BJP unsettled before Assam polls
Five States are scheduled to hold Assembly elections next year: Kerala, Puducherry, Assam, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. Except Assam, none of the other States hold many prospects for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is only Assam, the party is setting store by. But several developments in the recent past, the latest being the party’s debacle in Bihar, has raised doubts about its chances in Assam where elections will be held early next year.
Of these, the most important is the defection of the dissident Congress leader and former minister Himanta Biswa Sharma to the BJP. The over-ambitious Sharma had been attempting to dislodge Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and become Chief Minister himself for a long time. He had some party legislators behind him. He made several trips to Delhi to convince the Congress High Command that he was the party’s best bet in the 2016 polls. But he failed to cut much ice there. The High Command made it clear to him that Gogoi would continue at least till the next assembly polls.
Frustrated with the Congress, Sarma left the Congress and joined BJP in August this year. There was jubilation in the Congress camp that the trouble-maker had at last left the party. Nine Congress legislators also quit the party with him to join the BJP. But there was no jubilation in the BJP camp. Many senior BJP leaders considered him to be a rank outsider and trouble-maker. In case the BJP wins the elections, they believe that Sarma might make a bid for the Chief Minister’s post and it would be difficult to check him. Sarma has a chequered history. A former leader of the militant group United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), he was arrested by the police many years ago, but the then Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia persuaded him to join the Congress. Many Congressmen do not like him because of former Congress leader and State INTUC president Manabendra Sharma were murdered by the ULFA.
The Assam BJP has several chief ministerial candidates. They are the old leaders who have served the party loyally for many years. They know Sarma has not joined the BJP to become just an ordinary legislator – he has set his eyes high. Opposition to Sarma is strong within the party.
Recently, some student leaders have joined the BJP and the Congress. A former All Assam Students Union (AASU) president and a former general secretary of the students’ body joined the BJP. A former president of the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) has also joined the BJP. On the other hand, an ex-president of the All Adivasi Students Association has joined the Congress.
Public opinion has become hostile to the BJP after the Centre decided to give citizenship to many who clandestinely entered into Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, the day Bangladesh declared Independence. This was the ‘cut-off date’ for those who had come from the then East Pakistan. These entrants are believed to have got their names in the National Register of Citizens, which is currently being prepared by giving false declarations. The second NRC (the first one prepared in 1952) will have to be completed by March 2016.
The “Bangladeshi infiltrator” issue is a very sensitive and emotive one in Assam. During the Lok Sabha elections last year, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi told at public gatherings in Assam that once the BJP came to power, all “Bangladeshis” would be sent back to where they came from. Once in power, he found that it was a promise easier made than fulfilled. This party is treating this issue on a low key now.
The aggressive Hindutva of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has brightened the prospect of the powerful All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by Maula Badruddin Ajmal, who joined hands with the Congress. A tie-up between the two before the elections would be a shot in the arms for the Congress and the BJP’s policy of polarising the electorate on religious lines may boomerang. Another factor is the Bodo tribals. At the moment, they are not with the Congress. But depending on the situation that develops on the eve of the elections, they may join hands with the Congress.
As in West Bengal, the BJP has no popular and respected leader in Assam who can be projected to the electorate as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. The hard Hindutva of the party has not gone well with the Assamese middle class either, steeped as they are in the liberal teachings of Srimanta Sankardeva, the 15th-16th century Vaishnava preacher. Sankardeva’s appeal cuts across religions. One of the best and most popular books on his life, Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal, has been written by the Academy award winning author Syed Abdul Malik. For a number of reasons, it will not be easy sailing for the BJP in Assam.
(The author is a senior commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal)