Assam Elections 2021: Dynamics of an unconventional poll
The triangular contest with new entrants and reshuffled alliances has ushered in an element of unpredictability to the polls; write Arif Mohammad and Suraj Kumar
The beauty of a democracy can be gauged by the thrills thrown by its elections. This is where India stands tall among most of the nations. Every election here is unique in its own right, imparting a fresh aura to the region under election. The fights are vigorous, and result unpredictable till the counting day.
Away from the mainland, assembly elections in Assam have been announced to be conducted in three phases and the results will be declared on May 2. The Assam election has a lot of new perspectives to offer. The fight in Assam has got a new twist with the entry of a third front that has emerged from anti-CAA protests. This reflects the centrality of the issue to the upcoming election. CAA itself is an important aspect that lends a touch of novelty to Assam elections.
Apart from this, there has been a major reshuffle in alliances that will leave the greatest of 'poll predictors' scratching their head. There is newness also in the underlying objectives for which all the three fronts are contesting elections. Of course, all parties primarily fight for victory! But there are secondary reasons as well which have shifted a great deal for all major parties since past elections. The onus of deciding the fate of political parties and candidates in an election rests solely with the people. But one can still try to figure out in which direction the wind is blowing.
A triangular contest
The BJP-led ruling coalition had registered a thumping victory in the 2016 Assembly elections where BJP clinched 60 of the 84 seats it contested. The major regional ally Asom Gana Parishad managed to win 13 of the 24 seats it contested. Meanwhile, UPPL lost all the four seats it fought for. Bodoland People's Front contested the remaining seats of the 126-constituency Assembly. The equation of seats looks comfortable for the alliance but three major limiting factors can potentially disturb the equation — the anti-incumbency factor, the CAA issue and the alliance of BPF with Congress.
BJP is looking to expand its base in the state after its maiden victory in the 2016 Assembly elections. The party is reaching out to Adivasi and tribal communities to strengthen its footing in the electoral landscape of Assam. The outreach is in terms of development programmes and strategic groundwork over years to establish its own independent foothold. Its prospects, however, are limited due to its radical stand on CAA and NRC – the issues which are at the centre stage of Assam politics. The major regional ally is Asom Gana Parishad — the party which rose from the ashes of the Assam agitation and has the onus to justify 855 lives that were lost during that time. AGP was divided on the issue of CAA last year when one of its founding members, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta along with other MLAs, decided to protest against CAA, contrary to the party's support to the issue. Coincidentally, Mahanta was denied a party ticket for the upcoming elections. Once a bright face of students' politics and the protagonist of the heroic Assam agitation, Prafulla Mahanta seems to be losing political ground as he approaches his 40s. Back in 2005 he had parted ways with AGP and formed AGP-Progressive but rejoined the parent party after a few months. The Print quoted AGP-P spokesperson, Pranab Goswami after the denial of ticket "The party (AGP) has sold itself to the BJP. Their standard has been lowered to the fact that Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma decide AGP tickets. Those who took a stand against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) have been denied tickets,"
The other major ally of BJP during the previous Assembly election was the Bodoland People' Front. The party this year has shifted its alliance to Congress. This has twisted the tale in a major way. BPF won 12 of the 14 seats it contested in the 2016 Assembly elections. The party has an established loyal electorate in the North Bank of Brahmaputra. BPF can play the kingmaker's role this election as well.
Congress on other hand has allied with seven political parties—AIUDF, CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML), BPF, Anchalik Gan Morcha (AGM) and RJD. AIUDF and BPF were the major performers among these in the 2016 elections, winning 13 and 12 seats respectively. Their incorporation into the alliance will no doubt strengthen the Mahajot bastion, but the alliance with AIUDF has stoked controversy in the political circles of Assam. Apart from the BJP which is trying all it can to discredit the legitimacy of AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal, the third front which aims to counter BJP, has also targeted attacks on the alliance. Responding to the anti-Hindu allegations levelled against Ajmal,
Congress president Ripun Bora said "Ajmal is not anti-Hindu, but talks only about the welfare of Muslims. Talking about the welfare of Muslims or the people of his own religion is not a crime unless he hates the people of other religions. Ajmal has never been anti-Hindu." Political parties need to shift the narrative from communal cards to development and welfare agenda. The Grand Alliance can serve its purpose only when it will take relevant issues, backed by paramount groundwork.
New to the race are the All Assam Students' Union (AASU)-led Assam Jatiya Parishad and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS)-led Raijor Dal, who have come together to counter the BJP. Assam is not new to the rise of political outfits emanating from popular struggle and then acquiring a spot in mainstream politics. But there is one issue the coalition must address immediately if it wishes to leave any mark in the Assembly elections. It is a matter of coordination. Raijor Dal has announced the list of 18 candidates who would enter the fray in the first and second phase of the elections. In nine of the constituencies, it is facing a friendly battle against its own ally. Raijor Dal President, Akhil Gogoi, who is contesting the elections from jail has sent a letter to all candidates to abstain from fielding candidates from allies so that the anti-BJP vote is not divided.
Assam is a land of rich socio-ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. It is reflected in its political divisions. Electorates in these divisions have widely different political characteristics and allegiance. The North Bank of Brahmaputra could be called a stronghold of the BJP. The party along with its allies bagged 17 of the 18 constituencies in the region. The story can be a little twisted this time. Bodo people and tea tribes constitute a major portion of the electorate in the region. BPF is known to influence this region. In 2016, the party candidates won the three seats it contested in the North Bank — Rihon Daimari from Udalguri, Charan Baro from Majbat and Kamali Basumatari from Panery. It will be interesting to watch how BPF's shifting to Congress will affect political equations in this region. Though, BJP and other allies have also performed better. AGP's Brindaban Goswami won from Tezpur and Utpal Dutta from Lakhimpur. AGP lost the third seat it contested—Naoboicha – to AIUDF. Interestingly, the five-time MLA Brindaban Goswami is denied a ticket from Tezpur this time, ceding it to Prithbiraj Rabha.
Down south in Barak Valley, the electorate is mainly Bengali speaking, particularly a dialect called Sylheti, spoken in north-eastern Bangladesh. Two of the three districts in Barak Valley — Hailakandi and Karimganj – are predominantly Muslim areas. In the 2016 Assembly elections, BJP bagged a total of eight seats in the valley. It won six of the seven seats in the third district — Cachar. The other two seats came from the Karimganj district. Congress was reduced to three seats while AIUDF won five seats. However, there is a big difference now from the 2016 elections. Apprehensions around CAA and NRC are much more pronounced in this region than any other. Much will depend on the way the electorate in this region will respond to BJP's stance on the CAA issue. Also, there is a possibility that gains made by AIUDF-Congress combine in Hailakandi and Karimganj can be offset by BJP in Cachar. Political strategists also expect the Grand alliance to fare well in Central Assam.
CAA and NRC are at the core of Assam Assembly elections. The magnitude of its influence can be gauged from the fact that a whole new front has developed to counter BJP on the issue. The apprehensions around the issue persist among both natives and immigrants.
Development is by default an issue in any election. The reality of development is subject matter to quantitative analysis of development programmes and their implementation. Though extremely important, the reality of development is often sidelined by the perception of reality. There are claims and claims, allegations and counter-allegations. BJP claims to have carried out unprecedented development in the state during its term. The party has floated popular schemes like SWAYAM and Orunudoi. While SWAYAM is targeted towards providing financial support to the youth, Orunudoi is a monthly stipend scheme targeted towards women. BJP has stepped up its development initiatives with the approaching of the Assembly elections. Last month, the Prime Minister launched the Mahabahu-Brahmaputra inland waterway project to enhance water connectivity in Assam. He also initiated a 3,000-crore engineering college in the North Bank of Maharashtra to appease voters in the region. Regional opposition parties have, however, constantly alleged BJP for leaving the real problems of Assam unsolved. During Prime Minister's visit in January, All Assam Student's Union Advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya, as quoted by Firstpost, said "The PM did not utter a single word on the core issues like the implementation of the Assam Accord, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Clause SixCommittee report and on flood and erosion problems,". This has been the constant complaint of all opposition parties.
While identity politics and communal cards continue to be on people's minds, the larger issues of environmental management, floods and destruction continue to be secondary issues. Even if these persist in people's minds, they haven't come to the surface. It is the larger responsibility of opposition parties to provide a platform for people to come out with their apprehensions around these issues.
It will be a daunting task before the opposition to rake up such issues. Once, they manage to do so it will not only enhance their political prospects but also lend them credibility and the trust of people. More importantly, it will relieve people from their longstanding woes. Opportunity awaits the opposition in face of these dormant issues. They must rake these issues.
The Election Commission identified 1.08 lakh doubtful voters, who will be barred from casting their votes in upcoming Assembly elections. This number last year, as revealed in the state Assembly, was 1.13 lakh. A total of more than 2,30,00,000 electors will vote in the Assembly election this year. The malaise of D voters has persisted in the state since 1997. The number, however, has reduced to half since then. None of the parties, either BJP or Congress, has made considerable efforts to solve the issue.
A person is marked as doubtful voters if his/her citizenship is not ascertained due to a lack of documents that establish their credential as a citizen of India. Doubtful voters are left perplexed by their exclusion from the voters' list. This includes voters who used to vote in the past but have been enlisted as D voter due to translocation or other reason. While the finality of adjudication lies with Foreign Tribunals, the proceedings are initiated and carried out at the local level. This increases the chances of misuse of the provision.
No wonder the persistence of the issue of doubtful voters has instilled outrage and discontent in factions of society in Assam. It is indeed a great discrepancy that forbids people living in the state from contesting elections and exercising the fundamental tenet of democracy — voting. There may be issues around national integrity but suspension of the issue unsolved for decades has no less devastating repercussions.
The assembly elections will define the contours of Assam politics in many ways. To a certain extent, it will approve or disapprove the issue of CAA and NRC. At the same time, it will decide how far the new entrants will go in Assam politics; one whose share they will build their vote banks. Will they curtail BJP or end up cutting votes of anti-BJP parties. The election results will also show whether BJP will further strengthen its foothold in the state. Most importantly, it is about the long-standing woes of the Assamese people. Is this election novel enough to take note of that?
Views expressed are personal