The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is desperate to wrest power from the Indian National Congress (INC) in Assam, one of the four Indian States that go to polls this summer. After reverses in Delhi and Bihar, and no chance of a significant performance in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Assam seems to be the only State the saffron party is in with a realistic chance.
Assam is also the pivot of the Northeast and a victory there would provide the party with a launching pad to organisationally penetrate the frontier region. For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has made “Act East” through Northeast a key pillar of his proactive foreign policy, a political victory in Assam is key to implementing important national policy decisions crucial for regional growth. For instance, control over Assam (and Arunachal Pradesh through President’s rule) gives the BJP the opportunity to push ahead with mega hydel power projects that hold the key to India’s power capacity that must grow fast to ensure seven per cent plus growth in gross domestic product. Without that kind of growth, the Modi magic will wear off soon and the BJP will be staring at defeat after defeat in the rundown to the 2019 parliamentary polls, when the Prime Minister is scheduled to seek a fresh mandate.
Assam, an ethnically diverse State (should we say a microcosm of India) prone to conflict along its many fault lines, has been ruled by the INC since 2001. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi led the party back to power twice in 2006 and 2011, making him a legend in Assam. Not even stalwarts like Gopinath Bordoloi or Bimala Prasad Chaliha have had such a brilliant electoral track record. If Gogoi wins, not only will the INC survive in one of its long-running bases but it would also justify the party high command’s faith in going to the polls with the experienced veteran.
A victory in Assam for the INC would make up for a possible defeat in Kerala but if the party scripts a comeback in both the States, it would go on to prove that its leaders in the States who perform on ground are less prone to anti-incumbency than Sonia Gandhi’s team in Delhi.
However, though both the BJP and the INC are desperate for victory in Assam, they may end up falling short of the majority on their own. The BJP is an obvious frontrunner, since it has sealed alliance with two key regional parties — Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which ruled Assam for two terms in 1985-90 and 1996-2001, and the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF). While the AGP had entered into an alliance with the BJP in 2001 on prodding of the then Governor and BJP loyalist. Lt. Gen. (Retd.) S. K. Sinha and parted ways with the saffron party after a decade of partnership, the BPF had been an ally of the INC since 2006. It controls the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Council.
Pollsters say that while the INC is heading for a huge loss of seats from its current tally of 78. However, it is not out of the reckoning. They say while the BJP-led alliance is expected to win more than 50 seats, the INC is unlikely to slip below 40. That leaves the field open for Independents, managing whom would be the first priority of both the BJP and the Congress. But if there are not enough Independent winners, the focus will turn to the third force in Assam’s politics.
The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal had a growing presence in Assam after winning six seats on debut in 2006 and more than doubling it to 17 in 2011. The INC’s failure to work out a pre-poll alliance with the minority party, AIUDF, led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, threatens to split Assam’s 36 per cent Muslim vote, the largest Muslim electorate in India in percentage terms after Jammu and Kashmir.
“A divided Muslim vote is the INC’s worst case scenario,” says political analyst Nani Gopal Mahanta. “That will help the BJP.”
Pollsters are not clear about its performance this time. Some like political commentator J. P. Saikia say many Muslims who could have voted for Ajmal are returning to the INC to keep the BJP out. Others like senior journalist Samir Purkayastha say Muslims could have possibly voted for Ajmal in larger numbers to give the party a powerful bargaining muscle to protect minority interests, which a weakened INC is seen as unlikely to protect.
Even if the AIUDF retains its 2011 tally of 17 or just slips below 15, it may emerge as the ‘king-maker’ in Assam politics. The BJP’s leaders have so far officially denied that the party will do business with Ajmal, but ground realities indicate otherwise. Intelligence monitors and political insiders say Ajmal and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma have been involved in secret backroom parleys just to ‘keep all options open’. Sarma was number two to Tarun Gogoi before he broke away and joined the BJP, some say, to protect himself from prosecution in a host of scams like Saradha and Berger.
“Sarma is ambitious and not keen to stay in the BJP which has projected Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate. So, he will use his close links to Ajmal and BPF leader Hangrama Mohilary to jockey for the top job,” says Assamese journalist Amarjyoti Bora.
Sonowal is a very popular young leader, now India’s Sports Minister and considered a ‘jatiyo bir’ (national hero) in Assam for his successful and spirited legal offensive that led to the scrapping of the Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, that was seen by the ethnic Assamese as protective of the illegal migrants from Bangladesh. He is also not a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organiser from the Indian mainland unfamiliar with the ways of the Northeast, but a home grown leader from the stable of aggressive Assamese agitation politics, having led both the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), before joining the BJP six years ago.
But Sonowal is anathema for Assam’s migrant Muslims who see his elevation with fear. For precisely the same reason he is so popular with the ethnic Assamese. His commitment to tackle the State’s illegal migration problem has caused a scare amongst the migrant Muslims who far outnumber ethnic Assamese Muslims.
Sonowal’s problem, however, lies within the BJP, which accepted in its fold former INC minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
“Sonowal is the obvious choice for chief ministership, but Sarma has his ambitions. He broke off with Gogoi when the Chief Minister inducted his son into politics. Sarma wants to be number one, not number two,” says Assam-watcher Samir Purkayastha.
The BJP faced serious dissidence in many constituencies after it announced its electoral contestants as party old timers were uncomfortable with too many candidates known to be close to Sarma. A youth leader, Prodyut Bora, even left the BJP once Sarma was inducted.
For the AIUDF, Sarma may be a compromise chief minister if it is forced to back the BJP‘s bid to form the government in case the INC does not have sufficient numbers. Ajmal explained the problem to this writer when he said: “It all depends on numbers, on how much we get and how the other parties get. The numbers will decide who goes with whom.”
For someone who had ruled out an alliance with the BJP (and the BJP had ruled out one with his party), it looks like both the BJP and the AIUDF is reconciled to forming a government on the Jammu and Kashmir model — this is if AIUDF cannot go with INC, which may not have numbers, and if the BJP is compelled to fall back on the AIUDF.
It is not yet clear how the AIUDF’s rank and file will react to an alliance with the BJP, but indications are that many may support it if Sonowal is not the Chief Minister.
Ajmal, now an MP, may become a Union minister, his brother may ask for a deputy chief minister position and there might be a subtle understanding between Sarma and Ajmal that the coalition government will go slow on the tribunals meant to detect and deport illegal migrants, if not completely close them down.
“So, the protection that was lost in legal terms may be partially regained in legislative terms, if the BJP gets dependent on the AIUDF to form a government,” says Samir Purkayastha.
But the AIUDF faced huge dissidence over choice of candidates, party offices were burnt down by those who did not get tickets and who alleged Ajmal was accepting huge premiums for giving away party tickets. A similar wave of dissidence could resurface if the possible entente with the BJP does not address crucial minority concerns.
“Ajaml is ruining the very basis of minority politics in Assam. He is a trader and a religious preacher, not a politician and he does not understand the fears of Assam’s many minorities,” says Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Chowdhury, one of AIUDF’s founders who later broke away from Ajmal over serious differences, one being his opposition to let non-Muslims into the party in larger numbers.
“Ajmal is sending conflicting signals by often praising the Modi government, which has sparked rumours of a secret anti-Congress understanding,” Chowdhury said, adding: “This will not go down well with the Muslims and other minorities; they may oppose a deal with the BJP.”
So, if the BJP’s compulsions to rope in the AIUDF is purely tactical to form a government in Assam, which is important for the party for various reasons discussed above, what is the AIUDF’s perspective in considering an alliance with an apparent bête noire? AIUDF leaders say that the INC may be a natural ally because of the declared secular nature of the party, but it has treated the minorities as a ‘mere vote bank’ so far. As in the case of Tripura, where the INC was more acceptable to the tribal parties because it had no presence in tribal areas, in Assam the BJP appears more acceptable than the INC because it has no presence in the minority areas.
The tribal parties in Tripura avoided the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)] though it was much more mindful of tribal interests than the Bengali-dominated INC and its State leadership’s opposition to tribal autonomy. Similarly, if the AIUDF can control the anti-minority posture of the BJP by the simple logic of legislative dependence, the alliance would be one of mutual dependence — somewhat like the Malayan coalition model of ethnic parties, each of which accounted for support from one major community but never attempting to slice into each other’s votebanks. The INC by its nature would not fit into such coalition models because of its aspirations to build support in all communities everywhere in India.
AIUDF leaders also realise that if a hung assembly leads to President’s rule, an election in the near future will return the BJP with a stronger majority, which will deny any leverage to the AIUDF to influence policies specially on the migration and identity issues.
“The AIUDF wants to evolve into a secular democratic alternative to the INC in Assam politics. The demise of the INC helps that cause. If an alliance with the BJP can lead to effective power sharing at the Centre and in Assam, it is seen as an option worth trying by some of our leaders,” says Smita Mishra, a top women leader of the AIUDF.
If the top contenders don’t win a majority, Assam is headed for a J&K-type coalition of strange bedfellows. Parties that have echoed totally opposite agendas during the election campaign will be shaking hands to form a government. The BJP and the AIUDF may stay in power by not stepping on to each other’s toes, but they would surely end up diluting the issues they raised during the elections with so much fervour.