Debating India

ASSAM 2006

An election too close to call

Sunday 9 April 2006, by KUMAR*Sanjay, YADAV*Yogendra

Assam’s electoral history and existing ground realities provide no clear picture about the outcome of the Assembly elections, say YOGENDRA YADAV and SANJAY KUMAR in this analysis.

The Congress appears to have an edge, but it is not clear if this can give it a clear majority in the Assam Assembly

With the first phase of elections over and the final phase scheduled for tomorrow, we still do not have a clear picture of the contest in the State. There are no reliable opinion or exit polls about this election to guide us. Yet a clear victory for the AGP can be ruled out. The AGP’s best hope would be to match the Congress’ seats in a hung assembly and forge a wider post-poll coalition than it has been able to do in the elections. The Congress appears to have an edge, but it is not clear if that can give it a clear majority in the Assembly.

A simple reading of Assam’s electoral history in the last two decades shows a pattern of regime alteration with every election. It began with the landmark elections of 1985, following the Assam Accord the same year between the leaders of the Assam movement against foreign immigrants and the Government of India headed by Rajiv Gandhi. The Assam Gana Parishad, a new political outfit and a political expression of the Assam movement, succeeded in mobilizing its core Assamese speaking constituency in a big way and won a clear majority. The next elections were held six years later, in 1991, following another short period of disturbance and President’s rule. The Congress managed to come to power this time, taking advantage of a divided AGP. The AGP came back to power in 1996 by putting together a large coalition that included the Left and smaller political parties. But this AGP government, led again by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, proved very unpopular and was voted out unceremoniously in 2001 in favour of the Congress led by Tarun Gogoi.

Going by this simple logic, it should be the AGP’s turn in the Assembly elections of 2006. But nothing can be more misleading than this simple-minded reading of history. Even the AGP’s supporters would not claim that we are seeing another wave in favour of the party. This was quite clear in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004. The Congress government in the State was three years old, and yet there were no signs of the usual anti-incumbency mood. The Congress won 9 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the State, though its vote share dropped to 35 per cent. The AGP won two seats, an improvement upon its disastrous shows in the previous Parliamentary and Assembly elections. The BJP also won 2 seats but finished second in terms of votes.

AGP split

Since then the AGP has suffered a major split. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, one of the AGP’s founders and a two-time Chief Minister, has left the party and floated the Assam Gana Parishad (Progressive), which is fielding 90 candidates in this election. The AGP had split earlier too and suffered because of that. This is arguably the most serious split the party has faced so far. It is true that Mahanta is not longer the icon of Ahomiya nationalism that he once was and had become a moral and political liability for the AGP by the time he was forced out of the party. It is therefore unlikely that his claims of being the real AGP will have much popular support. It is the parent party, led now by Brindaban Goswami, that looks all set to inherit the legacy of the AGP. In the long run, Mahanta’s exit may be a blessing in disguise and might enable the party to rejuvenate itself. Yet, in this election Mahanta’s candidates will inflict some damage to the AGP, especially in districts like Nagaon, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur, Darang and Hailakandi.

The effect of the split is compounded by the break-up of the AGP’s alliance with the BJP. This was a short-lived alliance stitched together during the last Assembly elections, vigorously opposed within both the parties and not accepted by their voters. The alliance compromised the AGP’s secular credentials and threatened to reduce its already small catchment area further by alienating Muslims of Assamese origin. Besides, in the long run the BJP was a rival to the AGP, not its ally. This may have prompted the AGP to opt for the two Communist parties as smaller but older and more durable allies this time. This long-term policy has a short term cost: it reduces the AGP’s capacity to take on the Congress. If it was possible for the AGP and the BJP to pool their votes, their combined strength would have been adequate to take on the Congress; at present the AGP-led alliance is simply too small and fragile. It includes the CPI, the CPI (M), the SP and the ASDC (H). Too many `friendly contests’ among the partners reduces the effectiveness of this alliance. Mahanta’s AGP has aligned with Nationalist Congress Party, a small force in this part of the North East, and a faction of the Bodo party. But none of these alliances appear very formidable.

Besides the short term factors like the party split and the break up of the alliance with the BJP, there is a long term factor that makes it difficult for the AGP to come back to power with a clear majority of its own. Ironically, this has to do with the success of the Assam movement. The politics of Ahomiya nationalism accentuated the anxieties of not just the majority Assamese speakers, but also of all other ethnic groups. Since then each ethnic group has sought to carve out an exclusive politics of its own. This has led to the rise of many small, ethnicity based, political parties. The major parties have also defined their identity by appealing to specific social groups. The era of `catch all’ parties has given way to a political system based on `social cleavages’. The last few elections have seen nearly 20 seats in a 126-member Assembly going to small parties and Independents. The AGP and the BJP have no presence in these seats, though the Congress has a chance of picking up some of them.

No dominance

Since no single social group enjoys an overwhelming dominance in this State divided by linguistic, religious and tribal identities, it is very difficult to create a political majority. The AGP’s Ahomiya nationalism has focused on the `indigenous’ Assamese speakers. But only 58 per cent of the population speaks Assamese, leaving a very large chunk of population inaccessible to the AGP. This include the 22 per cent Bengali speakers and speakers of languages such as Bodo, Karbi, Rabha, Mishing and Hindi, etc that serve as markers of ethnic identity. Most of these small linguistic groups represent the 12 per cent Schedule Tribe population of the state. Then there are religious and community divisions that cut across the linguistic divide. Nearly one-third of the State population is Muslim (31 per cent, to be precise), which includes both local Assamese speakers and the `immigrant Bengalis’. The AGP has had a fair share of support among the Assamese speaking Muslims, but this has declined of late. This is the AGP’s basic dilemma in electoral politics: it is required to produce a political majority out of barely half of the State’s electorate. This can happen in moments of extraordinary mobilization such as 1985 or with skilful coalition building as in 1996. It would be very hard to replicate those conditions this time. The AGP’s task is made much more difficult by the entry of the BJP in the last decade. If the AGP would like to polarize the State on linguistic line, the BJP is trying to do so on religious lines by playing up fears about the Muslim immigrants. If the AGP has the advantage of being able to access Assamese Muslims, the BJP has a special appeal among the Bengali Hindus. But both of them compete for the core Hindu Assamese vote. Earlier a nonentity in Assam politics, the BJP has paid a lot of attention to the State in the last decade and has improved its performance. It commands about 10 per cent of the votes in the Assembly elections and overtook the AGP to emerge as the second largest party in the last Lok Sabha elections. This time it is contesting all but one seat in the State and trying to occupy the second position in State politics as well. For the BJP, its best bet in the current round of election lies in Assam. No wonder it has lined up all its political leaders and screen stars for campaigning. The BJP is a long-term problem for the Congress as well, but in this election the BJP will cut into the AGP votes and thus help the Congress.

Wide appeal

This explains the edge the Congress appears to have in this election. The Congress is the only party in the State that can appeal to a cross section of the population. The Congress has a much larger pool of votes to draw upon compared to its rivals. In the years following the Assam Accord, Congress support among Assamese Hindus eroded sharply, rendering it into a party of the religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities. But in the last few elections, the Congress has improved its position among Assamese Hindus. It has traditionally had a strong hold over the tea garden workers who constitute a big voting bloc in the upper Assam areas that went to polls in the first phase of elections. The Tarun Gogoi government has had a mixed record, but is certainly not as unpopular as the Mahanta-led AGP government was at the end of its tenure. Ongoing negotiations with ULFA may not have produced very much, but the very fact that these negotiations are on produces a climate of peace and hope that may work to the advantage of the ruling party.

It is still not clear how this edge for the Congress would translate in terms of seats. All the four Assembly elections held in the State since 1985 have been won with very thin majorities. In the last Assembly elections in 2001, a resurgent Congress contesting against a discredited AGP could not sweep the State; it won 71 seats, a clear majority but not the kind of majority this situation would have produced in any other Atate. This time it is going to be tougher for the Congress to repeat the performance, due to five years of incumbency and a resurgent AGP.

What makes the situation particularly difficult for the Congress is the possibility of a large-scale disaffection of Muslim voters. The IM(DT) Act, originally meant to deport illegal migrants, had become something of a shield for the immigrant communities, mainly Muslims. The rejection of the Act by the Supreme Court has made them feel vulnerable. The Central Government reacted, perhaps a little late, by making an Assam specific amendment in the Foreigners Act that provides the same safeguards against summary deportation as provided by IM(DT).

However the resentment among the Muslims has not subsided. This has given rise to a new political front, the AUDF that seeks to repeat the performance of United Muslim Front in the 1985 elections. The AUDF may not succeed in winning many seats on its own but has the potential to damage the Congress in half a dozen constituencies going to the polls tomorrow. If a significant section of Muslims move away from the Congress, the State would appear to be headed for a hung assembly and considerable political uncertainty.

See online : The Hindu

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