The Congress’ decision to snap ties with the AIUDF and the BPF will further weaken the party in Assam.
The main problem was not the alliances. It was within the Congress itself.
The Assembly elections held earlier this year in Assam had robbed the Congress-led eight-party ‘Grand Alliance’ of all its make-believe ‘grandeur’.
The alliance, which won just 50 seats, is now imploding with the Congress snapping ties with the -led (AIUDF) as well as the (BPF), the two most important constituents of the alliance after the Congress.
The immediate reason for the Congress deciding to with the two parties is the suspicion that both the AIUDF and the BPF have been gravitating towards the BJP after the elections.
The AIUDF’s recent praise of the BJP, especially chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, has not gone down well with the Congress. The Congress has also been unhappy over BPF leaders violating the ‘coalition principles’ and speaking out against the alliance.
But the actual reason lies elsewhere. The decision by the Congress state leadership--endorsed also by the party ‘high command’--to align with the AIUDF had made one section of Congress leaders in the state very uncomfortable.
The AIUDF is perceived in Assam as a party that was formed to protect and promote the interests of Bangladesh-origin Muslims of the state. Hence, it is looked upon with suspicion and a fair bit of resentment by indigenous people of the state. The AIUDF, led by Maulana Ajmal with his beard, skull-cap and Sharia-compliant attire, is also looked upon as an Islamist party.
The Congress leaders who opposed the alliance with the AIUDF foresaw that the indigenous people of Assam would be unhappy with the Congress joining hands with the Islamist party for electoral gains and that would harm the Congress’ prospects. The Congress’ calculation was that the ‘secular’ alliance with the AIUDF would prevent a split in the anti-BJP votes and help the party (the Congress) win the support of the Bangladesh-origin Muslims who are a significant factor (electorally) in many of the 95 Assembly segments that the Congress fielded candidates from.
The AIUDF contested from 20 seats and the BPF from 12. The CPI(M) was allotted two seats and the other constituents of the alliance--CPI(M), CPI, CPI-ML (Liberation) and RJD--were given one seat each.
The Congress won 29 seats, the AIUDF won 16, the BPF won four and the CPI(M) bagged one seat while the other alliance partners drew a blank. The Grand Alliance’s total tally of 50 seats was a far cry from the 100-pus seats that the Congress leaders had boasted that the alliance would bag.
An analysis of the results revealed that the Congress suffered in all the seats dominated by indigenous people. Though it managed to increase its 2016 tally marginally by three seats, that wasn’t enough to bring it to power in the state.
The Congress performed well mostly in seats where Muslims are in a majority or play a decisive role. This is evident from the fact that a majority of the Congress MLAs--16 of the 29--are Muslims.
This is the first time in the history of the Congress in Assam when a majority of its legislators are Muslims. This has triggered a lot of disquiet within the party, especially among its non-Muslim workers and supporters. The fear that the Congress would suffer in seats dominated by indigenous people because of its alliance with the AIUDF turned out to be true. This encouraged the Congress lobby that had been opposed to the AIUDF to lean hard on the party leadership to snap ties with Ajmal’s party.
But the state Congress leadership, and especially the party ‘high command’ (read: the Gandhis and their close aides), wanted to keep the alliance with the AIUDF intact out of a misplaced sense of secularism. Keeping the alliance with AIUDF intact, thought the Congress leadership, would be in keeping with and also buttress the party’s secular credentials. However, the leaders opposed to the alliance (with the AIUDF) pointed out that the Congress will fare poorly in the bypolls to six Assembly seats due anytime now.
“Bangladesh-origin Muslims are not an important or significant constituent in any of the seats, and so an alliance with the AIUDF will be of no use to the Congress in those seats. In fact, the reverse will hold true: the alliance will harm the Congress’ prospects in these seats,” said a senior Congress leader who did not want to be named. The Congress, smarting from its electoral defeat, had also been exploring the prospects of joining hands with smaller parties. It has, according to some party leaders, zeroed in on the led by the lefti-anarchist Akhil Gogoi.
The Raijor Dal had contested from 19 seats, but bagged only one--Sibsagar in Upper Assam where Akhil Gogoi was the candidate. Gogoi, who was incarcerated at that time on charges of rioting and committing other serious crimes during the anti-CAA agitation in the state, is believed to have won due to the ‘sympathy factor’.
Gogoi has been trying to cultivate the (Bangladesh-origin) Muslim vote bank, especially in central and lower Assam. That has brought him into conflict with the AIUDF. Gogoi had reportedly made it clear to the Congress that it would have to junk its alliance with the AIUDF as a prerequisite for an alliance or electoral understanding with his own party for the bypolls. The Congress’ thinking now is that the alliance with the Raijor Dal will help it win back the support of the indigenous people it had forfeited due to its alliance with the AIUDF.
“Large sections of the indigenous people of Assam are unhappy with the BJP and also the AGP. They had no one to vote for in the Assembly elections. We will tap into that vote now and get the support of that large section of indigenous people in the bypolls. We will also point out to the Muslims that the AIUDF leadership has entered into a secret alliance with the BJP for its selfish interests and so the Congress-Raijor Dal alliance is the only political formation that can look after their interests,” said the Congress leader.
That strategy, however, is flawed. The indigenous people of Assam have no love lost for the Raijor Dal (RD) and its leader Akhil Gogoi. That is evident from the RD’s poor performance in the seats (except Sibsagar) it had contested.
Gogoi is perceived to be an anarchist and an unscrupulous person driven by his own selfish interests. Many in Assam are deeply suspicious of him and feel he has secret links with some BJP leaders. Also, Bangladeshi-origin Muslims still look up to the AIUDF as the only party that represents its interests and as the only party that can offer the community political and legal protection. The Congress or the Raijor Dal cannot displace the AIUDF.
As for the alliance with the BPF, it was an unnatural and uneasy one right from the very beginning. The BPF was an ally of the BJP and part of the BJP-led government in the state headed by (former chief minister) Sarbananda Sonowal.
After a fallout with the BJP, the BPF decided to leave the NDA and join hands with the Congress. The BJP roped in the newly-formed which won six of the eleven seats it contested.
The BPF, which won four seats, now wants to return to the NDA and has been holding secret parleys with BJP leaders.
The Congress, thus, cannot hope to make any inroads into the (BTR) which has 12 Assembly seats.
The ‘Grand Alliance’, for all intents and purposes, does not exist any more. The remaining parties of this alliance--CPI(M), CPI, CPI-ML (Liberation) and the RJD--are inconsequential.
The Congress’ decision to snap ties with the AIUDF and the BPF will, thus, further weaken the Congress in Assam. And its propensity to join hands with and discard other parties will also make it a political pariah in the state.