Assam's skyline has a saffron tinge to it these days, thanks to the BJP hoardings all over the state, proclaiming it as the only party that can save Assam from the onslaught of 'foreigners'—illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The BJP is raring to go, making its first-ever power bid in Assam with its catchphrase—jati, mati, bheti (race, land, homestead). Local leaders, in their fiery speeches, have dubbed the 2016 assembly polls as the ‘Last Battle of Saraighat’.
Fought in 1671, the Saraighat battle is significant in Assam's history. Lachit Borphukan, the general of the Ahom king, defeated the mighty Mughals on the bank of the Brahmaputra, thereby halting the Mughal expansion in the northeast. However, in an attempt at polarising the 1.99 crore voters on religious lines, BJP leaders conveniently forgot to mention that one of the main commanders at the battle was an Assamese Muslim, Bagh Hazarika, and that the war was fought between the Mughals, led by Raja Ramsingh, and the Ahoms. It was never a fight between Hindus and Muslims.
Although the BJP hasn't directly played the hindutva card, given the secular social fabric of Assam, its key campaigners have said that if the party does not come to power, the indigenous Assamese would lose their identity. They say the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) would come to power only with the votes of the Bangladeshi migrants, who, they claim, form a large chunk of Muslims in Assam, who account for 34 per cent of the population.
And, apart from its allies—the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodo People's Front—the BJP has found support in the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), which had launched the AGP. Samujjal Bhattacharya of the AASU has appealed to all ethnic citizens in Assam to come out in large numbers and vote against the organised Bangladeshi lobby. According to him, lakhs of illegal migrants have managed to enrol in the voters' list.
The BJP's chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal said: “A grave threat hovers over Assam from illegal Bangladeshis.” BJP president Amit Shah said that while the Congress used the illegal migrants as vote bank, “the BJP will not allow even an insect to enter Assam from across the border, which will be sealed. Assam will be safe in the hands of the BJP.”
That's easier said than done. Post the Assam Accord of 1985, Union governments, over the years, have done little to tackle the issue of illegal migrants. Although tribunals have been set up to detect illegal immigrants, there is no treaty with Bangladesh to take them back. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a good rapport with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, fails to take up the issue, illegal migrants will remain a poll plank in Assam.
The BJP has had its share of brickbats as well. While campaigning in the river island of Majuli, Modi said, “It is no longer Tarun Gogoi, but Tarun go go.” Modi's comment miffed more than just Chief Minister Gogoi. Rajiv Gogoi, president of the Tai Ahom Students’ Union, demanded Modi's apology for distorting the surname. The Ahom clan, too, vowed to give a fitting reply to Modi’s insult at the hustings. Tarun Gogoi, who has led the Congress to three successive victories since 2001, said: “Modi has become such a big dictator that he insults me on my soil. Where did he get such courage from? Is he praying for my demise?”
Akhil Gogoi, leader of the left-leaning Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, had supported the BJP in the last Lok Sabha polls, but has changed his stance now. The popular peasant leader, otherwise a critic of Tarun Gogoi, said, “Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi had promised that all foreigners would have to leave the state after the BJP’s victory, but the Centre decided to give shelter to 22 lakh Hindu Bangladeshis instead. They did a similar U-turn on the construction of big dams in Arunachal Pradesh, which will have an adverse impact on lives and ecology in Assam’s downstream areas.” He is also unhappy with the anti-beef stance of the BJP that has led to communal tensions in the country.
The Paresh Baruah-led ULFA (Independent), too, is not taking the BJP’s entry into Assam lying down. It has been repeatedly demanding a public apology from BJP leaders on the alleged involvement of Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Congress rebel who joined the BJP on the eve of the polls, in two separate murder cases (neither has been indicted by the courts). “Till their stand is made clear, we appeal to the indigenous population of the state not to cooperate with the BJP for their own safety,” warned an email by ULFA (I).
Assam's intelligentsia is also opposing the BJP. More than 40 intellectuals issued a joint statement, urging people not to vote for the BJP because of its alleged fascist character and communal inclination.
EVEN AS THE two national parties—the BJP and the Congress—battle it out, AIUDF chief Maulana Badruddin Ajmal hopes to play kingmaker. His ten-year-old party has done well so far, securing 3 of 14 Lok Sabha seats in the last elections. Also, it has 18 MLAs in the state. But, a scepticism has crept over among the Bengali-speaking minority in the riverine or char areas close to the Bangladesh border. “He is after all a big businessman with interests all over the world,” said Amjad Ali, a former supporter of the AIUDF. “Therefore, he cannot antagonise Narendra Modi, whom he addresses as his elder brother.”
The Congress, too, has accused the perfume baron of having a secret understanding with the BJP as it has put up candidates in certain constituencies that will eat into the Congress votes. A revered spiritual leader, Ajmal is also accused of heading India’s youngest political dynasty—he and his brother are members of Parliament while his two sons are MLAs.
With the two-phased polls over and with more than 80 per cent turnout, the tea state has made its pick. Come May 19, and the nation will know.