With the BJP juggerut halted successively for the second time in less than a year, first in Delhi and now in Bihar, the Congress in Assam is fancying its chances again in 2016. Gleeful at the victory of ‘secular and progressive forces’, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has now said that the Congress will go it alone in the upcoming assembly elections as it ‘will garner more seats’. Gogoi may yet be forced to eat his word after the Congress high command takes a hard look at the political realities. After five straight State assembly defeats since its disastrous Lok Sabha election performance last year, the grand old party has at last tasted success as a junior partner in the Bihar grand alliance. Assam is a different case altogether, where the ruling Congress will have to contend with anti-incumbency vote. Here the Congress may yet need allies, even though Gogoi’s grand alliance proposal has been rejected out of hand by the AIUDF, AGP and other parties. If these parties bargain hard, how much the Congress will be ready to accommodate (in terms of seats) — is the question uppermost in political circles. In the Bihar maha-gatbandhan, RJD supremo Laloo Prasad provided the social base to complement the proven good governce of JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar. The debate about reservations so injudiciously sparked by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat may have been a game-changer in the caste-ridden politics of Bihar this time. But the common Bihari voter has also reposed trust in a Chief Minister they have seen in action for two terms, rather than a faceless Bihar BJP powered by Prime Minister rendra Modi flying down repeatedly from Delhi for campaigning. It is all very well for Tarun Gogoi to gloat at the BJP’s setback in Bihar, but in six months he will have to convince the common voter here about his track record in three straight terms from 2001. His task will be cut out, considering how hopelessly the State is drifting.
As for the BJP, Assam is the only State it can hope to wage an electoral battle in 2016. Among the other major States going to polls next year, West Bengal remains firmly in Mamata Banerjee’s grip, Tamil du is under Jayalalitha’s absolute sway, while Kerala keeps oscillating between Congress-led UDF and Left front-led LDF despite the BJP establishing a slight presence. The Assam BJP spoke bravely of a ‘Mission 84’, but run primarily from New Delhi by the likes of Ram Lal, Ram Madhav, Mahendra Singh and lately Ajay Jamwal, it lost crucial momentum while the tiol leadership remained preoccupied with the Bihar campaign. Now that Bihar has been lost, at least one lesson should have been driven home to the saffron party. The RJD-JD(U)-Congress combine won because the BJP had no chief ministerial candidate in Bihar. Last year, the BJP did win Maharashtra and Harya without projecting any State level leader as chief minister, but then rendra Modi’s honeymoon period with the countrywide electorate was still continuing. This year though, the grand alliance in Bihar turned the tables when it succeeded in reducing the electoral battle to a Modi vs Nitish face-off. Besides, there were widespread allegations that many Bihar BJP leaders were clandestinely working against their own party, forcing an irate Amit Shah to crack the whip, but it was too little too late. When local issues are at stake, can Assam BJP afford to remain faceless to voters, depending on the ‘Modi magic’? It is in this context that Sarbanda Sonowal’s possible return to head BJP’s campaign committee here or even the State unit as its widely acceptable ‘tribal face’ is being hotly speculated upon.
After the reservation fiasco in Bihar, will the BJP leadership try to wrest the Congress citadel in Upper Assam by playing the ST card with the six agitating ethnic communities? The party may have taken control of the Tiwa and NC Hills autonomous councils through defections, but that is hardly likely to translate into sizeable tribal votes. Meanwhile the Congress influence remains strong in the Karbi autonomous council with its seven constituencies. The coming together of eight tribal groupings as the United Peoples Front with its stated intention to contest in over thirty seats, is also another significant political development. Led by BPF supremo Hagrama Mohilary, this combine is an attempt to consolidate tribal votes and act as a pressure bloc. Mohilary has commented that this tribal combine will safeguard its interests by staying on the side of whichever party or alliance seizes power in Dispur. The recent attempt by non-Bodo political forces to unite in BTAD areas is likely to challenge Mohilary’s BPF in its backyard once again. How Badaruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF positions itself in BTAD and the nine Muslim majority Lower Assam districts will determine the fortunes of the BPF and the Congress. The Bihar result is being hailed as a victory of regiol forces, but will it inspire regiol parties like the AGP and HSDC to get their act together in Assam? Ga Mukti Sangram’s Akhil Gogoi may hope to lead a new Left combine here like AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal on the tiol stage, so whether it cuts any political deals with regiol forces remains to be seen.