Assam was supposed to be the BJP's best bet in the 2021 state elections, a state that would be relatively easy compared to the big battle for Bengal and an imminent drubbing along with its allies in Tamil Nadu.
But then something happened that the BJP wasn't expecting - the Congress fought back.
This is evident from the fact that Congress general secretary in-charge for Uttar Pradesh - Priyanka Gandhi Vadra - has chosen Assam as her first major campaign trail outside of UP.
She arrived in Assam on 1 March, prayed at the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati and headed to Upper Assam, considered a strong area for the BJP. She is scheduled to address a major rally in Tezpur on 2 March.
But Gandhi's visit is only one part of the Congress' aggressive approach in Assam, forging critical alliances and leading a sharp campaign against the BJP focusing on a few key issues like unemployment, inflation and the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The Congress' campaign seems to have created some unease in the NDA and this is evident in a number of disparate events - from state BJP chief Ranjit Das considering shifting from his seat Sorbhog, to the increase in visits by Home Minister Amit Shah and PM Narendra Modi and the attack by BJP workers on the convoy of Assam Jatiya Parishad chief Lurinjyoti Gogoi in Nalbari.
So what did the Congress do to claw back into the race?
Alliances With AIUDF and BPF
One key decision that brought Congress back into the game in Assam is its alliance with Badruddin Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). There were some in the Congress who weren't keen on the alliance and the arguments given were that this could spark a polarisation of Hindus towards the BJP and also that it would revive Ajmal's political fortunes which were on the decline following a poor performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
However, the party managed to arrive at a consensus within its ranks and decided to align with the AIUDF. This is important as in 2016, the two parties had lost about 14 seats because a split of votes between them.
The alliance has also created conditions for a consolidation of Muslim votes that come to 34 percent in Assam and a strong showing in Lower Assam and Barak Valley. Congress leaders privately admit that Ajmal has proven to be a very reasonable ally to deal with, one who isn’t afraid to compromise his own interests for the sake of the alliance.
The second big development in this context took place on 28 February when Bodoland People's Front (BPF), which had been a BJP ally for the past five years, decided to join the Mahajot.
This was the result of weeks of negotiations between the BPF and the Congress after the BJP had dumped the former and propped up its rival - the UPPL - in the Bodoland Territorial Council elections.
The BJP's "betrayal" is said to have compelled BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary to join hands with the Congress, with whom it had an alliance before 2016.
Now, what could be the impact of the alliance?
Congress has only 19 members in the current Assembly. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it led in just 26 Assembly segments out of the 126 seats in Assam, compared to 82 of the BJP and its allies and 12 of the AIUDF.
According to the CVoter opinion poll conducted in February, the Congress-led Mahajot could get 43-51 seats in the elections. Factor in the BPF that joined the Mahajot after the opinion poll was conducted, it could bring the alliance in the 50-55 seat range, just 9-14 short of the halfway mark of 64.
Sharp Campaign Focused on Unemployment, Price Rise and CAA
The second aspect to the Congress' challenge in Assam is the sharp campaign it has been running.
The party launched a campaign titled ‘Assam Bachao’, inviting people of Assam to highlight the problems they are facing through a video. The campaign also had a contest with the people putting forward the best suggestions and highlighting problems in the most effective manner being gifted iPhones. Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi, who heads the party's manifesto committee, met the winners of the contest.
The Assam Bachao anthem of the Congress also became popular on social media and crossed 1 million views on YouTube.
Then, during Rahul Gandhi's rally at Sibasagar, the Congress made effective use of the iconic Assamese Gamosa, with top leaders including Gandhi wearing Gamosas with "No CAA" written on it.
The party then took the campaign forward by inviting people to send Gamosas with No CAA written on it so that they can be placed at a memorial for people killed during the anti-CAA protests. The memorial itself is another promise made by the party.
Many of the Congress' innovative campaign ideas are said to be courtesy a firm called DesignBoxed that is working with the party on the Assam campaign. The firm, whose headquarters are in Mohali, was also behind the successful campaign in Chhattisgarh in 2018.
A source in the firm said that the idea has been to keep the messaging simple and focus on a three key issues: Unemployment, price rise and CAA.
Unity in the Leadership
There is a vacuum in the Congress' leadership in Assam after the demise of three-term chief minister Tarun Gogoi. There is no leader close to the stature of Gogoi, who is widely credited to having brought peace and stability to Assam during his 15-year tenure.
However, despite not having a clear leader with a pan-Assam appeal cutting across communities, the Congress leadership in Assam have somehow managed to close ranks and put up a united front in the elections so far.
Top state leaders like PCC chief Ripun Bora, CLP leader Debabrata Saikia, MPs like Pradyot Bordoloi and Gaurav Gogoi and other senior leaders like Sushmita Deb and Rockybul Hussain can be seen campaigning on the streets on issues like price rise and have taken part in the party’s yatra crisscrossing through Assam.
Party insiders say that a great deal of credit for the sudden revival in its fortunes is also due to the two leaders deputed by the central leadership to take care of the Assam campaign - Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel and in-charge for Assam Bhanwar Jitendra Singh.
Baghel in particular has been extremely hands-on in his approach and has been at the forefront of the campaign. Apparently, the party following the “Chhattisgarh Model” in the Assam campaign is said to be because of Baghel and DesignBoxed that had handled the campaign in Chhattisgarh.
The model is basically tailored to fighting a larger opponent with much more resources like BJP. Though leaders don't go into the specifics of the model, it broadly involves three parallel processes: Deploying most of the resources on winnable seats, keeping the campaign focused on a limited number of key issues and building the capacity of booth level workers.
But Can They Win?
If one goes by the CVoter survey, the Congress and its allies like the AIUDF, BPF, Left Parties and Anchalik Gana Morcha have done enough to get into the 50-55 seat range, within striking distance of the majority mark of 64.
The Congress would need at least 15-20 more seats to win a comfortable majority, one that would make it less dependent on a unpredictable ally like BPF.
Getting these 15-20 seats is easier said than done.
The Mahajot's present strength is based on two interrelated calculations:
- Consolidating the bulk of Muslim votes and a major chunk of Tai Ahom and Bodo votes.
- Sweeping lower Assam and Muslim-dominated parts of Barak Valley and winning a major chunk of seats in the Bodoland Territorial Council area.
These two processes are enough to take the Mahajot past 50 but not to form the government. That would involve making further inroads into BJP-leaning communities like tea tribes and caste Hindu Assamese voters.
Though the BJP is being weakened not just by a spirited Mahajot campaign but also the emergence of new outfits like the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal, there are still three things working in its favour:
- First, the state government isn't hugely unpopular. Though there is resentment due to CAA, it hasn't become a very central electoral issue.
- Second, Bengali Hindu voters and hill tribe voters seem strongly aligned with the BJP, especially the former.
- Third, both the BJP leaders in the state - CM Sarbananda Sonowal and his de-facto deputy Himanta Biswa Sarma - are formidable leaders and the Congress hasn't quite been able to project someone to take them on. Though it must be noted that Gaurav Gogoi's popularity is increasing and according to CVoter, the percentage of people who want him as CM has gone up from 18 percent to 26 percent.
Getting those extra 15 seats could involve projecting Gaurav Gogoi even more, perhaps even making him contest from his father's constituency Titabor. It would also involve a more sustained campaign by a top central leader like Priyanka Gandhi.
Otherwise the Assam campaign may end up a bit like Gujarat, where the Congress led a good campaign, made major gains but fell a bit short of a majority.