Congress plays the ethnic card in Assam
For the Lok Sabha elections in the state, the Assam Congress seems to have made up its mind to play the “ethnic Assamese” card. In upper Assam region, the party has fielded Khilonjia or ethnic Assamese candidates on almost all seats, which includes three from the dominant Ahom community.
Experts believe that by doing this, the party is aiming to build on the popular resentment against the Citizenship Amendment Bill to win back the support of caste Assamese voters. On the Mangaldoi seat, the Congress has fielded ex-state president and Rajya Sabha MP Bhubaneshwar Kalita. On the Jorhat seat ex-MLA Sushanta Borgohain has been given the ticket while Anil Borgohain has been fielded from the Lakhimpur seat. Gaurav Gogoi, sitting MP and son of ex-Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, has been repeated from Kaliabor, while ex-MLA and minister Pradyot Bordoloi has been fielded from Nagaon. The only exception to this trend is Tezpur candidate MGVK Bhanu, a retired bureaucrat from Assam who comes from the Telugu community.
Congress insiders said that Bhanu could get the ticket only due to solid backing of state Congress president Ripun Bora, as his name is said to have been opposed by ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and ex-CM Tarun Gogoi. Further, Tea Tribe leader and ex-state president Paban Singh Ghatowar has been given the ticket for Dibrugarh while sitting MP Biren Singh Engti has been repeated on the Autonomous District (ST) seat. The party also repeated All-India Mahila Congress president Sushmita Dev from the Bengali dominated Silchar seat, while Swarup Das was fielded from Karimganj, the second seat of the Barak Valley region. Candidates for Guwahati, Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Barpeta seats have not been announced yet.
Some think that this “ethnic card” strategy might work. But seasoned political scientist Professor Akhil Ranjan Dutta cautions that it could also harm the prospects of the Congress, as other communities might feel left out, a possibility that some top Congress leaders also fear.
The Upper Assam region from Dirbrugarh-Lakhimpur to Nawgaon-Tejpur is dominated by various ethnic Assamese castes/communities and tribes, along with the Muslim voters and Tea tribes. The AGP used to command influence in these vote-banks but later on the BJP made significant inroads into the ethnic Assamese votes. The Congress was, thus, left with only Tea Tribe and Muslim votes, along with Ahom voters in some pockets. The level of shift in favour of the saffron party was revealed in the 2014 elections when BJP swept the region, winning six seats in Upper Assam while the Congress could win only one -- Kaliabor.
However, things started changing drastically after the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill by BJP, which was perceived as a threat for their identity by the Khilonjiyas. The Congress saw an opportunity in this and by its vocal opposition to the Bill, the party has succeeded in winning their trust. By fielding Khilonjiya candidates, the party is eying to consolidate this support and turn it into electoral gains. This strategy has become more traction-worthy as the
BJP is still openly committed to bringing the Bill, and the AGP, which had opposed it previously has aligned again with BJP, making its previous opposition look like a staged plot.
Dr.Uddipan Dutta of the Gauhati University Sociology department believes that it is for clinching the votes of the Khilonjias that the Congress is avoiding any tie-up with Badruddin Ajmal led AIUDF, as any tie-up with the party may irk the ethnic communities. “Knowing well that the Muslims of Bengali origin are shifting back to Congress from the AIUDF, the Congress feels there is no need for a tie-up with Ajmal," says Dr. Datta.
It is not that the BJP is sitting idle over these developments. Over the past couple of years, the BJP has worked labouriously among the Tea Tribes and smaller tribal communities like the Misings, Kacharis (CM Sarbanand Sonowal also comes from this community), etc., by announcing special welfare measures aimed towards them. As their support is expected to stay with the party even now, the BJP is hoping to compensate for the loss of caste Assamese voters through them. Further, the party is trying hard to invoke the fear of Hindus becoming a minority in Assam by alleged Muslim Bangladeshi inflow, to justify giving citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus. This sentiment does have currency in some lower Assam districts like Dhubri and Barpeta, where there is a large number of Muslims.
However, the BJP seems to be a bit nervous about the recent developments, as revealed by its over-cautious approach. Firstly, it took a long time in declaring candidates. Its list for eight Lok Sabha seats -- the BJP is contesting only 10 seats of Assam as Kokrajhar has been giving to alliance partner BPF and three seats have been given to the AGP -- came on Thursday, days after the announcement of Congress candidates. Secondly, it did not declare candidates for the Tezpur and Nagaon seats, which have sitting party MPs. The Tezpur MP RP Sharma had resigned from the party after rumours that he would be dropped to make way for senior state cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. As the resignation erupted into a sort of controversy, the party went into damage control, first by declaring that Sarma won’t be contesting Lok Sabha elections at all, and later hinting that RP Sharma could be repeated again. The party was reconsidering the decision as Sharma’s resignation could have created a negative impression about the BJP among the numerically strong Gorkha voters of this seat, a community to which Sharma belongs. It was only two days later that MoS in the state cabinet Pallab Lochan Das’ name was declared for the Tezpur seat.
Professor Datta opines that these actions of the BJP not only indicate that the party is a bit nervous due to the opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, but they also hint at an ongoing camp war within the state party unit. Will the Congress’ gamble pay or backfire only time will tell, but both parties are surely treading with much caution in this election.
(Rajan Pandey is a Guwahati-based political analyst)