Is Assam heading for a multi-cornered contest?
In a season of grand alliances in the country, Assam seems to be headed the other way.
While the whole of north India and southern states are witnessing the shaping up of grand alliances for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the north east, particularly Assam, seems to be going the opposite way. Politically the most significant state of the north east with 14 Lok Sabha seats, Assam is crucial not just for national parties -- the BJP and the Congress -- but also regional parties like the AGP and AIUDF. A pre-poll alliance could ensure a united vote block. Though some of them are trying very hard to form alliances before elections, the efforts are not paying off due to a variety of reasons.
In the 2014 elections, all these parties contested separately. The BJP won seven seats, the AIUDF and the Congress three each and the AGP failed to even open its account. One seat went to an independent.
The AGP and the BJP contested the 2016 assembly election together and formed a government in the state in alliance with Bodo-based Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). However, in the aftermath of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) agitation, the AGP withdrew support to the BJP in January, 2019, on ideological differences over the CAB. In the run-up to the 2019 elections, all parties are trying hard to regain lost ground or retain their hold, and pre-poll alliances could benefit them.
The AIUDF is very keen to form an alliance with the Congress, but the later is not reciprocating. However, to not look like a complete loser, the party is wording its proposals for an alliance carefully. AIUDF’s Vice President Awal Mazid says, “We have not given individual proposal for alliance to any party, nor have we received any proposal from anybody. However, it is our ideological position that to stop the BJP, secular parties should come together and fight in alliance and we have openly reiterated this position. If any secular party makes a move in this direction, we are with them but till now we have not received any proposal from any secular party on this plan.”
The reason for this reluctance of the Congress to AIUDF’s “open calls” lies in the changed electoral equations of Assam. In the current situation, the Muslims of Bengali origin, particularly those in Barak valley, i.e., Silchar-Karimganj belt and the Muslim dominated districts of Dhubri and Barpeta who were once considered vote banks of AIUDF seem to have shifted back to the Congress. In this scenario, Congress is not expected to gain anything out of an alliance with the AIUDF while the latter is expected to reclaim some lost ground, explaining its eagerness.
However, the same eagerness could be witnessed within the AGP when it comes to an alliance with the BJP. Over the past couple of days, the party leadership has made serious efforts to “patch up” with the BJP, even risking becoming a laughing stock in the eyes of onlookers. Experts believe that the gains that the AGP expected to make on the issue of CAB did not materialize, and losing plum positions in the state government has made them restless. In this situation, they are willing to risk their political prestige, as they know well that alone the AGP doesn’t have much chance in the 2019 elections. And going with the Congress, its arch enemy, could be suicidal in the long run.
AGP state secretary and Guwahati West MLA Ramendra Narayan Kalita sums up this situation when on the question of pre-poll alliance he says, “A nine-member committee of the party leadership is doing consultation with party cadres and leaders throughout the state on the question of alliance, but this consultation is internal, not with any other party. If the party cadres wish so, then we will initiate the talks over alliance with BJP. However the option of alliance is open only for the BJP and we are not even thinking of going into an alliance with the Congress.”
But the BJP state leadership is not at all interested in such an alliance, it seems. For, they believe that the AGP has nothing to add to the BJP’s kitty in terms of votes, and the erring ex-partner which left it post-CAB protests needs to be taught a lesson. Contrary to them, the central BJP leadership seems to be evaluating the pros and cons in a more neutral manner, and this is where the AGP also hopes lie some possibilities of a patch up. That’s why Ramendra Kalita also accepts that some channels of communication with BJP leaders in Delhi are still open and being explored by AGP.
Summing up this situation, a senior BJP state leader said on condition of anonymity- “The BJP state leadership is not keen to enter into an alliance with the AGP again for the Lok Sabha elections, as they were the ones who ditched us previously. However, if the central leadership asks us to do so, we have to comply.”
The condition of the Congress in this whole scenario becomes quite peculiar. While it is unwilling to go with the AIUDF, it is extremely keen to have an alliance with the AGP to avoid a split of anti-BJP and anti-CAB votes, but is not getting any returns for its proposals. Congress Legislature Party leader and Leader of Opposition in Assam assembly Debabrata Saikia, when told about Kalita’s statement, said, “It is quite unfortunate to hear the position of the AGP. The Congress has always maintained that we are for the Assam Accord 1985, which brought peace and tranquility to the region, and the guarantee that the indigenous culture and people will be protected. The AGP also maintains so, which is why it should unite with us on this struggle. On the contrary, it is willing to go to the BJP that brought Citizenship Amendment Bill that is anti-thetical to the spirit of the Assam accord. The BJP is trying to give citizenship to foreigners who entered India even after 1971 and such moves will destroy the region and its people. In this scenario, why is the AGP even considering going back to the BJP is beyond comprehension?”
Will pre-poll alliances materialize or not in Assam only time will tell. But this search for “worthy suitors” among the parties, and turning down of “unworthy” ones is creating a very “filmi” scenario in the politics of Assam, resembling nothing less than a Bollywood “love triangle”, or to be more precise, “love quadrangle” plot.
(The author is a Guwahati-based research scholar)