The three words that sum up almost all of Assam's issues — Jaati (identity), Maati (land) and Bheti (house) — were ironically first invoked by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Himanta Biswa Sarma in Dhemaji during the pre-poll campaign in 2016 — which had become the key words that eased BJP's victory in 2016.
Now, after nearly five years of BJP rule, although Assam is boiling against the BJP mainly for its allegedly broken promises to safeguard the people's identity, land and homes in the state, as well as against a locally strong sentimental wave against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) — the Opposition parties in the fray are still divided between two camps against BJP, which raises the question of whether they will actually be able to defeat the BJP in the upcoming Assam Assembly elections.
To find where lie the divided opposition's strengths and weaknesses, let's dive into the recent history of the formations of these coalitions and the way the parties are now acting.
THE CONGRESS-AIUDF-LEFT-MORCHA COALITION
The Congress and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) acted as rivals during the 2016 Assam polls, which divided both parties' strongholds among Muslims in the state, but eventually Congress was the loser. While Congress is a national party, AIUDF was formed initially as a platform primarily by Muslim intellectuals and leaders in October 2005 as the Congress apparently had not been able to safeguard their identitarian crisis and the alleged Bangladeshi tag, with perfume tycoon Badruddin Ajmal as the AIUDF chief.
In 2015, before the Assembly polls, Ajmal reportedly asked: "Who is Tarun Gogoi?" in Dhubri, as a retorting remark against the then Assam Chief Minister, late Tarun Gogoi, who reportedly asked in 2005 the same question: "Who is Badruddin Ajmal?"
Although Ajmal claims AIUDF is a national party, it has always concentrated its politics only in Assam. The recently deceased Gogoi was Assam CM for three consecutive terms from 2001 to 2016 until BJP came to the power with a whopping mandate, beating Congress in 2016. However, Congress’s failure in 2016 cannot merely be attributed to the AIUDF factor. The Gogoi-vs-Sarma feud in Assam became acrimonious much before the 2016 Assembly polls, and finally Sarma joined BJP in August 2015, months before the 2016 Assembly polls, giving the Congress a body blow.
In this backdrop, with Assam BJP winning local polls since 2016, including the prestigious Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) polls in December 2020, the Congress and AIUDF both decided to come together, with Left forces also joining the fold.
Eventually, while Congress and AIUDF decided to nominate and successfully elect noted Assamese scribe Ajit Kumar Bhuyan to Rajya Sabha, his newly launched party Anchalik Gana Morcha also joined the coalition on January 19 this year.
As of now, seat sharing is a key problem for both Congress and AIUDF. On January 28, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee held a meeting to decide the seat-sharing formula. But, seat sharing can prove to be a major hurdle for both parties, as Congress is likely to lose a major chunk of Assamese voters, since AIUDF is perceived by both Hindu and Muslim Assamese people as an immigrant Bengali-Muslim-dominated party.
LEFT’S STRENGTH IN ASSAM
Although the Left parties have strongholds in both lower and upper Assam, as well as the state's Bengali zone, Barak Valley, their influence has gradually faded, first, owing to the rise of ethnic politics in the early 1980s, and then after the BJP's foray into Assam's politics. Before the Assam Movement, the Left coalition won 21 seats in 1978, while for the past few decades, the Left parties could not draw much votes, especially following BJP's foray in the Assam Assembly in 1991 with 10 seats.
This time too, the wins or losses of the Left parties depend largely on the seat sharing arrangement with other coalition partners, especially Congress and AIUDF. However, there is possibility of Left resurgence in the state as coalition politics has favoured the Left after the Assam Movement, as they won six seats in 1996 and three in 2006 after a seat-sharing understanding with Asom Gana Parishad or AGP.
AJP-RAIJOR DAL COMBINATION
The Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal have both emerged from the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) movement in Assam. AJP has emerged from a strong wave of Assamese nationalism and its organisational back-up is strong enough, as both All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) are behind the screen to support the party. AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi was AASU general secretary until December 2020.
The Raijor Dal is primarily banking on activist Akhil Gogoi's release from jail. Even though Raijor Dal has sentimental value among secular Assamese people, as of now, the party seems to be weak both in terms of funds and structurally. In party president Akhil Gogoi's absence, it has three working presidents, Bhasko D Saikia, Kabindra Chetia Phukan and Jitul Dekan, while there are 16 vice presidents and 21 secretaries, along with a personality such as eminent Assamese scholar-activist Hiren Gohain as their chief advisor. Yet, the party office often looks empty and its working presidents remain elusive from media.
Akhil Gogoi's release before the polls may boost the morale of the party, but that may not happen until Gogoi is able to win from the Sivasagar Assembly constituency, a party source revealed on condition of anonymity. Raijor Dal leaders are, however, tight-lipped on any seat-sharing deal as of now.
AJP, according to a source, initially decided to field Lurinjyoti in Duliajan or Jalukbari constituency, while party general secretary Jagadish Bhuyan was supposed to contest from Sadiya, from where he won as an AGP candidate in 1996 and 2001 before being defeated by then Congress leader Bolin Chetia in 2006. Bhuyan joined BJP in 2015 after his two-time defeat in 2006 and 2011 against Chetia, but again quit the saffron party, reportedly as a move against CAA, a day after the contentious Act was passed in Rajya Sabha on December 11, 2019. In Dhemji, AJP is slated to field Chittaranjan Basumatary.
WHAT DO POLITICAL PUNDITS SAY
Joydeep Baruah, a professor in Surya Kumar Bhuyan School of Social Sciences, says the AJP and Raijor Dal have come up in the vacuum created by AGP in the Assamese ethno-nationalistic politics, but the "success, and also the political future of these parties, depend on the question whether the idea of Assamese nationalism still remains inclusive enough after the kind of politics BJP is playing in Assam for the past a few years".
According to Baruah, the idea of Assamese nationalism seems no longer potent and inclusive enough to resist BJP's aggressive politics. “The electoral prospect of these parties is also accordingly limited. Instead, their alliance should be based on a concrete and common minimum programme covering the issues of day-to-day life and livelihood of people, which may offer greater electoral and political viability," he adds.
"The same applies to the Congress-AIUDF-Left alliance, too. A paradigm shift from the BJP-dictated narrative is a must now for Assam," says the political scientist.
Noted Assamese journalist Mrinal Talukdar, however, views regionalism and regional parties as separate things. While the space for regionalism is going to last, the political players may vary from time to time, he says. For instance, AGP and the United People's Party Liberation (UPPL) are now part of the power structure with the BJP, while the Bololand People's Front (BPF) sits in the opposition. “While AGP has handed over its regional agenda completely to BJP, in that space, new entities like AJP and Raijor Dal have come up, which is quite natural," adds the veteran scribe, who is also the author of a number of critically acclaimed books, such as Secret Killings of Assam and The Game Called NRC.
"Structurally and organisationally, BJP is far stronger than the regional parties. But, at the same time, emerging regional powers, like AJP and Rajor Dal, know that there is a space, and that's why they are there. If they continue to stay within the ideology to stay away from BJP and Congress, definitely they’ve a way to go. If they don’t get sufficient numbers this time, the next time they will definitely be able to do better," added Talukdar.
Talking about Muslim votes, Talukdar says the community may choose AJP and Raijor Dal, especially in lower Assam this time round. "As far as Muslim votes, especially immigrant Muslim blocks are concerned, may be they will go to Congress or AIUDF, but I’ve started believing that since the NRC (National Register of Citizens) has come out and all of them have found their names, they now want legitimacy and respect and may abandon both AIUDF and Congress and go to AJP and Raijor Dal. By voting for the AJP and Raijor Dal, they will not face the enmity post the elections, as they did in Bodoland, where the UPPL, despite all its efforts, did not get to upstage BPF, which actually got 17 seats, mainly because Muslims supported BPF, deserting AIUDF and Congress. This may happen again. I always say the Muslim community's voting pattern, sentiments and voting sensibilities are far more mature than the Assamese people," says Talukdar.
Another veteran Assamese journalist, Haidar Hussain, held similar views, but had a different tone. "For the past three-four decades, no organised opposition could defeat any government anywhere in India. Several governments have been breaking themselves apart owing to their own misdeeds. If we consider BJP today, it has no upper limit to cross, it can only go down now, and that’s the case even in Assam," says Hussain.
Hussain further said that as Congress has gone into a coalition with AIUDF, a "community-based party" as he termed it, it may actually eliminate itself from the big race because "most people in Assam abhor communal or community-based politics, such as of BJP or AIUDF. These two parties are not competing forces in Assam; rather they are complementing each other. Congress, as a party with a secular outlook, should not have gone with AIUDF."
"In these circumstances, even though the regional parties are newly formed, and especially Raijor Dal being totally dependent on Akhil Gogoi, there is still a chance of people turning in favour of the regional parties in the fray with identitarian politics as their backbone. If they appeal to the people, even immigrant Muslims, that they will be treated equal to the Assamese people, people may choose dignity over community. So, in the coming months before the polls, there may be a change in the voter mindset, which may go in favour of AJP and Raijor Dal," he adds.
Hussain could be right in pointing out that Congress' decision to forge an alliance with AIUDF may actually help BJP, as a day after the Congress-AIUDF-Left-Morcha coalition was announced in a Dispur rally, the AIUDF chief reportedly said that " BJP has listed 3,500 mosques across the country and will demolish all of them if they form the next government in 2024 general elections". Ajmal was addressing an election rally at Gauripur in his Dhubri Lok Sabha constituency on January 20. His remarks sparked a debate, further fuelling BJP's Sarma to invoke Lord Rama at a "Vijay Sankalp Samaroh" in Nalbari on January 24, to defeat Ajmal and the entire opposition. Sarma, in his usual communalism-conjuring tone, said: "The only aim of Ajmal, Congress and regional parties is how to bring Babar's rule in Assam. But, until the BJP's Hanumans are there, we will move ahead with Ram's ideals."
While it is clear that most parties in the fray are up against BJP this time, with Sarma campaigning that every party is involved in the process of "how to bring Babar's rule in Assam", the people's mandate seems to be the only answer to what lies in the future of Assam — communal politics or the politics of development in the form of Jati, Maati and Bheti’s development — where BJP has miserably failed, as jailed Raijor Dal president Akhil Gogoi recently detailed in his analytical booklet on the broken promises of BJP, titled "BJPr Bhuya Pratishruti" (False Promises of the BJP), published on January 23, coinciding with PM Modi's visit to Assam. Gogoi has analysed BJP's entire Vision Document unveiled before the 2016 polls and has shown that only a few have been actually fulfilled. NewsClick has a copy of the booklet and will soon publish its highlights.