Poll may have implications beyond who wins and who loses
Like any other Assembly election, voters in Assam, where the final phase of polling ends on April 6, will be choosing a government by May 2.
However, for the State, the election is likely to have implications beyond who wins and who loses. It could well settle some of the questions/issues that have come to define recent politics in the State.
The BJP may be seeking a second term for its first government in the northeastern State but the party went to the polls without announcing the incumbent Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal as its face for a second term. It’s an acknowledgement of the importance of Himanta Biswa Sarma or HBS — the Minister who holds a number of portfolios, including Finance and Health, and is the face of the party in the northeast though he is number two in Assam. It is also a sign of a possible post-poll scenario if the BJP were to win.
Mr. Sarma, who joined the BJP in August 2015 from the Congress, occupied the same position under the late Tarun Gogoi in the Congress government. There was a time when his proximity to Mr. Gogoi created not only a wedge between the then Chief Minister and party veterans but also drove many of the old-timers out.
Known to be an efficient Minister and a hard taskmaster, Mr. Sarma has been harbouring an ambition for the top post since 2014, when the Congress, after faring poorly in the Lok Sabha poll, had toyed with the idea of replacing the Chief Minister and bringing in young blood.
As a protégé of Mr. Gogoi, HBS, who was 45 years old then, fit the description. He was also counting on senior Congressmen to deliver on their “promise” of promoting him to the top post. But he is said to have hit a wall in Rahul Gandhi and the emergence of Gaurav Gogoi as an articulate Member of Parliament created more stumbling blocks.
Now, seven years later and after having proven his utility in the rival party, the current election could define Mr. Sarma’s future path.
On the other side of the divide, the Congress is struggling to fill the large shoes of Mr. Gogoi despite Assam being one of the few States where the Congress has an organisational presence in every block and every district.
The Congress, too, went with the collective leadership of State chief Ripun Bora, Lok Sabha member Debabrata Saikia, Lok Sabha MP Pradyut Bordoloi and Mahila Congress chief Sushmita Dev, apart from Gogoi junior.
The result of the poll would surely have an impact on who leads the party in the State.
The outcome of the poll could determine the direction of the debate around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). While there is a view elsewhere that both the CAA and the Supreme Court-mandated exercise of updating the NRC are exclusionary processes, in Assam there is considerable support for the NRC and opposition to the CAA.
That explains why the Congress claims credit for piloting the NRC project while staunchly opposing the CAA since it discriminates on the basis of religion.
Even the All India United Democratic Front and its leader Badruddin Ajmal “welcomed” the NRC. Speaking in the Lok Sabha, Mr. Ajmal had argued that the NRC would finally put an end to the “foreigner” tag that many Bengali-speaking settlers have to endure in their day-to-day lives.
The issue of illegal immigrants — identified as undocumented migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh who came into the State after March 24, 1971 — has defined the State’s politics for over 40 years now.
While the original students’ agitation (1979-1985) led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) was largely bereft of religious identity and focussed more on cultural and linguistic differences, the movement translated into a more communally sharp politics.
If the Congress and the AIUDF have been charged with “protecting the migrants”, the BJP has taken the debate to a different tangent by comparing the election to a fight between indigenous communities and invaders like the Mughals!
Many intellectuals in Assam, however, argue that it is not one’s faith but the fear of being “outnumbered” that drives the anti-CAA sentiments.
It’s this anger and fear against the CAA that gave rise to two new regional parties in the State: the Axom Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal. This phenomenon is not new to the State where Assamese sub-nationalism defined the agitation of the late 70s and early 1980s. But for the past two decades, it has mostly been bipolar, with the BJP overshadowing earlier regional players like the Asom Gana Parishad.
The election could well decide the possibility of an alternative to the existing players in Assam’s politics.
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