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Assam: Mandate for Peace and Development

The Congress Party's emphatic return to power in Assam following assembly elections was the consequence of a perceived and deserved image of "peace and development" during its rule in the state. It managed to retain power despite a pervasive image of corruption as the opposition was disunited and unable to raise issues of consequence to large sections of the electorate in the state.

COMMENTARY

Assam: Mandate for Peace and Development

Sandhya Goswami

The Congress Party’s emphatic return to power in Assam following assembly elections was the consequence of a perceived and deserved image of “peace and development” during its rule in the state. It managed to retain power despite a pervasive image of corruption as the opposition was disunited and unable to raise issues of consequence to large sections of the electorate in the state.

Sandhya Goswami (sandhya_goswami@ yahoo.com) is with the department of political science, Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam.

B
elying expectations of a fragmented verdict, the mandate of the 2011 Assam assembly elections has been clear and decisive. The Congress Party’s win – re-election to a third term in Assam is a rare achievement in the states in I ndia, where “anti-incumbency” has more often been the norm. In an election that registered a 76.03% turnout, the Congress managed a facile victory, with the chief minister Tarun Gogoi managing three consecutive terms emulating erstwhile Congress leader and chief minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha. Gogoi managed to do so, despite allegations of corruption from the opposition parties and sections of the media and civil society in the run-up to the elections.

The outcome raises some fundamental questions. How far have these gains made by the Congress Party been earned by its own efforts or are they the by-product of the disarray within the opposition?

The Verdict

The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fought the elections on their own. However, the Congress Party did have an understanding with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) to have a post-poll alliance – the BPF was part of the Congress alliance in the 2006 elections and its partner in the coalition government that followed. The Congress Party achieved an absolute majority winning 78 seats and garnering 39.38% of the votes. The Congress tally increased by 25 seats, from 53 in the 2006 elections, its vote share has increased by

8.30 percentage points. The main opposition party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), suffering from organisational weaknesses and internal factionalism, managed to retain only 10 seats with 16.30% votes, as against 24 seats and 20.39% of votes in the 2006 assembly elections. The AGP’s seat adjustments with the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (BPPF), the Ganashakti Party and the Autonomous State Demand

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Committee (ASDC) did not improve its tally, as these parties are influential only in small pockets in the state. Besides, the AGP leaders’ vacillating stand about whether to ally or not to ally with BJP and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) before the election possibly raised doubts

in the minds of religious minorities and secular segments of voters on the aims and objectives of the party. There was also an attempt by the AGP to forge a “grand alliance” of all opposition parties, which was rejected outright by the left, the BJP and the AIUDF as well.

The BJP’s decision to go it alone after being unable to arrive at an understanding with the AGP only resulted in a division of votes among the opposition helping the Congress. The BJP managed to secure only five seats after garnering 11.46% of the votes.

The AIUDF that emerged as a political and electoral force only during the 2006 assembly election has increased its seats and vote share in this election. The party has won 18 seats and 12.58% of votes as compared to 10 seats and 10.46% of votes in the last assembly election. The party has strengthened the process of p olarisation among Muslims – particularly among the “domiciled” and the immigrants. It posed a challenge to the Congress’ base among religious minorities, especially the immigrants living in the Char areas. The BPPF and Trinamool Congress also managed to increase their tallies respectively – the latter garnered one seat, while the left parties were unable to win any seat in the elections.

Issues Mattered

The emphasis on peace talks with the i nsurgents and development of the state, instead of playing into the hands of sectional interests, has paid rich dividends to the Congress. People who have lived under the shadow of the gun can understand how valuable peace is. Assam has been reeling from violence and insecurity for nearly a quarter of a century. The initiation of peace dialogue with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) proved to be the Congress’ trump card. The possibility of a political solution to the vexed problem of militancy in the state by engaging the dominant militant groups across the negotiation table and initiating the much-awaited peace process

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without any preconditions on the issue of sovereignty after a long period of 30 years worked well in terms of votes for the incumbent party.

Pro-people initiatives of the government such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the farm loan waiver scheme created a positive image for the party. The NREGS was extremely popular across the state. Besides, what the Planning Commission terms “inclusive growth through inclusive planning and governance” did work in the state. A review of the welfare measures introduced by the incumbent government makes it clear why the Congress could get such a mandate. As many as 58 lakh schoolchildren have been getting mid-day meals, which implies that at least 40 lakh families benefited. Over 92,000 students have been given free computers and laptops on getting first division marks in the high school finals. About 1.35 lakh girl students of Class IX and X in rural areas have been given a bicycle each. Over 1.5 lakh teachers and employees of non-government schools (who earn modest salaries) have been given monthly support ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,500. Headmasters of 16,300 “venture” schools were given additional financial support. Besides jobs of 7,000 teachers appointed during the AGP regime under operation Black Board were regularised. Moreover, the major indices of development like those tracking education, health, law and order, roads, electricity, drinking water have also indicated that the party has done better in the last five years compared to the earlier governments. The common aspiration among the people in the state was for continued peace and development. And these have triumphed over corruption as a political agenda.

The choice of candidates also mattered in realisation of the final outcome. The Congress Party presented a blend of new and old faces that worked well compared to the main opposition party, the AGP. Moreover, the Congress Party could recover its old role of a grand unifier of divergent social and economic forces. The Congress is the only party in the state that could appeal to diverse sections of population. The emergence of the AIUDF did cost the Congress a portion of immigrant Muslim votes, but the Congress could regain its lost strength reasonably well by wooing the Assamese-speaking Muslims and part of the Assamese-speaking Hindus having allegiance mainly to the AGP and BJP. The AIUDF is the only party other than the Congress which has seen its vote share rise since 2006 but its vote share has gone down by 3% since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Thus the gains of the Congress across all sections make it more of a “catch all party” in Assam.

On the other hand, the great setback for the AGP is a product of its own creation. The advantage secured by the AGP in the past as a result of historical and political exigencies in its endeavour to unite the people for forming a cohesive Assamese nationality could not be capitalised by the party this time around. The AGP’s inability to adopt a clear cut stand on its electoral alliance strategies since its emergence as a political force in Assam is a clear failure on its part. In successive polls, the party joined hands with different parties including the Left and the BJP to the detriment of its own image as a regional party with a highly variegated multi-ethnic electoral base. The lack of ideology, failure to envisage and implement wide-ranging economic programmes along with opportunism and factionalism within the party were some of the factors which contributed to the defeat of the AGP in the election. The prepoll scenario in the 2011 assembly elections in Assam has witnessed a number of events and defection is one such issue, which was quite strong within the AGP. When the prospect is one of deterioration from within, the leaders did not hesitate to abandon the ideology of the party to which they had originally subscribed to. Many leaders left the party or turned against it on the eve of elections or during submission of nomination papers. Many veteran party leaders, activists and sitting legislators left the party, aghast at the lack of tickets for them and some even contested as rebels or independent candidates. Those failing to get candidature did not even hesitate to indulge in vandalism in the party office. Such behaviour certainly weakened the image of the party and exposed the lack of discipline and democracy within the party organisation.

Besides, a united AGP in this election after a period of painful separation of its faction – the AGP(Progressive) – failed to build on the failure of the Congress government to adequately address major issues concerning the state like immigration of foreign nationals, floods, soil erosion, impacts of big dams, corruption, problems of diverse ethnic minorities and others. The AGP’s sole mobilisation plank in this election revolved only around the institutionalisation of corruption within the Congress Party and government. In reality, the issue of corruption did not sway the general public beyond a few based in urban locations. As far as the BJP is concerned, it takes much convincing for people living in a setting that is fundamentally multicultural and multi-ethnic to vote for the party. It may sound strange to think of the Congress as the party with most ennobling principles, but when there is really no better alternative, voters are forced to take a decision in a first past the post system and that worked in the favour of the Congress.

Conclusions

Results to the assembly elections in the state saw complete electoral domination by the ruling Congress Party, in seat terms. However, it is not correct to conclude that the verdict signals a decimation of regional parties in the state. The AGP, which took voters for granted and thought corruption as an issue could substitute for governance and other matters in its campaign, was put in its place. It is to be remembered that the structural reasons that have produced regional parties in Assam have not totally disappeared; rather these may be present in some areas even more intensely but in a dormant state. The future of regional forces in Assam lies not in shor-term political alliances for garnering a few seats in elections but in how it works to address the desires of the hitherto u nrepresented social forces in the state. The regional parties have to create a larger federal political umbrella that can effectively combine interests of the minorities and other dominant identities in the state.

In the last 10 years, the Congress has failed to address the corruption issue sufficiently but it has still secured votes. Usually state-level issues have greater salience in assembly elections. Corruption is

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an issue but it plays out differently in different states. The verdict clearly reiterates the fact that to win in a state, what is most important is to empower state leaders instead of depending on national leaders. By

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managing to be in power for three consecutive terms, Tarun Gogoi has joined the list of “empowered chief ministers” in the country. The Congress must focus on some of the pertinent issues strongly raised during

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the election such as corruption, immigration of foreign nationals, rising prices, grievances of ethnic minorities and other areas of development which, if left unattended, may snowball into major irritants.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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