Without viable CM face, Congress hopes its alliance will help reclaim Assam

AICC General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) chief Hagrama Mahilari. The BPF, which was earlier an ally of the BJP, is now with the Congress
The Congress may have “given up” in West Bengal, top party leaders say, but in Assam, expectations are high that it would be able to put up a respectable showing in the Assembly elections.

On the face of it, the party is against the ropes: It lost its top leader Tarun Gogoi last year; his son and MP Gaurav feels he is better placed in the Lok Sabha where he has just been named deputy leader of the party and does not want to contest the Assembly elections; Sushmita Dev, MP from Silchar in Assam’s Cachar region, is the feisty chief of the Mahila Congress, but is a Bengali Assamese and feels it won’t be a good strategy to contest the state elections. With no local leader emerging as a viable choice for chief minister, the party has decided to take a call on this important issue later.

“We will fight this election collectively. Everyone will work with a single mission to defeat the BJP. Everyone can work freely if he or she doesn’t have any personal interest. Any party worker can become chief minister after the results are out,” said Jitendra Singh, AICC general secretary and in charge of Assam. Former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan has been given charge in addition.

The Congress reported a poor showing in the local body elections in the state held in 2020, especially in the areas dominated by the Bodos. The Bodo People’s Front (BPF) is a significant political entity and it won 17 seats in the local elections, with the BJP winning only one. The Congress got no seats, but until recently, the BPF was an alliance partner of the BJP. It has now joined the Congress. After some very hardnosed negotiation, the two alliance partners have reached some semblance of agreement on seat sharing. This has brightened the Congress-led grand alliance’s chances. The Bodos are the largest plains tribal group in the Northeast and the movement for a separate homeland has its genesis in the 1967 demand by the Plains Tribal Council for carving a Union Territory named Udayachal out of Assam. The demand was raised after Bodos realised that tribal blocks and belts notified by the British were being acquired by rich immigrant Muslim landlords, leading to a deep divide that made the BJP a natural alliance partner. The group has seen a split lately and one section has joined the BJP but the more influential one is with the Congress.

The other alliance partner is the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by Badruddin Ajmal, for the first time a poll ally of the Congress. Muslims are a sizeable majority in 40 of Assam’s 126 seats. Only in his last days had Tarun Gogoi begun to review the AIUDF’s political utility, before that, taking a position that any alliance with the party would mean marginalising the Congress’s own base. The attack by Congress workers last week on the Congress office in Guwahati against the decision to cede some seats to the AIUDF suggested he might have been right. “It was an existential choice: we could have divided the votes in Muslim majority areas and allowed the BJP to win; or swallowed our pride and done a deal (with the AIUDF),” said a top Congress leader.

In addition, the party is an ally of the Left parties and the Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) which is expected to make inroads into the Bihar migrants in Assam.

The future of the Congress in the state hinges on the alliance being seamless. While there is no evidence of that, with reports of Sushmita Dev even declaring that she would leave the party in protest against the way seats had been given to alliance partners (a report that the party leadership has denied), managers are hard at work to ensure that last-minute upsets do not occur. “Our General is missing,” said one leader, referring to the absence of Tarun Gogoi. However, even if the Congress is unable to defeat the political appeal of Narendra Modi, the resources and talent of the BJP and its managers, it is relying on issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the perceived threat to Assamese identity, along with the future threat of the National People’s Register (NPR) to ensure it continues to be a force in the state.

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