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Jerenga Pathar is no ordinary farmland. Located on the outskirts of Sivasagar in Upper Assam, it symbolises heroic endurance of Assamese women. It was in this agricultural field in 1680 that Joymoti was tortured to death by Lora Roja (boy king) Sulikpha for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of her exiled husband Gadapani, a prince who revolted against the king and later ascended the throne.

That episode of torment and resilience had such a profound imprint on generations of locals that the first Assamese film Joymoti (1935) was made with that theme. A week ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose the historic Jerenga Pathar as the venue of a mega rally where he distributed land ownership deeds to 10 landless locals out of a list of 1.06 lakh beneficiaries. In a way, this kicked off the BJP’s election campaign in the northeastern state.

Assam is scheduled to go for poll in April-May. West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will also vote in 2021. Early campaign trends suggest Assam could see a triangular contest. The ruling BJP is in pole position. It would see competition from the new Congress-led Mahajot (grand alliance) with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF.

Agencies

The Mahajot is seen as a key challenger in middle and lower Assam where minority voters play a critical role in about 40-45 seats in an assembly of 126. The third force is a combination of two regional entities born out of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests: the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal.

Congress has been appealing to the regional outfits to partner the Mahajot to take on the BJP. In a tactical move, the BJP will retain only one of its two regional allies, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), while dumping the other, Bodo People’s Front (BPF), in a bid to put up its own candidates in Bodo-dominated areas where it has already aligned with another regional outfit, United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL).

The saffron party is likely to go at full blast in other tribal belts, too, where the anti-CAA agitation was not intense. “Those who participated in the anti-CAA agitation in Assam have now been joining the BJP,” says Rameshwar Teli, a BJP leader from Assam and Union minister of state for food processing. “In Upper Assam (where the impact of the agitation was more), we will do even better than 2016. We are hopeful of clinching a few more seats that are presently with the Congress.”

The BJP is banking on its pan-Assam presence plus its ability to engineer a good striking rate. In 2016, it won 60 of only 89 seats it contested, cornering 42% vote share. The party also managed a healthier margin in many seats. Thus a minor swing against the ruling party won’t make it a big difference. Realising the downside of going solo at this juncture, the Congress high command earlier this month sent its senior observers, including Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, to the state to finalise a six-party grand alliance of Congress, AIUDF, CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML) and a small regional outfit headed by Rajya Sabha MP Ajit Kumar Bhuyan.

The grand old party seems to be ready to sacrifice its seats — it contested in 122 seats in 2016 — while appealing to other regional forces to come on board for an alliance. Nayan Bhuyan, CPI(M) member, says, “We have joined hands with the Congress and AIUDF with just one agenda — to dislodge the BJP.” But this Mahajot has a couple of flip sides, at the very least. First, the left parties in Assam have little grassroots support and, second, an alliance with the AIUDF, a party that has Muslim migrants as its core constituency, could boomerang on the alliance, particularly in upper Assam where anti-migration sentiments reign supreme.

On Monday, the Congress constituted eight panels in an apparent bid to appease various factions within the party. State party chief Ripun Bora was made in-charge of one such panel, while key responsibilities in other panels were given to prominent leaders such as Lok Sabha MPs Gaurav Gogoi and Pradyut Bordoloi, AICC secretary Bhupen Kumar Borah and the leader of the opposition in Assam Assembly, Debabrata Sakia. After years of infighting, the state unit appears to have finally swung into action as a united force.

The third important group to reckon with in the elections will be the two regional entities. Both the parties are offspring of anti-CAA protests, with strong regional sentiments being their trump card. The Raijor Dal is headed by jailed activist and farmers’ leader Akhil Gogoi. The Assam Jatiya Parishad has the backing of the powerful All Assam Students’ Union. Both will likely have a seatsharing arrangement soon, making it a serious player. But they have so far rejected the Congress’s invitation to join hands with the Mahajot.

Hinting at his party’s reluctance to join the Mahajot, AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi says, “Both BJP and AIUDF are communal. BJP will show the AIUDF chief Ajmal’s face (among Hindu voters) to garner votes.” That will be music to BJP’s ears. After all, the ruling party prefers a three-cornered race rather than facing a deadlier BJP-versus-all combat.





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