Phase 1 of Mandate 2011 is expected to be a 'tea test' for the main political parties including the Congress in Assam. Voting for 62 of 126 seats in this phase will be held on Monday.
Elections in Assam have invariably been marked by a three-way polarisation. While insular indigenous communities have voted for issues, ideologies and candidates, migrant Muslims and the 'tea tribe' (adivasis) have usually voted en bloc.
The Congress enjoyed the lion's share of the votes of Muslims (comprising 35% of the electorate and a deciding factor in 50-55 seats overall) and adivasis (20%, 35-40 seats). From the 1990s, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and BJP began penetrating the adivasi (tribal) vote-bank while the pro-minorities All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) cut into the Muslim pie in 2006.
The 62 seats in Phase 1 span southern Assam's Barak Valley, the twin hills of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, and eastern-northeastern Assam. The Congress holds 38 of these seats (out of 54 in 2006), the BJP nine (out of 10), AGP seven (out of 25) and AIUDF three (out of 10).In 2006, the Congress and BJP shared the Bengali — Muslims and Hindus — votes in the 15-seat Barak Valley while the Congress bagged four of the five tribal hill seats. But with tea estates dominating 40 Phase 1 seats, what matters more for these parties are the adivasi voters.
Not surprisingly, almost all parties promised higher wages and better facilities to plantation workers, making tea industry captains wince. "We will do better in this election and form the government comfortably," said CM Tarun Gogoi, whose pet Titabar seat is dependent on adivasi voters.
BJP state unit president Ranjit Dutta, who hopes to retain the tea-rich Behali constituency, is equally confident of a better saffron show.
So is the AGP, buoyed by the return of former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who has some hold among the adivasis.
"This (Phase 1) is what we call the 'tea test' before the 'minority meal' (Phase 2 covering 64 constituencies, most of them inhabited by Muslims)," said political scientist P Rajguru.
Meanwhile, additional chief electoral officer MC Sahu said 350 additional companies of security forces would help the 96 companies in the state in ensuring smooth polling in 11,264 booths on Monday.