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Jobs, not guns, is Assam poll mantra

Development, for the first time, is finding its fair share of limelight in Assam, writes Rahul Karmakar.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2006 22:13 IST

Since 1985, the shadow of the Ulfa has loomed large over every Assembly election in Assam. So has the bogey of illegal migrants. It's no different for Mandate 2006 — despite the apparently propeace Ulfa desisting from its routine call to boycott the polls and the scrapping of the contentious Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983 by the Supreme Court in July last. But development, for the first time in two decades, is finding its fair share of limelight.

If Assam has witnessed a flipflop every five years — no party has retained power since 1977 — it is, allegedly, because of the Ulfa. The militants have invariably propped up the Opposition party and trained their guns on key leaders of the ruling party impacting the eventual results.

The cycle has been repeated with a “role reversal” when another election is due.

Likewise, the IM(DT) Act has affected the voting pattern over the years with the Congress swearing by it and the AGP-BJP attacking it. The Act was considered an armour primarily for Muslim settlers from Bangladesh, while indigenous communities viewed it as a hurdle to deporting illegal migrants. Though "put to death" by the apex court, the ghost of this act still haunts Assam. And passions are being whipped up for and against an amendment prescribed by the Congress-led UPA government to the Foreigners' Act to "give it an IM(DT)-like shape".

However, the ground reality is that the man on the street has become oblivious of the political battles over the IM(DT), albeit scrapped. Neither does the Ulfa matter any longer. For many, the outfit is an excuse for the government not to work: the “fear factor” prevents the teacher, doctor, agriculture extension officer and BDO from serving in remote, rural areas; the contractor builds invisible roads and houses and blames militants for extorting the money that would have gone into the projects.

Development, thus, is the credo of the leading parties in the fray — the Congress, AGP, BJP, AGP (Progressive), NCP, the Left and sundry regional parties. Perhaps for the first time, roads, bridges, power, farm produce buy-back, drinking water, et al are being talked about in the same breath as militancy and migrants.

And this is where the ruling Congress is cashing on, hoping to be the first party in over 25 years to do so. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's confidence — "We will win 80 seats" — rides on "performance of the panchayats" in taking power to the people. It also stems from the fragmented Opposition: Main contender AGP is a divided house with former CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led AGP (Progressive) contesting over 70 seats. Infighting and a suspicion of a "secret understanding" with the AGP, on the other hand, is troubling the BJP.

The AGP, BJP and AGP(P) have made Congress's task easier since these three parties have the same vote base of mostly indigenous communities. The Congress, on the other hand, is believed to retain its two major vote banks — Muslims, a deciding factor in 45 of the 126 seats, and tea garden workers, who hold sway over 28 seats — despite threats from the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) and the BJP respectively.

The AUDF, a conglomerate of 13 minority bodies, was formed after the IM(DT) Act was scrapped and it took a hard line against the Congress for "taking Muslims for a ride.” It shaped up as an alternative for Muslims, but experienced internal tremors before the polls. As for the tea tribes, most are not aware of anything beyond the Congress, though the BJP has made inroads into this citadel.

Star campaigners Manmohan Singh: The PM, who will address 10 rallies, is also the most high profile voter in the Dispur constituency and a Congress member from Jorhat. Sonia Gandhi: The UPA chairperson's campaign schedule is not finalized as yet LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan: The BJP stars from Delhi will campaign across half a dozen constituencies Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma: Union Agriculture Minister and the former LS Speaker will address rallies Govinda (Cong) and Dharmendra and Hema Malini (BJP): The Bollywood stars-turned-politicians will campaign primarily in the tea belt.

First Published: Mar 27, 2006 15:40 IST