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Can the Congress do it a third time?

SUSHANTA TALUKDAR
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With multiple factors at play, another fractured verdict cannot be ruled out in Assam, says SUSHANTA TALUKDAR

This Assembly election in Assam is unique for two reasons. For the first time in the post-Emergency period, an incumbent party — the Congress — is seeking a mandate for a third consecutive term. Secondly, in a State where all polls since 1991 have been overshadowed by insurgent violence, there has been no major disruption in the democratic process this time. This is because all the major militant outfits are engaged in peace talks.

There is no pre-poll alliance this time, barring the seat adjustment among the three Left parties — the CPI(M), CPI and CPI(ML) — in 49 of the total 126 seats, and an understanding in four seats between the BJP and the Janata Dal (United). Despite sharing power for the past five years, the Congress and the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) have chosen to fight on their own, probably because the latter did not want any other party consolidating support in its strongholds. However, the two parties have declared they will enter into a post-poll alliance.

For the Asom Gana Parishad, the election is a crucial one. Having been drubbed in the last two Assembly polls — as well as those to the local bodies over the last 10 years — it is essential for it to make a breakthrough. The AGP had failed to derive any electoral benefit from its alliance with the BJP in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. As a result, the party's General House, the apex policy-making body, had adopted a resolution to sever its ties with the BJP. Despite this, AGP leaders kept vacillating about whether to ally or not with the BJP, with some insisting on forging some kind of electoral understanding and others preferring a tie-up with the Left parties and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) instead.

There was also an attempt by the AGP to forge a “grand alliance” of all Opposition parties, which was rejected outright by the Left, AIUDF and the BJP as well. However, there are allegations that the AGP and the BJP have arrived at a “secret understanding,” a theory canvassed by party insiders, disgruntled leaders and workers. The general suspicion that such an understanding exists is likely to favour the Congress. As the results of the 2009 Lok Sabha poll showed, the expected transfer of votes from one ally to the other simply did not materialise in most places.

Dominant issues

The two most dominant issues this time are development and corruption, which have overshadowed all others. However, issues like floods, erosion, healthcare, lack of communication facilities, the man-elephant conflict, and the impact of big dams are subjects that find their way into election speeches and could have an impact at the local level. The ruling combination has made “development during the past ten years” its major poll plank, while the Opposition parties have used “corruption during Congress rule” as their main electoral weapon.

If issues such as development and corruption have taken centre-stage, it is because of the waning of the insurgency threat. Only one faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), led by its estranged and elusive ‘commander-in-chief' Paresh Barua, and one faction led by Ranjan Daimary of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), have kept themselves out of the peace process. The Paresh Barua faction, in a desperate bid to gain media attention, recently carried out a bomb attack on the Congress headquarters in Guwahati; it has also threatened to target leaders and workers of the ruling party. Although these threats have failed to have any impact on electioneering, they sparked off a bitter war of words between the Congress and the AGP/BJP, with both sides accusing each other of covertly taking the ULFA's help in the election.

The Congress has used its support at the panchayat level to take the campaign to the grassroots level. It claims that Assam was put back on the rails with economic development and peace returning to the State. The Opposition has focussed on the alleged Rs.1,000-crore scam in the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council (the erstwhile North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council) in the hope of stoking a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. However, the effect of the campaign is likely to be largely restricted to the urban areas.

In the 2006 Assembly poll, the BJP had contested 125 seats, winning 10 and securing 11.98 per cent of the vote. The Congress had contested 120 seats, winning 53 and securing 31.08 per cent of the vote. The corresponding figures for the AGP are contested (100), won (24) and vote share (20.39 per cent). In the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, the BJP gained from its alliance with the AGP, winning four of the seven seats it contested and securing 16.21 per cent of the vote. The AGP's vote share was 14.60 per cent. It managed to win only one of the six seats it contested. The Congress secured 34.89 per cent votes to win seven of the total 13 seats contested by the party in 2009.

The BPF, which represents the largest plains tribe in the State, has emerged a major power player. In 2006, the Congress, which fell short of a majority in the Assembly, had to seek the support of the 11 BPF legislators to form the government. If the autonomy granted to the Bodo region has provided the tribe with the experience of limited self-rule, their participation in the government at Dispur has convinced them of their political importance. The BPF hopes to retain its support by highlighting the importance of having Bodo representation in Dispur.

For the ruling Congress, the AIUDF continues to be a major irritant. In its debut election in 2006, the AIUDF had caused erosion in the Congress vote by garnering significant support among immigrant Muslim voters. It was this that resulted in the Congress failing to get a majority and turning to the BPF for support.

Controversial Act

The 2009 Lok Sabha poll saw the AIUDF wresting the Dhubri seat from the Congress, evidence that the ruling party's standing among Muslim voters, who play a decisive role in around 35 Assembly seats, has still not improved much. In 2006, the AIUDF played on the fears of Muslim settlers, who were worried about being dubbed foreigners in the wake of the Supreme Court scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act 1983. The Act has been a major issue for Muslim settlers in every poll between 1983 and 2006.

In 2006, the AIUDF led an aggressive campaign accusing the Congress of not having done enough to win the legal battle and prevent scrapping of the Act, something that cost the latter heavily. With the Congress promising that Muslims will not be harassed in the name of identifying foreign nationals in the State, the issue has lost much of its emotiveness. As a result, the AIUDF is relying on what is believes is a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress.

The Congress is banking on the positive impact of the government's programme of handing out freebies to the people, including blankets, medicated mosquito nets, computers to school students, bicycles to girl students, and cash assistance of Rs.3,000 to farmers. In fact, these handouts were included in the State budget. Although the AGP and BJP were critical of the distribution of sops, the AGP has promised free healthcare for all students up to university level and rice at Rs.2 a kg. The BJP has promised rice at Rs.3 a kg.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has the chance to script political history by becoming only the second person (after Bimala Prasad Chaliha) to be crowned Chief Minister for three consecutive terms. Two other heavyweights whose political future depends critically on the outcome of the polls are AGP president Chandra Mohan Patowary and former Chief Minister and founder-president of the AGP, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. After the poll debacle in 2009, Mr. Mahanta, who merged his breakaway AGP (Pragatisheel) with the mother party in 2008, has emerged stronger. His followers were successful in compelling the AGP leadership to make him Leader of Opposition just on the eve of the last budget session.

Even though both the ruling and Opposition parties are hopeful of a better showing, with multiple factors at play, the possibility of a fractured verdict cannot be ruled out this time as well. Such an outcome will may still give the Congress room to form a government by retaining the support of the BPF and seeking the same from the AIUDF.

For the AGP, the election is crucial. Having been drubbed in the last two Assembly polls, it is essential for it to make a breakthrough


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