By Manzar Imam
With Assam going to the first phase of polls on 4th April 2016, public mood seems to bring a dramatic political change in the crucial northeastern state. And, Bharatiya Janata Party, though trying hard to woo voters by its own strategic yardstick, seems nowhere to gain much from the ethnically diverse waters of the tea state.
Due to anti-incumbency combined with sporadic outbursts of violence in parts of Assam in past few years, the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government lost much of its charm and is now failing to recreate a formidable image especially among its Muslim voters who feel betrayed by the government’s mishandling of the crises in Kokrajhar and elsewhere where some minority groups were at the receiving end. And, minority vote is a key in Assam.
Perfume baron Badruddun Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) thus stands a better chance to appeal to the masses and gain their vote. That Ajmal has fielded candidates from across the religious and ethnic spectrum makes it further appealing. The same Chief Minister who had earlier tried to ignore Ajmal with “Who is Ajmal?” is now seen as the most “worried man”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s effort to reach out to voters does not seem to have impressed the ethnically diverse people of Assam. BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal has a strange bed fellow in Himanta Biswas Sarma, temporary arrangements look convenient though.
Against this backdrop, will fortunes of the AIUDF allying with Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) smile or frown, will be highly interesting to see. Whether the Bihar story is repeated in Assam or the ruling party improves there or the BJP turns out a big gainer, the outcome will set the tone of politics in other poll-bound states.
Having entered a second tenure after a full tenure at the Centre as Member of Parliament from Dhubri, Ajmal is now a seasoned politician who knows how to play his cards and use adverse situations for political advantage.
As for the reports doing rounds that BJP will make greater inroads in areas where Hindu vote is a big factor, the people this correspondent talked to, pooh-poohed them as “election gimmicks” aimed at diverting people’s attention. However, with BJP targeting the Hindu votes, Ajmal needs to keep issues of his core voters at the front of his campaign, says a Delhi-based central government officer from Assam. As for Ajmal’s secular credentials, he maintains that the voting behavior of people shows that secularism does not get votes. Once you have won, you can call yourself secular though, as most parties do, he argues.
The rise of any regional political party is a response to the decade’s long practice of undelivered promises. In the case of Assam, issues like identity, land, base and aspiration for development and employment hold great importance. Other issues could not be ruled out though. But the premise that such small parties as “the AIUDF would only strengthen communal politics as the BJP is trying to send out the message in its efforts to bank on sections of voters, does not hold water,” says an AIUDF worker.
With different narratives, a trilateral fight is bound to confuse voters, but if the AIUDF succeeds in keeping its voters intact and reaching out to new constituencies with more vigour, the results can bring a paradigm shift in Assam’s politics and a brighter picture for AIUDF which has so far been only making greater gains in every election.
When the party was formed in 2005 and it fought its first State elections in 2006, it got 10 seats. The next Assembly election came up with double increase in the number of seats it won. In the 2009 General Election the party chief Badruddin Ajmal won from the Dhubri Parliamentary Constituency. That set the tone for both the 2010 Assembly election and 2014 General Election in which Ajmal not only retained his seat but two more of his party candidates succeeded in reaching the Parliament.
If development rhetoric could be the reason for a devastating blow to the National Democratic Alliance in Bihar, decades of poor rule coupled with streaks of violence could trigger a similar change in the political waters of Assam. But so far, nothing can be said with certainty and results only would tell it which way the wind blows.
AIUDF is now a big party in the state with two terms experience both in the Assembly and in the Parliament. Columnist Sanjoy Hazarika has rightly observed that Assam’s ethnic, political, economic and religious diversity and complexity makes it a hard election. What is clear, however, is that the three-time incumbent Congress, despite its tough talk, is on the backfoot. “And AIUDF is emerging as a crucial player.”
Whether the Congress looses or the BJP gains, one thing is clear. If the AIUDF’s calculation, election strategy and it winning spree continue, Ajmal is set to become an undeniable king-maker in the offing in the politically significant northeastern state of Assam.
[Manzar Imam is Executive Editor of India’s First Online Muslim Newspaper “IndianMuslimObserver.com”. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]