Do-or-die battle for BJP and Congress in Assam

By Vikas Khanna

New Delhi, Mar. 7 (ANI): The election bugle has been sounded for four states and a union territory and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces a daunting task after its two back-to-back humiliating defeats in Delhi and Bihar. The party can fancy its chances in Assam only where Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is battling anti-incumbency after staying in power for 15 years. In the remaining states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and union territory of Puducherry, it has very negligible presence.

The BJP is desperate to expand its footprint in the remote northeastern part of the country after its astonishing performance in Assam in the last general elections where it bagged seven out of the 14 seats. This time, the BJP has stitched together a formidable alliance by netting its off-an-on ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a former ally of the Congress – Bodoland People’s Front – and dissident Congress leaders.

BJP’s state chief Sarbananda Sonowal, who has been declared the chief ministerial candidate, was a long time associate of AGP before he joined hands with the saffron party. It also embraced 10 Congress MLAs led by Himanta Biswa Sarma, an influential minister in the Gogoi cabinet, after their defections. The BJP will be banking heavily on the experience of Sarma, who oversaw the last assembly elections and engineered the Congress’ astounding victory when political pundits were writing the obituary of the grand old party in the state. The Congress triumphed in 79 of the 126 seats.

On the paper, the BJP looks set to upset the applecart of the Congress, which failed to strike a pre-poll alliance with Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). Their common vote bank – the Muslim vote – is likely to be split as both the parties derive maximum political strength from Muslim-dominated areas. The AIUDF doubled its strength from 9 to 18 in the last assembly elections contesting on 77 seats.

The BJP has improved its vote share between the 2011 assembly election and 2014 general elections incredibly. From 11.5 percent, the BJP’s vote share jumped more than three-fold to 36.5 percent in the last parliamentary elections. In contrast, the Congress’ vote share fell down from 39.9 percent in 2011 to 29.9 percent in the general elections, a massive erosion of 10 percent in its vote share. It remains to be seen whether the BJP will succeed in repeating or improving its 2014 performance because the saffron party was helped largely by a massive wave in favour of Modi then. Much water has flown down the Brahmaputra since then. There has been dip in the popularity of Modi as he has struggled to implement any of his much flaunted promises. To make matters worse, the economy is not doing as well as one expected.

The BJP in Assam represents a rainbow party with members largely drawn from other parties. It has recruited Congress dissidents, members of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the student wing of the AGP and surrendered cadres of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which waged an armed struggle against the state. Even its face in the state, Sonowal, was president of AASU. It will be interesting to watch how this rag-tag bunch of politicians stays together as everybody will be demanding its pound of flesh.

As of now, it is advantage BJP as it has tied up with AGP and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). All the three parties have a common cause as far as their opposition to the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh is concerned. But its decision to take the Congress dissidents in its fold, with complete different political ideology, will be tested in the polls. This is a major irritant in otherwise a perfect combo to take on the veteran Gogoi who will find the going tough this time. The AGP’s decision to flirt again with the Hindu party after burning bridges with it in the past underlines its desperation as its fortunes have been constantly on the downslide and is losing political space in the state.

In fact, the BJP’s growth story in Assam has been largely at the expense of the AGP. Interestingly, both the parties have fared badly whenever they entered into an alliance in the past. Their first attempt to come together ended in a catastrophe in 2001 as the then ruling AGP was unseated by the Congress. In that election, the AGP managed just 20 seats whereas the BJP bagged eight seats. The two parties against decided to kiss and make up in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The decision boomeranged on the AGP which won just one seat whereas the BJP triumphed in four seats. In the last assembly elections, both the BJP and AGP went separately. The AGP bettered BJP as it netted 10 seats out of 104 seats on which it contested whereas the BJP managed just five out of 120 seats on which it went to polls.

If one tallies the 2011 vote share of all the three parties which contested the elections separately – the BJP, AGP and BPF — it was 33 percent, which was about six percent short of the Congress. The permutation this time favours the BJP-led alliance as Gogoi has been incapacitated due to defection by Sarma, considered to be the master strategist and architect of Congress victory in the last elections. But predicting elections is not an easy task in India as several pollsters have burned their hands in the past with their prognosis going wayward.

Assam election is a do-or-die battle for both the Congress and BJP. Both parties need to win this high stake election. The Congress has not won a single state election after its disastrous performance in the 2014 general elections, though it took some solace in last year’s victory in Bihar being part of the Grand Alliance. Riding on the wave of Modi’s popularity in general elections, the BJP snatched some big wins in Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and formed the government in Kashmir as a junior partner. But it began with a disastrous note in the next year as it was annihilated completely first in Delhi by the rookie Aam Aadmi Party and then by the RJD-JDU-Congress alliance in Bihar.

The results in Delhi and Bihar are a big question mark on the popularity of the BJP whose career graph is on the downhill as the Modi magic has started fading. Therefore, both the parties will go for the kill in Assam to recover the lost ground. But will they be able to pull off an outright victory? I have my doubts. My bets are on a hung legislative assembly with no political party or group in a position to form the government.

[Vikas Khanna is a senior journalist and the views expressed by him are personal.] (ANI)

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