Locating AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal is never a problem in his home town, Hojai in Nagaon district, about 170 km east of Assam’s state capital. For, he and Ajmal Foundation are everywhere. Posters and hoardings, schools, colleges, hospitals, madrassas, all bear the name of the family.
The real surprise came when our vehicle entered the expansive Ajmal estate, which has a carport housing about 20 vehicles of different makes and colours, a pond to supply fish to the household, a lawn with pavilions, a palace and an army palace staff.
The interiors of Ajmal’s house look like a huge durbar. We saw at least 100 people waiting for the leader to make an appearance. And when cleric-perfumer finally did so, no one rushed to attract his attention. No one spoke. The leader always has the first right to speak.
Doing everything large-scale is perhaps an Ajmal trait. The family owns most of Hojai, a town of 36,000 people. It also runs the largest agar plantation near Hojai, Asia’s richest NGO named Markaj-ul Maaris and Asia’s largest rural charitable hospital – the 500-bed Haji Abdul Majid Memorial Hospital & Research Centre – besides one of the world’s biggest perfume businesses.
But who is Badruddin Ajmal? Nine years ago, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi asked the same question dismissively. Earlier this year, after his party AIUDF won half the seats it contested in a tribal council, Ajmal asked, “Now, who is Tarun Gogoi?
That, precisely, is the length of AIUDF chief Ajmal’s journey so far, while Gogoi’s graph in Assam has been southbound since the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Of the 14 LS seats, the Congress managed three while the BJP bagged seven. And Ajmal emerged as Gogoi’s equal.
A scholar from Deoband in Uttar Pradesh and one of India’s richest politicians who made his millions from the family business, Ajmal insists that his party was formed “because the Congress betrayed the minorities” in Assam.
For the AIUDF, the youngest of Assam’s top five political parties, the rise has been phenomenal. From 10 seats in 2006 – six months after its birth – the party secured 18 in the 126-member assembly in 2011, leaving behind the once-potent regional Asom Gana Parishad with 10 seats and BJP with five seats.
Sixteen of AIUDF’s seats in the last assembly election were spread across nine districts where Muslims, mostly Bengali-speaking migrants, are in a majority. But Ajmal draws a distinction between the AIUDF and parties like the Hyderbad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen of Asaduddin Owaisi.
“We have non-Muslim MLAs and our working president is a tribal. People go by my appearance – beard and skull cap -- to pass judgement, but few parties are as broad-based and secular as ours.” The AIUDF working president Aditya Langthasa is a senior doctor in Ajmal’s HAMM Hospital.
The ‘all-embracing approach’, apart from an increasing hold on Muslims, who account for 40%-80% of the population in 35 assembly seats, has made the competition wary of the AIUDF. Even tribe-specific parties such as the Bodoland People’s Front -- ideologically opposed to the AIUDF – are not averse to a strategic alliance with it.
Ajmal opened the discussion on the next assembly elections early next year with a dig at the new BJP state chief, Sarbananda Sonowal, who has a long history of agitating against illegal migration from Bangladesh.
“We’re happy that Sonowal has been sent back from Delhi. The more he campaigns against Bangladeshi infiltrators, the more Muslim votes will come our way,” he said. The AIUDF is seen as a party that bats for migrants, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims.
What’s more, both the Congress and the BJP’s efforts to get the Assamese-speaking Muslims on their sides have failed to produce any results so far. Religion – not language -- attracts them more, for now. The total Muslim population in the state now stands at 34%.
But when pointed out that such mobilisation would hurt only the Congress, he smiled. The Congress is going to war this time with a disadvantage -- anti-incumbency after 15 years of rule. The state Congress leadership, however, is putting up a brave front.
“We will win 70 of the 126 seats this time,” claimed state chief Anjan Datta, despite his party having been troubled by infighting and defections. Datta thinks the AIUDF will be in the second spot.
The current party positions in the assembly are: the Congress 78, the AIUDF 18, the BPF 12, the AGP 10, the BJP five and others three, although there have been some changes in recent years due to defections from the Congress and the expulsion of two AIUDF members.
Political analysts, however, say the BJP has a better chance in Assam than in West Bengal, which is going to the polls at the same time. The party bagged half the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam last year, prevailed in the local body polls later and took over two tribal councils this year.
But BJP leaders admit in private that the party has lost some momentum since the LS polls. The ‘Modi wave’, too, has ebbed a bit after the Bihar loss. The worried central leadership hurriedly replaced state party chief Siddhartha Bhattacharyya with the “more acceptable” Sonowal and projected him as the CM candidate.
And Sonowal has been joined by Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Congress’ chief election manager till sometime back. Observers are sure that the battle for Assam in 2016 will be a direct fight between Biswa Sarma and Ajmal, who is the sole strategist for the AIUDF.
The BJP is uncertain about getting the majority mark of 64 on its own. Biswa Sarma said, “Realistically, the BJP should emerge as the single largest party in Assam with the AIUDF in the second spot. Our prime rival is Ajmal’s party, not the Congress.”
In fact, since the polls may play out majorly on the basis of language, religion and ethnic identities, the scenario is still quite complicated. For instance, the Bodos – who claim to have a population share of 12% -- include all sections in the greater Kachari group.
Similarly, Assamese speakers include Ahoms and other communities seeking ST status as well as some already in the ST bracket. The share of the Assamese speakers was 48.80% in 2001 and might hover around 47% in 2011 (the final data is not yet available). Of them, the BJP’s main support base, the caste Assamese – excluding the tribal groups who speak the language -- could be 11-12%.
So, the AIUDF – a 35-seat haul is ‘realistic’ for it – and the tribal Bodoland People’s Front -- the third largest party with 12 seats after the Congress and the AIUDF in 2011 – will hold the key. “If you exclude the seats where the AIUDF and BPF are strong, 75-80 of the 126 assembly seats will be crucial for the BJP and Congress to form the government,” said Akhil Ranjan Dutta, an observer who teaches Political Science in Gauhati University.
Although no party is openly going for a pre-poll alliance, Akhil Ranjan Datta predicts that the post-poll scenario may see the Congress, AIUDF and some smaller parties on one side and the BJP, the BPF and the AGP on the other.
AGP leader Prafulla Mohanta also predicted this scenario. But the current chief of the once-potent AGP, Atul Bora, feels his party can rebound. “The Bihar elections have shown that regionalism will always be relevant in Indian politics.”
Meanwhile, Ajmal – the man waiting for his day in the sun if it comes to a hung assembly situation – is not aiming for seats beyond the Muslim-dominated areas for now. “Our voters know the Congress and BJP are two sides of the same coin. So, they’re with us.”