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If The Hat Fits

An Opposition that doesn't get along means the Congress gains by default

If The Hat Fits
If The Hat Fits
If anything, it’s ‘coalition blues’ in Assam, less than three weeks away from the April 3-10 elections to the 126-member assembly. The most unlikely of parties—the CPI and CPI(M)—have forged an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The same AGP which earlier shared the BJP view on illegal migrants (Bangladeshis), welcoming the scrapping of the IMDT—Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals)— Act. That law put the onus of proof of an alleged illegal migrant with the complainant. Many political parties had been of the view that genuine Indian citizens, especially those belonging to the minority communities, could be victimised if the law reverted from the IMDT Act to the Foreigners Act, 1946—where the onus of proving one’s citizenship lay with the accused. Incidentally, the SC did strike down the IMDT Act and now it is the Foreigners Act that is applicable in the state.

But bygones are bygones. The AGP has changed tack and says its focus now is on winning back minority votes. Hence the tie-up with the Left. It’s now of the view that the BJP and its brand of politics are ‘irrelevant’ to Assam. Another part of the makeover is the party’s decision to release its manifesto in Hindi, Bengali, Bodo and English also, a departure from the past practice of having the manifesto printed only in Assamese. So what are the chances that the AGP’s sudden U-turn will find acceptance with the voters? As of now, things don’t look too bright. The U-turn along with a divided opposition has actually buoyed incumbent Congress’ chances. As CM Tarun Gogoi puts it, "I’ve never seen a more nervous opposition like the AGP in my entire political career."

Going by the 2001 outcome, the AGP should have tied up with the BJP again. It had won 20 seats, the BJP eight. But that was then. "We made a grave mistake allying with the BJP in 2001," AGP general secretary Chandra Mohan Patowary told Outlook. "In about 30 seats, we lost by a margin of around 1,000 votes only...those were the minority votes that would have otherwise come to us."

Why then hasn’t the AGP entered into a poll alliance or at least a seat adjustment with the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF)—a party floated last year by businessman Badruddin Azmal—that has the backing of a section of the ‘influential’ Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind? The AUDF has also got the United Minorities Front (UMF), Assam’s first avowedly pro-minority party, to merge with it. Apparently, the AGP had tried for an alliance and party sources here said there were even eight rounds of meetings with the AUDF. The alliance didn’t happen because both parties had "technical problems".

In fact, the fractious opposition has come as a boon for the ruling Congress. Though no one wants them in power, the Opposition parties—the BJP, AGP, NCP, the Left parties, the breakaway AGP faction headed by ex-CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, and the nascent AUDF—are so disparate as to have precluded a broad pre-poll pact. At best, some of the anti-Congress/anti-BJP forces have decided on ‘seat adjustments’ or ‘friendly contests’ in certain constituencies.

"Please don’t call it a poll alliance, we have only entered into seat adjustments with the NCP," says AGP (Progressive) chief Prafulla Mahanta. He’s right, for even after the ‘adjustments’, the NCP has fielded a candidate against Mahanta himself! Things have come to such a pass that it looks like a direct contest is brewing between the Left parties too. The CPI and the CPI(M) should take on each other in at least one seat, Silchar, the main city in the Bengali-dominated southern Assam valley. The CPI(M) says it’s still talking to its ally on this. And there is a hint that the Marxists might back down. State CPI(M) state secretary Uddhab Barman did tell Outlook, "We have to take care of Left unity also."

As is obvious, the ruling Congress is sitting pretty watching the Opposition battle it out. Chief minister Gogoi, playing soothsayer, has already predicted that the Congress will "win 80 seats". His party bagged 71 seats in 2001. The AGP, which won the polls in 1985 and 1996, has formally projected its president Brindabon Goswami as its chief ministerial candidate, but neutralising the impact of the split with Mahanta is hurting its chances of a comeback. So far, only the CPI and the CPI(M) have sided with the AGP, apart from the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), a smaller regional party with influence only in the hill district of Karbi Anglong. But considering the fact that both Left parties drew a blank last time, it’s unlikely the AGP will earn much dividends from its Left alignment.

So where does the Congress stand in the post-IMDT votebank politics? The general feeling among minority organisations after the apex court struck down the IMDT Act was that the state Congress government did not tackle the case well on the legal front. Many then had felt the party would lose support of the minorities, especially the immigrant settlers who would be hounded by the cops. That hasn’t happened as yet. What has happened is that the Centre last month amended the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1946, to be applicable exclusively in Assam.

Now, the Foreigners Tribunals would have the authority to outright reject a case framed by the police on a person accused of being a foreigner. The amended clause says the tribunals would act against a complaint only if they are satisfied that there is prima facie a case. It now looks like the Congress government in Assam has succeeded in convincing New Delhi to come up with this poll-eve amendment to assure the minorities that no harm would come to genuine citizens. Homeland organisations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) are not impressed. "This is reintroduction of the IMDT Act through the backdoor," says AASU leader Samujjal Bhattacharya.

The elections are almost here, so what about the shadow of insurgency that looms large during every election? Well, the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has rejected suggestions that it has of late been soft on the Congress. But the rebel group chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa did complain in a statement that "if an AGP-BJP government comes to power in the state, there will be a spate of secret killings, and operations against the ULFA cadres will reach new heights." The significance and timing of this statement cannot be missed.


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