGP won in 10 seats and the BJP had to be content with 5 seats only. The BPF, which had a long stint with the Congress and shared power with the ruling dispensation, won in 12 seats. After the 2014 LS elections, the BPF snapped ties with the Congress and switched to the BJP for a 'marriage of convenience'.

The AIUDF joined hands with the RJD and JD(U). These two partners of the Ajmal's party are quite insignificant in Assam's politics. The AIUDF fielded candidates in 74 constituencies, mostly in Barak Valley and Lower Assam districts. It has left 12 seats each to the RJD and JD(U).

 

ABOUT THE

CAMPAIGN

The high-voltage campaign was characterised by no-holds-barred tirade of allegations and counter allegations by the rival parties – the Congress and the BJP in particular. The major policy issues were not given due importance. While the BJP's campaign was marked by appeal to the electorate to vote for 'change' to bring development, the Congress highlighted its 'achievements' during the last 15 years of its uninterrupted rule.

In fact, the Congress has been in a bad shape in Assam. A strong anti-incumbency was building up against the government headed by chief minister Tarun Gogoi. The Congress misrule knew no bounds and the government was riddled with scandals and corruptions, coupled with dissidence within the party.

On the eve of the elections, the BJP's 'popularity', too, plummeted significantly. The euphoria over the victory in Lok Sabha elections was fading fast and the Modi bubbles had begun to burst. The people of the state were disillusioned with the Modi government for its deceit, duplicity and falsehood. The central government curbed Assam's ''special category status'', slashed funds under different central schemes and suspended the 'North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIIPP), 2007'. On the issues like construction of big dams, infiltration of foreigners, etc the BJP has done a complete 'U-turn'. The centre refused to treat the problems of floods and erosion in Assam as a national problem.  Similarly, centre's dilly-dallying tactics and perfidious role in granting Scheduled Tribe status to the six communities also angered the backward communities. The secular minded and saner sections of the people also abhorred the growing politics of intolerance and hate-campaigns unleashed by the 'Hindutva' forces under the patronage of the Modi government.

But the BJP has been hell bent to capture power in Assam by hook or by crook. They projected union minister Sarbananda Sonowal as their chief ministerial candidate. Despite initial reluctance and resistance from within, the turn of events forced the BJP to enter into alliance with the AGP. The rickety regional party, too, was in complete disarray and groping for an ally. The AGP displayed ideological bankruptcy and sheer opportunism and also buried its secular credentials.

The RSS, chief architect of the BJP's election campaigns and strategy, has woven the web of deceit, lies and intrigue. The Sangha worked assiduously to communalise the atmosphere and polarise the voters. It poured enough venom against the Muslims. Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF, too, gave much needed fillip to the RSS mission. In the thick of the battle, Ajmal's language became increasingly communal to attract and magnetise the Muslim voters to the opposite pole. It is widely perceived that the AIUDF has fielded candidates in some of the constituencies where it has little influence or base only to benefit the BJP. It has also given credence to the theory of 'match-fixing' between the BJP and AIUDF.

The BJP's chief election plank has been illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The saffron brigade has been painting the problems of influx as 'Muslim aggression'. The BJP compared the elections in Assam to the battle of 'Saraighat', the famous 17th century face-off between invading Mughals and commander-in-chief Lachit Barphukan of Ahom Kingdom on the river Brahmaputra. The Ahom defeated the Mughals in the battle.

Led by prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, almost all the BJP leaders had been attacking Congress of being sympathetic to Bangladeshi infiltrators. In its bid to woo indigenous Assamese voters, BJP's chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal said, "a great threat hovers over Assam from illegal Bangladeshis". Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's blue-eyed-boy turned arch rival Himanta Biswa Sarma has emerged as the star campaigner for the BJP after having successfully turning the issue of "Assamese identity versus illegal Bangladeshi migrants" as the main poll plank. The former Congress minister, in fact, earned considerable notoriety for various scandals and political chicanery. While Sarma's chief ministerial ambitions were not hidden, he even sought to dismiss the 'Assam Accord' and stated that the BJP could even go back to 1951 as cut off year for detecting infiltrators. Releasing the BJP's 'Vision Document' in Guwahati, finance minister Arun Jaitley said, "The Congress tried to destroy and change the demography of the state by encouraging infiltration".

For the Congress, party president Sonia Gandhi, vice-president Rahul Gandhi, former ministers Ghulam Nabi Azad, Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid, among others, campaigned for their candidates. Although the AIUDF has some token influence or entry into other communities, the main support base of the Ajmal-led party confined in areas inhabited by Muslims of erstwhile East Bengal origin. If the Muslim vote is more towards the AIUDF, or splits equally between the Congress and the AIUDF, then the BJP and their allies can look at forming the next government.

 

VITIATED

ATMOSPHERE

The assembly elections this time showed unprecedented display of money power and inflow of illegal funds. The parties like BJP, Congress, AIUDF, etc spent crores of rupees. The Congress spent crores, but could not match with the money power of the BJP. The huge inflow of black money and inducement of voters have considerably vitiated the atmosphere of fair elections and blew-up the level playing ground. Even the Election Commission seized over                 Rs 12.33 crores during the elections. The BJP, Congress and AIUDF fielded good number of candidates against whom serious charges of murder, extortion and kidnapping exist in various courts of law. The principled and value-based politics were given a go by.

The partisan role of a section of print and electronic media was quite abominable. Certain electronic media brazenly backed the BJP. There was no serious treatment of the issues and problems the people are confronted with. It was all a fiddle.

 

 

 

CPI(M)

CAMPAIGN

The six Left parties fought the elections unitedly. The CPI(M) fielded 19 candidates and campaigned vigorously against the misrule and corruption of the ruling Congress and communalism of the BJP. The Party focused on the disastrous impact of the neo-liberal economic policies on the life and living conditions of the common people. The CPI(M) also did not spare parties like AIUDF for their narrow sectarian politics with communal overtones. The issues like price-rise, food security, land to the landless, infrastructure development and employment generation, rapid industrialisation, floods and erosion, woes and sufferings of the peasants and working people were highlighted in the campaigns.

The CPI(M) and the Left parties were the only exception in presenting an alternative set of policies for the all round development of Assam. The lies, deceit and false promises of both the Congress the BJP were exposed. The Left parties stressed the need for strengthening the unity and integrity, peace and harmony among various sections of the people. The politics of communal division and polarisation were squarely denounced. The CPI(M) also tried its best to ensure Left representation in the state assembly. In spite of its own limitations and shortcomings, coupled with financial constraints, the Party got massive response from the people during electioneering. In all the constituencies where the Left has fielded candidates, the CPI(M) leaders, members and sympathisers worked assiduously and tirelessly. In the constituencies like Rangia, Sorbhog, Rangapara, Sootea, Bijni, Dispur etc, the participation of younger generations in the campaigns were awe-inspiring.

The CPI(M) election campaign, in fact, started with a mammoth state-level rally held in Guwahati on February 21 last, just before the announcement of the election schedule by the ECI. The rally was addressed, among others, by Party's general secretary Sitaram Yechury. During the thick of the election battle, apart from Yechury, Party's Polit Bureau members Brinda Karat and Manik Sankar also visited the state and addressed meetings. While Sitaram Yechury addressed meetings at Rangapara and Sootea constituencies, Brinda Karat addressed election meetings at Rangia and Dispur seats. Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar addressed huge gatherings at Sorbhog, Bijni, Barpeta Road, Nalbari and Rangia. Tripura's minister Sahid Chowdhury also addressed meetings at Sarukhetry and Jonia constituencies. Some other CPI(M) leaders from neighbouring Tripura also campaigned for the elections in Assam. All the leaders came down heavily on the anti-people policies of the Modi-led central government and exhorted the people of Assam to defeat the communal BJP and oust the Congress from power. They stressed the need for Left representation in the assembly for championing the cause of the people.

Former MLA Ananta Deka, who wrested the Rangia seat from the Congress in 2006 elections, is contesting again from the constituency. Party's state secretariat member Monoranjan Talukdar is fielded in Sorbhog constituency against the sitting BJP MLA. State Committee members Gajen Barman and Royel Soreng were contesting from Bijni and Rangapara constituencies respectively. All these candidates of the CPI(M) put a brave fight and earned popular support.

The CPI(M) fielded 26 year-old SFI leader Sangita Das against two political heavyweights of the Congress and BJP in the prestigious Dispur seat. She is the youngest among all the candidates in the state. Banking on neither a huge campaign fund nor large scale rallies, Sangita went door-to-door to garner votes. A large student group also accompanied her during the campaign.

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