For the Congress in Assam, 2016 will not be the same as 2001, 2006 or 2011. Electorally, that is. In the past three assembly polls, the Congress sailed smoothly into Dispur with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi at the helm. But, it looks like the tide has turned. Gogoi's first two governments were functional, with obedient ministers. This term, however, was marred by dissidence, charges of misgovernment and a total disconnect with the people.
Dissidence, led by former health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, has cost the party dear in the last three years. Governance took a hit as the government diverted its time and energy to quell the dissidence. The dissidents were hoping that the revolt would prompt the Congress high command to sack Gogoi. But that was not to be, and, Sarma, considered to be the party's master strategist in the state, was left in the lurch.
The party high command was not willing to discipline Sarma, either. He had openly opposed Gogoi's style of government, called him “useless” and marched to the Raj Bhavan demanding his dismissal. Sarma resigned from the Gogoi ministry after the march.
Speculation was rife that Sarma, given his vote-catching ability, would be inducted into the BJP. Many top leaders of the Assam BJP privately said he could help the party improve its tally in the 2016 assembly election. But, all speculation came to an end when the BJP's national leadership published a booklet, Saga of Scams. The booklet detailed the bribery scandal relating to water projects commissioned by the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority. The booklet named Sarma the ‘main accused’ in the scandal.
The blow to Sarma enthused Gogoi. After winning the 2011 polls, Gogoi had said that he would not seek a fourth term in office. He said that all his life he was bogged down in administration, and after the third term he would pursue hobbies like travelling. But, at the dissidence, Gogoi haughtily proclaimed: “I shall be the commander of the 2016 electoral battle. With renewed vigour, I will lead my team to victory.”
But, not everyone is buying that statement. Senior Congress leader Bolin Kuli, who hails from the tea tribe community, hinted that the state Congress was likely to split before the 2016 polls. “We have already been defeated in the municipal and Bodoland territorial council elections. How can we be certain that we will win the next election? In order to make the party strong, we have to think of some alternative,” Kuli said.
The pre-poll political churning is on in Assam. Alliances are being considered by all parties. The BJP and the All India United Democratic Front, led by Muslim cleric Badruddin Ajmal, are offering tough fights to the Congress.
The BJP, too, has its share of trouble. Its former national executive member and former IT cell convener Prodyut Bora has floated the Liberal Democratic Party. Bora quit the BJP in February, when the state party leadership was considering to rope in Sarma, his bête noire. Bora then described Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah as dictators.
Bora said the LDP would be ideologically committed to liberalism and social democracy. His party has fired the imagination of the urban, educated, upper- and middle-class Assamese, who see it as an alternative to the BJP and Congress. Retired bureaucrats and police officers, journalists and businessmen, even from the tea industry, have come out in support of the LDP.
Another new party—Gana Mukti Sangram Assam—was launched on March 20 by Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader who is the face of RTI activism in the state. Akhil's original organisation, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity, spun off the new party.
A close aide of Anna Hazare, Akhil said, “We will fight till the last breath to get our rights. We will fight to change our economic system and for social uplift, so that every farmer gets ownership of land. It will be politics to snatch power from the Congress, BJP, AGP and AIUDF and to throw them into the dustbin of politics.” As new parties are being born, the once popular Asom Gana Parishad is on its deathbed.
The BJP, meanwhile, is firing all cylinders to capitalise the Lok Sabha performance—seven of 14 seats. It has launched Mission 84 Plus, its assembly poll strategy. Party strategists like Shah and Ram Madhav are banking on the membership drive that has roped in 25 lakh members. The Congress has pooh-poohed Mission 84 Plus saying that the BJP at present has only five seats in a 126-seat assembly.
Almost every day, scores of people are joining the BJP, including local celebrities. But, whether this will translate into votes is the moot point. The Modi government's land swap deal with Bangladesh and visa relaxation for Bangladeshis below 16 and above 60 years have not gone down well with the Assamese. This is being seen as a big U-turn by Modi, who during his election rallies had declared that no Bangladeshi would be entertained by the BJP.
The AIUDF which is likely to emerge as kingmaker, draws its support mainly from areas inhabited by immigrant Muslims. It, however, is not popular among indigenous Muslims of Assam. Will the Congress or the BJP ally with the AIUDF? “No,” Siddhartha Bhattacharya, state BJP president said, “oil and water can never mix.” The Congress says its doors are always open and that one never knows the future. Would Gogoi get lucky once again?