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Assam Election 2021: Will There Be New Surprises? By Nirendra Dev

It seems to be a season of new parties, sub-regionalism and anti CAA flavour. Will Assam election throw some political surprise or it will be repetition of trends since 1970s till 2020?

As Assam inches close to assembly elections 2021, the political playing fields are getting more volatile each passing day. The North Eastern State is yet again set for student bodies-backed politics as new regional outfits are being floated.

Student bodies and tribal organisations are getting hyperactive but avoiding mainstream parties like the BJP, the Congress or even the state-based key player Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).

Thus, a series of new political outfits of greenhorns will be in the race in the 2021 assembly elections. However, in between came the season of embarrassment for the BJP – which came to power in 2016 promising a ‘New Assam’.

Much to the embarrassment for those who claim to be ‘party with a difference’, Assam BJP leader Diban Deka, who is the prime accused in a case pertaining to leakage of question paper of a test for recruitment of police sub-inspectors surrendered before the police.

Deka was a “national executive member” of the BJP’s Kishan Morcha, according to sources. The BJP, which heads the state’s three-party government, quickly distanced itself from Deka and he has been expelled also.

But this issue will remain in political discussions in the states especially in the run up to the next year’s assembly polls.

In 2016, after years of struggle, the BJP had come to power and had pledged to herald a new era for strife-torn state. But the report card would speak otherwise.

Challenges for BJP in Assam

In February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself visited Kokrajhar and pushed a new Bodo peace pact. Observers say it was a well calculated move.

The new peace deal virtually creates a ‘Bodo homeland’ but without separating it from Assam. Will such games be played with other tribal groups too?

Among the new entrants or parties in the state, the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) has been floated, essentially drawing leaders and foot soldiers from the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Parishad (AJYP).

AASU’s shot at politics is not happening for the first time. In the eighties – it gave Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which has tasted power in Dispur more than one tenure and is now playing second fiddle to the BJP.

AGP’s performance too was much below satisfactory. And in the early 1990s, its misgovernance and absence of control on things had resulted in making the terror group ULFA turn aggressive.

In fact, in later stages too after the 1990s and so, AASU kept on propping up young leaders. BJP’s incumbent Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is himself a product of AASU leadership. In his cabinet too, there are a few others.

In the 2016 assembly polls, observers say, more than the ‘Modi factor’, it was Sonowal’s image that had done the trick to unseat one of the last surviving Congress veteran Tarun Gogoi.

Sonowal, who was 53 in 2016, delivered the state to the saffron party and his leadership – Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. The timing was perfect as the perceived ‘Modi wave’ of 2014 was already rejected in Bihar in 2015.

The talk of the town was Sonowal as ‘the man Assam was waiting for’; given his major legal victory on the illegal immigrants’ issue in 2005 and of course the tribal background.

Will CAA and NRC issues Be a Game Changer?

Things have changed during the last four years and more. Now, issues in debate are the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act and of course multiple-level failures and misgovernance under the NDA regime.

Now, the BJP and its regional partner AGP face the allegation of ‘betraying’ the people by making all sorts of false promises and later on implementing the controversial new Citizenship law. So much is the nervousness in the BJP camp that the state’s vocal Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma till about a month back was not sure whether he would contest the election.

But it is true, the entry of youths and new parties drawn from the sentiment and strength of student politics has changed the entire electoral dynamics.

Thus the rights of the natives – the indigenous people and regionalism are back in reckoning. But having said so, there is a need to look at the issue of sub-regionalism and tribal-related matters as well.

While much of the credit for Sonowal and BJP’s historic victory in 2016 is given to the foreigners’ issue; it is also a fact that projecting Sonowal as the Chief Ministerial candidate was a well-thought-out strategy.

The ‘tribal’ factor too can catapulte a party or mar its prospects in Assam. The BJP,  perceived as a ‘north Indian Hindi’ party, was able to cobble up support of various tribal groups – Muttock, Tai Ahom, Moran, Koch Rajbongshi, and the tea tribes.

Sonowal himself is from a minority Kachari tribe and all these tribal populations have a significant presence in upper Assam districts of Jorhat, Golaghat, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur.

This is adding to the worries of another national party the Congress. Gauging the mood, the Congress leaders have reached out to a perceived minority-friendly AIUDF led by perfume tycoon Badruddin Ajmal.

The Congress may contest 90 seats, according to state unit chief Ripun Bora while the AIUDF may contest in remaining 38 seats – mostly amongst Bengali speaking stronghold states. But there would be problems when other smaller and newly floated parties join the combine.

Tribal population and leaders know their ‘potentials’ and thus a convention has been also called on October 15 by various tribal organizations of Assam and they are also likely to announce the setting up of a new party.

Another prominent public face, Akhil Gogoi-led Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti – committed to peasants rights – too is likely to float a party soon.

Gogoi is in jail at present after being booked by the NIA on charges of sedition and under provisions of the UAPA for his involvement in the anti-CAA protest.

Changing Dynamics of Vote Share?

“Now, the question in front of people of Assam is which new political party actually eats up either pro-BJP or anti-BJP votes because the saffron party has been in power since 2016. One real worry is of course the possibility of division of anti-BJP votes and this will harm Congress,” says political commentator Ratnadeep Gupta.

The Congress realises its own strength and weakness and thus has taken a line that “Our doors are open for all to join a grand alliance against the BJP”.

But the key pros and cons of some of these political calculations remain only in the womb of time.

The BJP – desperate to save Assam – will also reach out to key regional players and ethnic groups.

In February, Prime Minister himself visited Bodo stronghold Kokrajhar and announced greater autonomy for the local Council there and also a handsome economic package.

Most significant part of the episode was that the powerful Christian-dominated National Democratic Front of Bodoland had come forward to sign the pact with the state and the central government.

For obvious reasons, the Bodo tribal youths were enthusiastic about the new peace deal, hoping to get jobs and live in peace in the violence-hit four districts. But there was scepticism too.

During the February show, some Christians had expressed concerns against BJP’s pro-Hindutva tilt.

“We are worried that the BJP may gain political legitimacy. The BJP has often used the development card to promote soft Hindutva and to create hurdles for Christian missionaries and Muslim organisations,” one youth had said.

(Nirendra Dev is Delhi based senior journalist and author of books including ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and writes on strategic and foreign policy issues) 

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