DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
Assam is witnessing its toughest ever poll battle in 30 years with the BJP (heading a five-party alliance), and the Congress set to face the electorate in the first phase of polling on April 4. While the resurgent BJP is harping on the ‘vikas’ or development mantra and is repeatedly reminding the people about the impending change or ‘parivartan’ in the government, the Congress is talking of development ushered in during the past 15 years of its rule, triggered, the party says, because of peace and stability under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.
The State’s 1.90 crore voters would eventually deliver the verdict, but if any party has achieved a head-start in the campaigning early on, it certainly is the BJP. The saffron party has actually launched a poll blitzkrieg, unleashing leaders with known oratorical skills—Prime Minister rendra Modi, Amit Shah, Rajth Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Smriti Irani. The Congress, of course, saw Sonia and Rahul Gandhi campaign, but where are the other important leaders—Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Salman Khurshid, Digvijay Singh?
I am convinced beyond doubt that only three political leaders in the State have a pan-Assam appeal or influence today. They are Himanta Biswa Sharma (BJP), Tarun Gogoi (Congress) and Sarbanda Sonowal (BJP). Himanta Biswa Sarma hopes to address 200 rallies by himself by the end of campaigning for the second and fil phase of polling on April 11. The Congress has been in power for 15 years without a break but its key leaders like Pradyut Bordoloi, Bharat rah, Ajanta Neog, Anjan Dutta and a few others are tied to their respective constituencies in view of the tough fight they are facing from their rivals, mainly from the BJP. Himanta Biswa’s mobility and oratory is his biggest asset, while Tarun Gogoi, who is on a near solo-campaign for his party, is doing a fairly good job despite his age.
This has also been a campaign that is seeing a bitter war of words. “Tarun Gogoi will turn 90 soon...Some people came to me and said we have a problem with the alphabet ‘I’, and so from now on, they told me they would say Tarun Gogo..Go Go..,” mocked Prime Minister Modi in course of his campaign tour on March 26. In reply, Gogoi, who will turn 81 soon, said, “Modi is a good actor, he should get an Oscar.” The Chief Minister appeared emotiol and asked whether Modi, by ‘deliberately’ putting his age at close to 90, was actually praying for his demise. “I was made Chief Minister by the people of Assam, not by Modi or Shah,” Gogoi said.
The Congress, like the BJP, has been combative. The party put up huge hoardings with a photograph depicting BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Sarbanda Sonowal bowing to apparently touch the feet of Union Fince Minister Arun Jaitley. The Congress’ text alongside the picture says, “How can a leader who can surrender Assam’s self-respect on Delhi’s streets protect the rights of the people of the state?” The BJP has moved the Election Commission saying such a campaign is against the model election code of conduct.
On its part, the BJP has been accusing the Gogoi-led Congress government of being corrupt and of hoping to face the polls with the backing of the ‘Bangladeshi vote bank.’ BJP leader Himanta Biswa, who had defected to the saffron party six months ago with nine other Congress MLAs, has been going around describing this election as the ‘last battle of Saraighat.’ Fought in 1671, the much weaker local Ahom army defeated the Mughals on the banks of the Brahmaputra near Guwahati. The Ahom victory in that battle halted Mughal expansionism into Assam. Sarma’s explation is that if the BJP does not win this time, Assam will come to be ruled by people who may not be of Indian origin, implying that it could be governed by the Congress-All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) combine who may win with votes of alleged ‘Bangladeshis.’
The bitter exchanges aside, this has also been an election where candidates irrespective of party affiliations have either joined the contest as independents or moved over to other parties on being denied tickets by their parent parties. This means party loyalty or ideology is not something that is sacrosanct anymore. Another noticeable thing has been the regiol parties (Asom Ga Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front) aligning with a tiol party like the BJP, that, many feel, could actually gobble up the local parties in the long run. The AGP, of course, could well reap dividends following its last-minute decision to side with the BJP rather than running solo.
A BJP win will lead to the saffron party opening its account in the Northeast, and a Congress loss will mean its hold over its key bastion is slipping away. Four of the eight northeastern states are today under Congress rule while the BJP is sharing power with the People’s Party of Aruchal in Aruchal Pradesh. On the whole, a critical high-stake election for Prime Minister Modi, Amit Shah, and Rahul Gandhi. Tarun Gogoi can, however, afford to relax, having led the Congress to three successive wins!