From no contest to likely winners, how Congress turned around its Assam campaign
Assembly polls in Assam are over and all eyes are on counting day on May 2 when fates of candidates and political parties will be known. But many seem to agree on one thing, this has been a good contest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition Congress.
Both parties and their alliance partners are claiming a win as of now. But when the campaign to form the next government in Dispur started in earnest three months ago, it was not the case. The contest seemed heavily in favour of BJP and Congress was almost in disarray.
But thanks to careful planning and execution of an efficient campaign, the scenario changed within weeks. A variety of factors were responsible for the change in fortunes.
In early January this year, Congress named Chattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel as the party’s observer for the Assam poll campaign. Baghel had sprung a surprise on the ruling BJP government of Raman Singh in his state in 2018 and brought Congress to power with a resounding win.
Soon after his appointment, Baghel reached Assam along with a team of his trusted lieutenants and got to work. He also brought nearly 20 teams of party leaders from Chattisgarh who soon spread out to all 126 constituencies and started engaging with grassroot workers.
Like in Chattisgarh, Baghel’s team started conducting ‘sankalp shivirs’ (resolution camps) with the party’s booth-level workers in almost all constituencies of the state. This exercise was aimed at both reinvigorating cadres demoralised by a series of electoral setbacks since 2014, as well as educating them on how to reach out to voters, get to know their problems and also inform them about the Congress’s plans.
“These camps helped us in knowing the party workers and training them on booth management and other issues that play an important role in the run-up to the day of polling. The workers also got to know us and felt happy that there was a plan in place this time,” said a Congress leader from Chattisgarh who worked with cadres in Upper Assam.
The initial feedback wasn’t encouraging. Congress in Assam was struggling with in-fighting among senior leaders such as state president Ripun Bora, legislature party leader Debabrata Saikia, Lok Sabha MPs Pradyut Bordoloi and Gaurav Gogoi and All India Mahila Congress president Sushmita Dev.
“It was decided that all of us would bury our differences and work together if we wanted to pose a threat to BJP’s organisational behemoth. The leaders soon started appearing together in all events and all were given adequate space in campaign material and media releases,” said a senior Congress office-bearer in Assam.
In both 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress had managed to win just three seats each of the total 14 seats and in 2016 assembly polls, the party bagged only 26 of the 126 seats. On the other hand, BJP won 60 seats and formed the government with partners Asom Gana Parishad (14) and Bodoland Peoples’ Party (12).
In order to resurrect the party, Congress appointed AICC general secretary Jitendra Singh, a former Union minister from Alwar, Rajasthan, as the in-charge of Assam. With a big task at hand, Singh soon brought in Designboxed, a Mohali-based political campaign management company, which had successfully run Congress’s campaigns in assembly polls in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Punjab.
“When we came in January, we didn’t have much time on our hands, and everyone was saying that the Congress didn’t stand a chance. Everywhere we went, people said that it was a spent force and may win around 10-15 seats this time. Two new regional parties, Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal, were seen as more formidable than Congress,” said Designboxed co-founder Naresh Arora.
The ruling BJP had launched several welfare schemes targeting all sections, improved roads and handled the Covid-19 situation well and Arora knew they had an uphill task. It was decided to start the Congress campaign with ‘yatras’. All senior leaders undertook four separate yatras each all over the state in January and covered 14,000 kms in all. This brought the leaders to the voters’ doorstep and they got to know the problems and suggestions first hand.
“The first defining moment came in mid-February when Rahul Gandhi announced at a rally in Sivasagar that if voted to power, the party won’t allow implementation of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Assam,” said Arora. There was an undercurrent of opposition to the legislation over fears that it would lead to an influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Congress decided on cashing in on that. In Bengali-dominated Barak Valley which has 15 seats, CAA has sympathisers, but the party went ahead with its decision.
Arora and his team of 350 spread across Assam and another 150 in its Mohali office were involved in most strategies formulated and executed with advice from Jitendra Singh and senior Congress leaders in Assam. The company rented an entire floor in a five-star property in Guwahati for nearly three months while it engaged with party workers, voters and journalists during the campaign.
The Congress stitched up an alliance with All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which had won 13 seats in 2016, three Left parties, and a new front. It got another boost when Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF), a partner in the BJP-led government, switched sides and joined the Congress camp. The BPF had won 12 seats in 2016, all in the Bodo tribe dominated areas of lower Assam.
With feedback from the yatras, Congress decided on announcing five guarantees to voters in Assam. They were: Non-implementation of CAA, ₹2,000 every month to homemakers, 200 units to free electricity to all households, creation of 500,000 government jobs, and an increase in daily wages of tea-garden workers to ₹365. The guarantees were announced by Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a rally in early March.
“This was probably the first time a party was giving guarantees and not promises to voters. We saw that there was trust deficit between parties and voters and that’s why, we used the word guarantee. It also helped that all Assamese knew what the word meant,” said Arora.
“The guarantees had a resounding affect as voters had something concrete to look forward to. This was in contrast to the BJP campaign which didn’t have anything significant for individual voters and was more focused on negatives like targeting AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal as communal and spreading fear that Assam’s culture would get lost if Congress and AIUDF came to power,” he added.
Detailed planning in seal allocation to allies, careful selection of candidates and a dozen rallies of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra helped Congress improve its connection with voters further.
“Everyone now says it is a close contest. When contesting against BJP, it is important to commit the least amount of mistakes and we didn’t make a single one. The Congress might still lose the election, but we gave the BJP a run for its money at one-tenth of their cost,” said Arora.
BJP insiders admit that the fight from Congress was unexpected and it did make them uncomfortable. From its projected target of 100 plus seats, the party has toned down and says it won’t reach that mark.
“We underestimated the Congress and made some mistakes which could cost us some seats. BJP will still win this election, but it will be a close one. I expect we will win between 65 and 72 seats,” said a senior BJP office bearer refusing to be named. Party state president Ranjeet Kumar Dass and senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma maintain that BJP and allies will reach a figure of 90 seats.
“One will have to give credit to Congress for putting up a strong fight. They might still not be able to beat BJP, but the way the party campaigned and was able to get support of undecided voters, it is remarkable. The contest which seemed totally one-sided at the start became much more interesting and keenly contested towards the later part,” said Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor of political science, Gauhati University.