Assam assembly polls from today, lot at stake for BJP in phase 1

  • Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times, Guwahati
  • Updated: Apr 04, 2016 02:29 IST
Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal (R) at a public meeting after filing his nomination papers for upcoming assembly elections at Majuli in Assam on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (PTI)

Of the four states and a union territory going to polls, Assam offers the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) its best shot at victory.

Much of it will depend on how the party performs in the first phase on Monday, covering 65 of the 126 assembly constituencies in an ethnically diverse state prone to conflicts and politics of polarisation. The seats in Phase 1 – distributed across Assam’s eastern half, Barak Valley in the south and the two hill districts in between – have traditionally been Congress strongholds.

The party had won 54 of its 78 seats from these regions in the 2011 assembly polls. The trend was similar in the 2001 and 2006 polls, which the Congress won – enabling Tarun Gogoi to rule for an unprecedented 15 years.

Saffron desperation

The BJP, smarting from its electoral losses in Delhi and Bihar, is desperate for its maiden victory in Assam.

The party hopes to gain from anti-incumbency as well as consolidation of votes due to an alliance with the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The AGP, the Congress’ main rival since 1985, has been ailing ever since it lost power in 2001. The BPF was the Congress’ ruling ally for eight years, until 2014.

Never since its Assam debut in 1985 – the same as AGP – has the BJP won more than 10 assembly seats here. The party’s confidence is derived from its 2014 Lok Sabha show, in which it won seven out of 14 seats.

Read: State polls survey: Mamata to retain Bengal, hung assembly in Assam

Four of these Lok Sabha seats straddle eastern Assam’s tea belts, where plantation workers are a major voting force. The Adivasis, or “tea tribes”, have been a traditional Congress votebank along with Muslims, who dictate the terms in most Barak Valley seats.

The BJP feels that Adivasis have gravitated towards it while Bengali Hindus – a huge chunk of voters in several eastern Assam and Barak Valley constituencies – are party loyalists owing to its promise of accepting non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh as Indians. “We will win and provide the break Assam needs from years of Congress misrule and favouritism to people of suspect nationality,” Sarbananda Sonowal, Union minister and BJP state unit chief, said.

He also happens to be the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate.

Read: Will uproot Congress from Assam, Karnataka: Amit Shah

However, Gogoi dismissed the BJP’s hopes as a miscalculation. “It is easier said than done. While Bengali Hindus have seen through (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s fake promises, plantation workers know that the BJP has deprived them of free rations,” he said. “Why did they go for an alliance if they are so confident?”

Another factor the BJP is relying on is its promise to grant Scheduled Tribe status to six Assam communities. These include the Tai-Ahom (the group Gogoi belongs to), besides the Moran and Matak who constitute the bulk of the indigenous peoples in eastern Assam seats.

Confident Congress

The Congress, state president Anjan Dutta maintains, will sweep the Phase 1 seats. His conviction is based on BJP’s reliance on “tainted” candidates imported from the Congress, dissension because of its alliance with the AGP, and the perceived disillusionment of the people with Modi.

“The BJP also has an unwritten understanding with AIUDF, which will help us,” Dutta said.

The AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), headed by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, is the third major player in the fray. It became the second-largest party in 2011 by catering primarily to the Muslim angst of being perceived as Bangladeshis with the agenda of outnumbering the indigenous peoples.

Read: How can a family-centric party serve people? Sonowal in Majuli

Apart from Barak Valley, the AIUDF won’t factor significantly in Phase 1 seats.

The Congress is battling charges of being family-centric with at least 10 candidates in this phase having dynastic linkages. “But we have given 90% of the seats to deserving candidates, unlike our rivals,” Gogoi said, adding that it works to the party’s advantage.

He also believes that Sonowal is facing challenges from leaders within his party, besides splinter groups of both the BJP and AGP, which “could upset the alliance’s calculations”.

Top two, same district

The focus of attention in Phase 1 is central Assam’s Jorhat district, where Gogoi and Sonowal – the top two candidates – are contesting. Gogoi is seeking re-election from his pet constituency of Titabor, and his main rival there is the BJP’s Lok Sabha member Kamakhya Prasad Tasa.

Some 40 km to the north is Majuli, an island in the Brahmaputra river, where Sonowal’s bid to become the chief minster depends on who the Mishing tribal voters go with. Sonowal’s main rival, sitting MLA Rajib Lochan Pegu of Congress, is a local Mishing unlike the BJP candidate – who belongs to the Sonowal Kachari tribe scattered further in the east.

Richest and poorest

The richest and poorest candidates of Assam are contesting in the Phase 1 constituencies.

Of the 539 candidates in this phase, 112 are crorepatis, with 20 possessing assets of more than Rs 5 crore. The richest is Jyoti Subba, wife of former Congress MP Mani Kumar Subba, who is contesting the Sootea assembly seat as an independent.

Read: Modi insulting Assam, BJP-led alliance communal: Sonia

Jyoti Subba has total assets worth Rs 288.12 crore. AGP’s Naren Sonowal, contesting the Naharkatiya seat, follows with Rs 33.95 crore. Rahul Roy, sitting Congress MLA from Algapur and son of former minister Gautam Roy, comes third with Rs 25.01 crore in total assets.

The poorest candidates with zero assets are Jiten Tanti, the CPI(ML)’s candidate from Teok constituency; Diganta Phukan, an independent candidate contesting from the Mariani seat; and Debangshu Nath, an SUCI(C) candidate contesting the Patharkandi seat.

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