February 14, 2020
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A Debacle In The East

A Debacle In The East

IT'S back to the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam. After being out of power for over five years, the AGP—a party launched a decade ago by agitating Guwahati University students—has returned to the helm of affairs. Having secured a comfortable majority with 59 of a total of 122 seats (election to 4 seats was countermanded), the AGP, with the help of its allies—the CPI(M), the CPI and the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC)—is set to form the government.

The results of the assembly elections came as a rude shock to the ruling Congress, which was hoping to ride a sympathy wave after the sudden demise of its leader and chief minister Hiteswar Saikia. Clearly, the Saikia factor did not work and the Congress had to satisfy itself with a mere 34 seats. Saikia's widow and Guwahati mayor, Hemaprabha Saikia, conceded defeat on the morning of May 9 when poll trends started coming in. A little bewildered by the results, she said: "I am not able to understand the pro-AGP trend." As if on second thoughts, she accused the AGP of taking help from the ULFA and threatening Congress workers. On the other hand, it was a complete rout for the BJP which had for the first time decided to contest as many as 122 assembly seats with a view to make a significant dent in state politics. But it could secure only four seats in areas which are troubled over the migrants' issue—the main vote plank of the saffron brigade in this eastern corner.

While Hemaprabha Saikia was confused, Matang Singh, Union minister of state for parliamentary affairs, virtually went into hiding. The man who most influenced the distribution of tickets clearly wanted to avoid the wrath of partymen. Singh remained closeted with Chief Minister Bhumidhar Barman in the state circuit house almost the whole day and even avoided the Press. On May 10, Singh's opponents in the state Congress were screaming for his blood through local newspapers. They held him directly responsible for the party's poor showing.

But strangely, there were few signs of celebration on the streets of Guwahati even as the news of an AGP victory trickled in from various parts of the Brahmaputra valley. There was an undercurrent of apprehension among bahiragats —the non-Assamese outsiders—who fear for their future in the state under an AGP government. Their fears are not unfounded as the ULFA has renewed its threat against the non-Assamese residing in the state. In a recent development, ULFA's propaganda secretary, Mithinga Daimari, has said: "ULFA's attitude towards non-Assamese residing in Assam will be decided by their own activities. If they continue to remain indifferent towards the atrocities committed by the Indian state on the revolutionaries, they will invite the ULFA's wrath." 

However, AGP chief and would-be chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta dismissed it as yet another false propaganda of the Congress. Says he: "For us all are equal and we have assured them (outsiders) that we will provide them security and no harm will come to them or their property." Mahanta is well aware that his government was dismissed by the Centre in November 1990 on the grounds of the increase in lawlessness and anarchy in Assam.

Though his party and its allies have won, it may not be smooth sailing for Mahanta. Political observers point out that the old feud between Mahanta and Bhrigu Kumar Phukan—which led to a split in the party in 1991—may surface again during distribution of portfolios. Phukan was home minister in the last AGP government. He may not be allotted an important portfolio this time. But Phukan denies that there will be any bickering. "I am not hankering for power," he says. "As far as our differences are concerned, it's a closed chapter. I don't want a repeat of it." True, there are no major ideological differences between old comrades Mahanta and Phukan, but AGP detractors still predict trouble ahead.

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