Mandate 2011 is expected to be an acid test for the reunified Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) brand of regionalism threatened by the expanding base of 'mainstream' parties.
Political scientists have virtually written off the AGP that rode a wave of emotion to sweep the 1985 assembly election days after its birth. They cite as reasons lack of discipline and vision, leadership tussle, eroding appeal among minorities and tribes and inability to exude confidence.
They also underscore the party's laziness in connecting with an increasingly young electorate emotionally detached from the anti-foreigners Assam Agitation of 1979-1985 that eventually led to its birth.
But the AGP, the Congress' strongest rival in Assam since 1991, hopes to prove them wrong. "We are constantly rediscovering and improving ourselves. We are keeping pace with the times but a fringe state like Assam needs our brand of regionalism," says party president Chandra Mohan Patowary.
The back-to-regionalism mantra saw the AGP severing its electoral alliance with the BJP last year. Patowary was under pressure from party workers to divorce the BJP whose gain in recent years has been at the expense of the AGP.
But the realization that dislodging the Congress from power warranted a united opposition made the AGP veer toward the minority-specific All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) headed by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal.
AIUDF, after the initial interest, decided to go it alone. The BJP too snubbed the AGP's call last week for a grand alliance of all opposition parties.
The AGP leaders are nevertheless putting up a brave front, claiming their party would improve upon its 2006 performance to end the Congress' victory run. They are gathering inspiration from the vote-share trend.
In 2006, the AGP garnered 20.39% votes compared to the Congress 31.08%. But more importantly, the regional party got 0.37% more votes than in 2001 while the Congress lost 7.05%.
The AGP has also been bolstered by the return of two-time chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, whose erstwhile faction - AGP (Pragatisheel) - had secured 2.51% votes. A section within the AGP feels Mahanta is past his prime after falling from grace, but others believe the party "cannot afford to be without our most recognizable face".
Party president Patowary, wary of the anti-Mahanta camp followers, had tendered a public apology in September last year for the "major mistakes" during the AGP's rule from 1985-1991 and 1996-2001.