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Assam: New Equations and Uneasy Alliances

With the Congress returning to power at the head of a coalition government, political equations will take a new turn in Assam. To retain its minority support base, the Congress will have to reach out to the Assam United Democratic Front, as well as find ways to assuage the increased ambitions of diverse organisations such as the Bodo Progressive People's Front, claiming to represent the interests of narrow identity groups. Concomitantly, the question of who "truly" represents the 'Asomiya' - groups such as the ULFA, the AGP or even the BJP - will continue to simmer and influence the course of politics in the state.

ASSAM

New Equationsand Uneasy Alliances

With the Congress returning to power at the head of a coalition government, political equations will take a new turn in Assam. To retain its minority support base, the Congress will have to reach out to the Assam United Democratic Front, as well as find ways to assuage the increased ambitions of diverse organisations such as the Bodo Progressive People’s Front, claiming to represent the interests of narrow identity groups. Concomitantly, the question of who “truly” represents the ‘Asomiya’ – groups such as the ULFA, the AGP or even the BJP – will continue to simmer and influence the course of politics in the state.

UDAYON MISRA

A
nalyses of the Assam election results have thrown up two apparently contradictory views. One is that the voting pattern has shown that the state is witnessing a clear fragmentation along ethnic lines, with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) retaining its ethnic Assamese votes, the BJP strengthening its hold among the Bengali Hindus, the Bodo People’s Progressive Front depending exclusively on Bodo support and the Bengalispeaking immigrant Muslims unequivocally supporting the new party, the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF). According to this view, it is the Congress, alone which has been able to cut across the ethnic divide and garner support of all sections of the electorate. The other view shared by a large section of the regional press seems to assert that the Congress, by distancing itself from the “communal” AUDF configuration led by Badruddin Ajmal, has finally succeeded in shedding it pro-minority image and come closer to the ethnic Assamese community which has otherwise been siding with the AGP. The party’s performance in the Assamese-dominated upper Assam districts where it secured 30 of the 56 seats has been cited as indication of this change of heart of the Congress. The same view attributes the AGP’s rejection by its traditional Assamese voters to its refusal to rule out any post-poll alliance with the AUDF, while at the same time relating much of the Congress success to Tarun Gogoi’s rejection of the AUDF and his pre-poll alliance with the Hagrama faction of the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (BPPF). Both these views have some truth in them but they are certainly not too helpful in getting a fuller picture of the actual scenario and the new equations that are emerging in the state’s politics.

Contrary to the common assumption, the recent assembly polls have been a setback for the Congress in more ways than one. The party has lost as many as 18 seats and its share of the votes has declined by a sharp 9 per cent, from 39.60 per cent in the 2001 polls to just above 31 per cent. On the contrary, both the AGP and the BJP marginally improved upon their number of seats and the percentage of votes polled. While the AGP got 20.39 per cent of the votes and 24 seats, the BJP secured 11.98 per cent and 12 seats. A significant feature of the polls was that the Congress got a severe drubbing in its traditional immigrant Muslim pockets, with the newly formed AUDF eating heavily into its votebase and registering victories in as many as 10 constituencies, with a vote share of over 9 per cent. What must be very discomforting for the Congress is that in the lower Assam districts it succeeded in winning only 13 seats out of a total of 50, losing as many as 12 seats to the opposition. Its main rival, the AGP fared much better, making a gain of six seats and taking its tally to 13. Thus, a party which had as many as 71 seats in the last assembly has had to be content with just 53 and forced into a coalition with the BPPF which made a sweep of all the 12 seats in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) area. The only segment where the Congress made marginal gains (of two seats) was in the Bengalispeaking Barak valley. Not only in the minority dominated areas, but also in the tea belt, the Congress suffered reverses and according to the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey, lost three seats. Thus, although much hype is being created about Tarun Gogoi’s return to power for a second term, the fact remains that the 2006 polls have marked a downward slide for the Congress throughout the Brahmaputra valley.

Given the odds against it in the form of anti-incumbency, the sudden emergence of the AUDF, the rumblings of discontent in the tea belt and the general anti-Congress mood drummed up by the AGP and its leftists allies, the CPI and the CPM, it is somewhat surprising that the Congress managed to emerge as the largest single party with 53 seats in a house of 126. There were several factors that contributed towards preventing a further downslide for the Congress. Naturally, the Congress profited from a divided opposition, an uncertain poll alliance between the AGP and the left parties and, above all, from the AGP’s vacillating position regarding the AUDF. But there were several other deeper factors which helped the return of the Congress, albeit as the leading partner of a coalition government.

The ULFA FactorThe ULFA FactorThe ULFA FactorThe ULFA FactorThe ULFA Factor

To understand the factors which made this possible necessitates an appreciation of the changing equations of Assam politics and the role played by underground organisations like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Although during the assembly polls the ULFA had adopted a neutral stance, yet this neutrality was heavily weighed in favour of the Congress. In a statement just prior to the elections, the ULFA declared that unlike on previous such occasions, it would not interfere with the poll process. But this statement, while being sharply critical of the AGP, expressed its appreciation of the forces, which were helping the peace process, without, of course, naming the Congress. On the surface, this was clear indication enough that the ULFA was in favour of the Congress’ return to power because it felt that this would accelerate the peace process. It seemed also evident that the ULFA’s consistent

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006 criticism of the AGP (as against its relative silence on the continuance of army operations against the outfit and the gunning down of several of its cadres by the security forces acting under the unified command headed by the Congress government) was part of its long-term strategy of carving out a space for itself in politics of the state. For this, it would first have to edge out the AGP from its present dominant role as a regional force. This is exactly what the ULFA was doing when it expressed its reservations about the AGP’s role in the massive people’s protest in the Kakopathar area of Tinsukia district against the death in army custody of a poor peasant, Ajit Mahanta. Mahanta was picked up by the Gorkha Rifles on suspicion of being an ULFA “linkman”, tortured and killed and his body dumped on a verandah of the Assam Medical College hospital on February 5, 2006. This resulted in thousands of people blocking the national highway for several days demanding that the guilty be punished. When the government refused to relent, over 20,000 villagers from the surrounding villages marched some 15 kms to the Kakopathar police station on February 10 when a panicky police fired on them, killing nine persons on the spot.

Interestingly, in an obvious reference to the AGP’s leading role in the mass protests, ULFA leader Paresh Baruah issued a statement blaming the “other forces” for instigating the villagers. This came as a reprieve to the beleaguered Tarun Gogoi government. In the elections that followed some two months after the Kakopathar upheaval, it was the ULFA’s indirect support for the Congress, which prevented the people’s anger against the Tarun Gogoi government from being translated into votes for the AGP. Without tacit support from the ULFA, comfortable Congress victories in constituencies like Sadiya, Margherita, Doom Dooma, Namrup and Chabua which are dominated by Matak, Moran, Tai-Ahom and the tea tribes and which had been seriously affected by the mass upsurge against the Tarun Gogoi government, just would not have been possible.

AGP’s Sliding FortunesAGP’s Sliding FortunesAGP’s Sliding FortunesAGP’s Sliding FortunesAGP’s Sliding Fortunes

In another significant development, the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), known for its close links with the ULFA, came out with a blistering attack on the AGP leadership following the election defeat and hinted that it would work for the emergence of an alternati ve regional force in the state. When asked if the ULFA would eventually be a part of this new regional combination, the AJYCP leaders maintained a meaningful silence. This assumes a certain significance when seen in the context of the continuing tussle for leadership that has been going on within the AGP between the former AASU and AJYCP members within the party. It is interesting that the AJYCP has held the AGP president Brindabon Goswami, known for his dependence on the AASU, as being chiefly responsible for the party’s electoral failure. Therefore, the postelection struggle within the AGP needs to be seen in its proper perspective in the light of the emergence of a new set of equations in the state’s politics, with the ULFA eventually fighting for electoral space. As it is, two former members of the ULFA have already won in two prestigious assembly constituencies of upper Assam, with one of them, Kushal Duari having defeated the powerful Congress leader and finance minister in the last Tarun Gogoi cabinet, Devanand Konwar. The ULFA would certainly draw its lessons from the Bodo militant organisation, the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) which, in its new avatar, BPPF today occupies a central position in the state’s politics by being the major partner of the Congress-led coalition.

Coming to the Congress-BPPF coalition, it may at best be said that it is bound to be an uncertain alliance. The BPPF leaders have already expressed their unhappiness not only at being denied cabinet berths of their choice but at being treated as a minor partner in the government. At a recent rally, the BPPF leader Hagrama Mohiliary made it clear that the Congress needs to accept the fact that the present government was a coalition and must be guided by the norms of coalition politics. Moreover, the Bodoland scenario is bound to undergo major changes once NDFB which is currently engaged in peace parleys with New Delhi, decides to return to the mainstream of electoral politics. It is keeping this possibility in mind that the chief minister has started making friendly moves towards the AUDF, all his earlier vituperative comments against the dominantly immigrant Muslim organisation notwithstanding. The Congress is naturally upset at the substantial loss of support in the Bengali-speaking Muslim belt where, according to the CSDS survey, its support shrank from 72 per cent to a mere 38 per cent, while it lost eight seats and the swing against it was over 7 per cent. Those who wish to see Tarun Gogoi’s pre-election distancing from the AUDF as a sign of its new equations with the ethnic Assamese are, to say the least, nourishing an illusion. Congress politics in Assam during the post-Gopinath Bardoloi period, has increasingly veered around the minorities and it is a known fact that the party’s electoral fortunes have been largely dependant on its equations with the immigrant Muslim population and the tea garden tribes. Indeed, one is reminded of a much-quoted statement of an Assam Congress leader who finally became the president of the Congress party,

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    Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

    to the effect that as long as the party enjoyed the support of these two communities, its future was quite safe. And, this has been largely true in all the past elections. This time, however, the emergence of the AUDF led to Congress losses in its traditional strongholds and it remains, thus, an unsavoury fact for the party that had the minorities not been alienated, the Congress would have emerged victorious without support of the BPPF. Hence, moves are already afoot in the Congress camp to bring back the recalcitrants to the fold. The AUDF, for its part, knows only too well that its cause would be best served by staying with a national party like the Congress which has been consistently trying to bring in fresh legislation for the protection of migrants following the scrapping of the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act by the Supreme Court. Therefore, it seems only to be a matter of time when the state Congress and the AUDF will finally mend fences. The Congress’ need to patch up with the AUDF has also been dictated by the fact that the party’s performance in the tea belt was not up to expectations, with both the AGP and the BJP making some substantial inroads in this area. The BJP, for instance, not only succeeded in retaining the Duliajan seat in upper Assam but also wrested the prestigious Dibrugarh seat from the Congress. In both these constituencies, tea workers constitute a major vote-base.

    Emerging ForcesEmerging ForcesEmerging ForcesEmerging ForcesEmerging Forces

    A marked development in recent years has been the emergence of new student and youth organisations within the tea tribes, who have focused on the abysmal conditions of their community and are helping them gear up the struggle for better wages, educational and medical facilities. The time, therefore, may not be far off when the electorally powerful tea garden community would finally free itself from the grip of vote-bank politics and chart out its own independent course in the state’s politics. Thus, given all these developments, Assam is gradually moving into a new phase of new political equations and uneasy alliances.

    m

    Email: udayon_misra@yahoo.com

    [Figures in the article have been taken from Yogendra Yadav’s ‘How Assam Voted: A Story of Political and Ethnic Fragmentation?’, The Hindu, May 18, 2006.]

    Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

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