Saturday, 6 February 2016

ASSAM POLLS: LET THE BATTLE BEGIN

Sonowal with PM Modi and Biswa
After an incredible 2014, the once 'unstoppable' Modi bandwagon was completely halted after back to back electoral defeats, first in Delhi and then in Bihar. The 'intolerance' debate, rising food prices, the logjam in the Parliament and the subsequent inability of the NDA government to initiate much awaited reforms have certainly hit the popularity of the PM and his party. Modi for sure knows that perhaps the only way to regain some of the lost pride is by registering a major political victory; out of the five states that are schedule to go for polls in 2016, the one where the saffron camp is fancying its chances is the north-eastern state of Assam, wherein the BJP won half of the fourteen parliamentary seats in the last General Polls held in 2014.

In what has become a norm within the BJP in the NaMo era, the party's campaign was kick started by the PM when he addressed a rally in Kokrajhar in western Assam in January where he urged the people to give his party a chance to form a government at Dispur. Earlier this week, he also attended a meeting of tea workers who form a substantial chunk of voters where he famously blamed the Gandhis for holding up key legislation that he claimed would help the people of the state.

Meanwhile, the BJP seems to have learnt its lessons from the debacle in Bihar and Delhi. Sarbananda Sonowal, the Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs representing Lakhimpur in the Lok Sabha has been anointed to lead the saffron camp for the upcoming polls. The entry of Himanta Biswa Sarma who was once considered to be close to incumbent CM Tarun Gogoi into the party fold has added to its chances of winning. With the elections expected to be a close contest, the tie up with the BPF (Bodoland People's Front) which has considerable clout in the autonomous councils in the north-eastern state is expected to bring in more acceptance to the BJP which has never ruled Assam. On top of these positives is of course the massive anti-incumbency against the ruling Congress which the BJP could easily leverage to its advantage. Unless it does something really 'stupid', the saffron camp is all set to create history by forming its first government in Dispur or at least emerge as the single largest party in the legislative assembly in case of a fractured mandate.


CM Tarun Gogoi at an election rally
On the other hand, the Congress camp is feeling 'jittery' ahead of the elections. Having been in power in the state for three consecutive terms, CM Tarun Gogoi is facing the heat even as he tries to set the stage for his son Gaurav to succeed him, upholding a long time Congress tradition. The rout in the General Elections followed by a dismal performance in the municipal polls has adversely affected cadre morale; the departure of Biswa, once considered the blue-eyed boy of Gogoi has further dented their chances. However, some believe that this could well be a blessing in disguise since it could rid the party of factionalism, credited by many to be the real reason for the mess that the grand old party finds itself in its stronghold.

However, speaking at a press conference after PM Modi's January rally, Gogoi seemed to be confident of his party winning a straight fourth term in the state. In fact, what he was suggesting is perhaps the only way for the Congress to somehow hang on to power in Assam; if the INC can manage to build a grand alliance, the way Nitish and Lalu did in Bihar, then it has a very good chance of at least keeping the BJP at bay. Even if a formal pre-poll tie up with 'like-minded' parties is not possible, a well thought out strategy to defeat the BJP could also do the trick. But then, are the AGP and the AIUDF ready to be a part of such a formation, either formally or informally is something that will be clear in the next few weeks.


Badruddin Ajmal 
The joker in the pack is the AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front) which has been constantly improving its performance in the state over the last decade. Floated by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, the regional outfit which has a substantial voter base in the southern parts of Assam finished as the second largest party in the last state polls with 18 seats and then ended up with a tally of three in the parliamentary elections. As of now, the party has not responded to calls to form an anti-BJP front in Assam ahead of the polls. Most observers believe that the party is keeping its options open. In case of a hung assembly, it could end up becoming the 'king maker'. With this in mind, the AIUDF is concentrating on reaching out beyond its traditional vote base comprising of minority votes so that it can maximize its results.


Once a major political player in the state, the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) is being wooed aggressively, both by the BJP and the Congress for a pre-poll tie up. However, as of now, the party has managed to stay away from both the national parties. The upcoming elections though are a litmus test for the AGP. Though it was in power for two terms in the state in the past, its popularity continues to be at an all time low and most of its leaders and cadre have shifted base to other outfits. No wonder, the party is trying to use the polls as an opportunity to stage a major comeback and regain some of its lost glory. Will the AGP succeed in its endeavor or will it sink further into political oblivion is something that remains to be seen.