While Himanta Biswa Sarma has been made the BJP's campaign committee convener, Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal is its CM candidate.
Assam is among the first in the series of five states going to assembly elections this summer. According to the schedule announced by the Election Commission, the voting will be held on April 4 and 11 to elect MLAs to the 126-member assembly. While the ruling Congress called the elections a matter of “peace versus tension” the BJP said it was an opportunity for the people to “choose between India and Bangladesh.’’
What could play a significant role in the elections are the D voters, a category peculiar to Assam. As many as 1,36,448 voters are classified as D or doubtful in the electoral rolls in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The tag has been given to citizens who are yet to prove their Assamese origins in the ongoing Supreme Court monitored updating of the NRC. Under NRC rules, only those who have documentary evidence of being residents of Assam before March 24, 1971, and their descendants, will be considered Indian citizens. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, quoting a Supreme Court directive dated February 8, said D-category voters could cast their votes in the coming elections by proving that they were “covered by Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955”. The court gave its order in an appeal filed against the Gauhati High Court's 2011 order barring D-category voters from exercising their franchise. Gogoi said the move would help the Congress.
The BJP is approaching the elections as an opportunity to dislodge Gogoi, who has been in power for 15 years. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP raised its vote share to 36 per cent, a significant improvement from the 11 per cent it managed in the 2011 assembly elections. In the process, the party won seven of 12 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The Congress ended up with just 29 per cent votes, dropping from the 39 per cent it won in 2011.
With over 34 per cent of Muslim population in the state, the BJP's strategy is to keep the “index of opposition unity’’ intact. “The key to success lies in ensuring that the anti-Congress votes are not divided,” said Rajkumar Sarma, treasurer of the BJP's state unit.
The BJP has tied up with the AGP and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). It has given 24 seats to the AGP and 16 to the BPF. The Congress, however, has successfully managed to engineer defections and divisions within the AGP and the BPF and has formed an alliance with these splinter groups and the United People's Party (UPP).
The other major player in Assam politics is perfume-baron-turned-evangelist Badruddin Ajmal, who enjoys huge popularity among Muslims of Bangladeshi origin. His party, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), has 18 MLAs and 12 per cent vote share in the outgoing assembly. Its vote share in the last Lok Sabha elections went up to 14 per cent. “In the Lok Sabha elections, a section of Muslims voted for the BJP in upper Assam. People wanted change from the Congress, but the Dadri issue has forced them to think otherwise,” said Afrida Hussain, a television journalist from Guwahati. “Religious polarisation has made things very difficult in the Assamese society, which never differentiated on beef and pork on the same dining table.”
Unlike in most other states, the Congress in Assam has successfully strengthened its booth-level organisation through a specially-designed booth micro-management programme overseen by All India Congress Committee secretary Avinash Pande. After senior Congress leader and chief ministerial aspirant Himanta Biswa Sarma quit the party and joined the BJP last year, the Congress has been focusing on rebuilding its cadre base. “It [Sarma's departure] was a blessing in disguise for us. When he was with us, most of the time we were busy settling internal disturbances. It brought us bad press, but now we don’t have faction feuds and rivals inside pulling down each other,” said Pande.
Historian and writer Mrinal Talukdar said Sarma was “a miniature version of BJP president Amit Shah. He is a master strategist and, at the same time, very ambitious,” he said. Since the BJP does not have much cadre strength in Assam, it is relying on leaders crossing over from other parties. While Sarma has been made convener of the BJP's campaign committee, Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is the party's chief ministerial candidate, a move aimed at maintaining the balance between old-time leaders and new entrants.
For the Congress, however, the biggest worry is not the BJP, but the AIDUF. The Congress has always maintained a distance from the AIDUF, as it suited its strategy. Gogoi's famous quip “Who is Badruddin Ajmal?” kept the Congress safe from allegations that it supported Bangladeshi immigrants. Afrida said the BJP wanted Ajmal to garner maximum Muslim votes as it would divide the Congress vote bank.
“It seems Ajmal will have a tacit understanding with the BJP this time, if some of his interviews and statements are any indication. Because of his business interests and dependence on the Union government for seeking foreign funds for his two NGOs, Ajmal will keep happy, but hidden relations with the BJP,” she said. Talukdar said any government in Guwahati would require overt or covert participation of the AIDUF, “even if it is a confluence of oil and water”.
BJP spokesperson Rupam Goswami said the real issue in Assam was regarding the Bangladeshi Muslims protected by the Congress. But Talukdar said the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants was a hoax. “It will be proved once the update of the NRC is complete. However, the BJP and its allies have kept the issue alive,” he said.
Goswami, who was earlier with the All Assam Students Union, said the upcoming elections are a do-or-die battle for the BJP. “We may never have such a rainbow coalition, which is an essential condition for defeating the Congress.”
He said the biggest challenge for his party was to get the AGP votes transferred to the BJP where it was contesting. The BJP had launched Mission 84 programme a year ago, but it has gradually scaled down its aspirations to the magic figure of 64 in the 126-member assembly.
The Congress had tried hard to keep the BJP and the AGP from joining hands. But having a similar electoral base, the two parties chose to forge an alliance to avert a clash. Talukdar, however, said it would be wrong to say that the entire Hindu community would vote for the BJP alliance. “The BJP has lost some of its support among Assamese Hindu voters after its decision to grant Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh the right of stay and the transfer of land under the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement,” he said.
Senior AGP leader and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta is yet to come to terms with the alliance and has decided not to campaign in the polls. The AGP opposes both Muslim and Hindu immigrants to Assam as it champions the cause of the locals. Because of the opposition from within both the BJP and the AGP, Sonowal, too, is not very happy with the alliance.
“While the BJP is focusing on Hindus and the Bangla Muslim issue, the Congress is more focused on micromanagement of tribes like the Bodo, Mishing, Dimasha and those demanding scheduled tribe status like the Ahoms, Koch-Rajwanshi, Moran, Mattack, Sutia and the powerful tea garden population,” said Guwahati-based film critic Utpal Borpujari. “It is for the first time that elections in Assam are being fought like in north India and all the ills of electioneering are being witnessed here.”
Interview/ Sarbananda Sonowal, Union minister for sports and youth affairs
It is Indians vs foreigners
In Delhi, the BJP fielded outsider Kiran Bedi as chief minister candidate and lost. On the defensive in Bihar, it did not announce a chief minister candidate, but lost again. So, in Assam, it put a face to the campaign by naming Sarbananda Sonowal as chief minister candidate.
The MP from Lakhimpur will run from an assembly segment in the same constituency—Majuli, a seat reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The 53-year-old Sonowal is a bachelor and belongs to the Sonowal Kachari tribe, who used to pan for gold in the Brahmaputra. Sonowal means “gold-washer”.
The Union minister, who started as a student leader in the Asom Gana Parishad, is hailed by his constituency for moving Supreme Court to strike down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. The Assamese say illegal Bangladeshi migrants used the act to settle in Assam.
Excerpts from an interview:
What is the BJP's poll plank in Assam?
For long, Assam has been under Congress regimes—at the Centre and state. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has been in power since 2001. Prime minister Manmohan Singh represented Assam in the Rajya Sabha and was prime minister for 10 years. It could have been a golden period for Assam. But, they not only failed to deliver on their promises, but also encouraged corruption, malpractice, misrule and nepotism.
Why isn't development a poll issue?
Unless you change the system, how can you bring development? The Narendra Modi government has made Assam and the northeast a priority. In 60 years, the Congress built four bridges on the Brahmaputra; in 20 months we have started work on five and two others on the Barak river. Eleven rivers have been brought under inland water transport schemes.
For the first time in Assam's history, the Union budget allotted funds for the doubling of a railway track. The last railway line in Assam was built by the British.
If you are confident about winning on the development plank, why form the coalition? Why raise the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants?
Three issues are very important for Assam—development, good governance and security. The identity of the local people is under threat from illegal migrants. Don't forget that the six-year-long Assam Movement was against illegal migrants. As a leader of the All Assam Students Union, I was part of that movement.
Congress, too, had addressed these issues. Assam is calm, compared with the situation 20 years ago.
The Congress, under Rajiv Gandhi, tried to solve the issue through the Assam Accord. But, the issue remains. In 2005, Manmohan Singh promised that the India-Bangladesh border would be sealed in one year and the national register of citizens (NRC) would be updated in two years. It did not happen. Congress has never been serious about Assam's core issues.
What has the Modi government done in two years?
It started bilateral talks with Bangladesh and started updating the NRC. Unless you solve boundary issues, you cannot have a permanent solution.
But, the Supreme Court directed that NRC be updated.
Yes, but the home ministry immediately gave Rs 144 crore to Assam for updating NRC. The Centre is also providing logistical and technical support.
Despite all this, the BJP is not confident enough to go it alone?
The Congress-All India United Democratic Front alliance is patronising illegal migrants to create a vote bank. So, we have allied with our natural partners.
Your cadres are not very happy with the alliance.
That is normal in politics. They are the same people who got us seven Lok Sabha seats and 36 per cent of the vote share in 2014.
Himanta Biswa Sarma defected from the Congress. In the long run, will he be a threat or asset to the BJP?
He is an asset. We are working as a family. As state president of the BJP, my job is to carry everybody along.
AIUDF’s Badruddin Ajmal has been praising the BJP quietly. Some say you have a tacit understanding with him.
Never. When Supreme Court stuck down the IMDT Act, a group of 14 fundamentalist organisations opposed it. They later launched a party to protect interests of illegal migrants. That is the AIUDF's background.
BJP is being accused of polarising the election on religious lines.
No, it is Indians versus foreigners. Assamese Muslims, who number around 40 lakh, have been an integral part of our society for around 800 years. We are only against illegal migrants and those who protect them.