As campaigning for the third phase of the Lok Sabha elections go on in full swing, the Northeast’s most important constituency Gauhati is gearing up for an intense battle on April 23, the final phase of voting in Assam.
While Gauhati has become the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) stronghold with party veteran Bijoya Chakraborty winning the race twice in a row, this time the party had to field a new face Queen Oja, owing to Chakroborty’s age and health issues. The Congress has also fielded a new face Bobbeeta Sharma, and given that Sharma is a popular actress too, it is likely going to be a close fight between the two prominent female candidates in the fray.
But there is a third independent candidate as well, Upamanyu Hazarika, whose vote share is likely to be a factor in deciding who out of the two women wins.
Hazarika, a senior lawyer at the Supreme Court and convener of an indigenous people’s forum, the Prabajan Virodhi Manch, is contesting on the plank of demands that include measures to prevent the alleged Bangladeshi infiltration and reservation of land, jobs and trade licences for indigenous Assamese folks.
With the slogan “No More Foreigners”, Hazarika is likely to draw at least 1.5 lakh votes, as per local political analysts, who are saying that Hazarika’s votes will undercut the BJP’s votes.
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The Gauhati constituency, with its whopping 1,723,860-plus voters, has 10 assembly segments — Dudhnai (ST), Boko (SC), Chaygaon, Palasbari, Jalukbari, Dispur, Gauhati East, Gauhati West, Hajo and Barkhetry.
Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor A Drop to Drink
Although surrounded by the mighty Brahmaputra river, the Gauhati city, which is the heart of the constituency, is faced with a severe water crisis. No more than 25 areas in Guwahati reportedly have access to public water supply, while citizens in thousands of blocks in the city do not have proper drinking water or sanitation. Areas such as Sijubari, which has a dense Muslim population, have no water supply at all, besides the areas of Tarun Nagar, Nabin Nagar and Zoo Road. The lack of proper sanitation, or water logging during the Monsoon, is another major factor that affects people’s life severely in the city. Jamal Rahman, secretary of the Sijubari Radiant Yuvak Sangha, an NGO, said, “The worst problems at Sijubari and Hatigaon areas is the lack of drinking water and communication. There is the problem of water clogging as well. This happens when a nearby canal, a tributary of the Basistha river, flowing through the nearby Bhetapara area, is flooded with water flowing in from Meghalaya. Sometimes the canal overflows and the water comes to the low-lying areas.”
“The roads are also relatively bad here. The population is dense in the area, and yet the roads are in real bad shape in the area,” added Rahman. Asked whether the area is being neglected, because of being a Muslim-populated zone, Rajib Ali, another member of the NGO, said, “Yes, we think so. Like that.”
The Sijubari or Hatigaon areas both fall in the state capital Dispur assembly constituency, one of the largest assembly constituencies under the Gauhati parliamentary constituency.
Is politics of polarisation dominating the developmental issues?
In Gauhati, inundation owing to water-logging during the rainy season after every medium to heavy downpour is one of the most serious issues that deserves to dominate the polling season. Because of continuous clogging of the drains and alleged negligence by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) in cleaning it, the dirty water overflows from the drains into local houses. While the Congress could have made the drinking water as well as water-logging the major poll issues this time against the BJP, they are found mostly silent on the issue. Congress candidate Sharma, however, reportedly was found talking on the issue only once, that too when asked by the media. The campaigning in Guahati constituency is primarily surrounding the citizenship issue, both by the BJP and the Congress, as well as independent candidate Hazarika. Even organizations such as Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, which had rocked the city many times against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, have kept completely mum on these serious issues.
The All Assam Minority Students’ Union advisor Azizur Rahman, who stays at the Hatigaon area, said, “Both parties, the Congress that ruled here for 15 long years and presently the BJP, are doing politics in the name of these kinds of problems, but they have no interest in solving these two key problems. They are convincing people to vote in favour of each candidate to solve these problems, but ultimately no solution is here while people are still facing the problems.”
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Asked whether communal politics was dominating over the local development-related issues, Rahman said, “After the BJP came in, throughout Assam, communal polarization is going on. Gauhati city is also facing the communal problem. The BJP and all of its leaders are trying to polarize the voters to cast their votes in favour of Hinduism. The Congress is also trying in the name of secularism, but they have hidden politics also. All the political parties are ignoring these issues. They are trying to get votes in the name of Hindus or Muslims.”
The Louis Berger Scam and Gauhati City
In July 2016, a US-based firm Louis Berger International Inc. reportedly told the US Department of Justice that they had paid $976,630 as bribe to acquire a project in Goa and Gauhati. Allegations were raised against then Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma by the BJP itself in a booklet entitled “Water Supply Scam 2010 in Goa and Guwahati” on July 21, 2015. However, within a year, right before the Assam legislative assembly polls in 2016, Sarma, ironically enough, joined the BJP and now holds the state Finance Ministry again.
Bhaben Handique, an RTI activist and convener of Swaraj Asom, who filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against Sarma, said, “As you know, we filed a PIL in the Gauhati High Court, and the honourable Gauhati High Court ordered a CBI inquiry regarding the Luis Berger case. But unfortunately, the CBI has not done the inquiry. As you know the high-profile minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is an accused in this case, but the CBI is still not investigating the whole case. We approached the CBI many a time, but we are not satisfied with the CBI inquiry process. I had also applied to the US Department of Justice and FBI to get some documents regarding the Louis Berger scandal, and fortunately the US Department of Justice and FBI have given some documents. We submitted them to the CBI, but unfortunately the CBI has not taken any proper action against our documents. In an email, it is clear that the whole money transaction was done by Louis Berger company and the alleged, our high-profile politician.”
Who Will Win?
Basab Roy, a Gauhati-based writer who published a literary magazine called “Ninth Column”, said, “The BJP candidate got 764,985 votes in 2014, while the runner-up Congress candidate got 449,201 votes, and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) candidate got 13,7254 votes. This time, as Upamanyu Hazarika is in the fray with his slogan of ‘No More Foreigners’, it is obvious that Hazarika will get at least 1.5 lakh votes, which are actually the BJP votes. Also, because the last time, there was a wave in favour of the BJP even in Assam, which is apparently missing this time, at least 5 per cent of the people who voted for the BJP may not cast their votes, which stand at 38,249 votes. So if we deduct Hazarika’s 1.5 lakh votes and this 38 thousand-plus votes, while counting the AIUDF votes as Congress votes, the BJP’s vote count stands at 576,736, while the total votes for Congress stand at 586,455. As per this calculation, the Congress stands as the winner.”
“This is merely a speculation, however. I would rather say that both party candidates have 50:50 chance to win,” added Roy.