On 27 April, the Assam state unit of Congress in the presence of All India Congress Committee General Secretary Jitendra Singh held a meeting with 10 other Opposition parties in the state. The parties which attended the meeting are Raijor Dal, Assam Jatiya Parishad, CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML)(L), JD(U), RJD, Trinamool Congress, NCP and Jatiya Dal Assam. According to the state unit, Congress President Bhupen Bora, who was also present in the meeting, said that AAP was also invited but they couldn’t make it. He also added that after the meeting, a co-ordination committee of 11 parties, was formed.
This is the second such meeting of the Opposition parties led by the grand old party in the state within a span of two months. Back in March, the party held a meeting with nine Opposition parties — AJP, Raijor Dal, CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML)(L), RJD, NCP, Liberal Democratic Party, and Jatiya Dal Assam. Later the LDP, formed in 2015 by BJP’s founding national convenor of the party’s IT cell Pradyut Bora after quitting the party, merged into the grand old party.
Most of the parties attending the Opposition have no base in the state. Congress currently has 26 MLAs while Raijor Dal and CPM have one MLA each. The two new regional parties — Raijor Dal and AJP — have some presence in Assamese Hindu-dominated areas but haven’t been able to strengthen their bases. On the other hand, CPM still has some pockets of influence in the state while TMC hasn’t been able to build its base yet.
Congress’s Effort Towards Opposition Unity
In comparison to the first meeting in March, the Opposition meeting last month was attended by TMC, which shares a not-so warm relation with the Congress at the national level. The relations between the two parties soured after TMC, coming into power in West Bengal under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee for the third consecutive time in 2021, started inducting top Congress leaders into the party from Goa to Tripura and from Assam to Meghalaya. The current state President of TMC Ripun Bora himself was a state Congress president. Another prominent TMC face in the state is Sushmita Dev, former Congress MP of the Silchar Lok Sabha constituency. Currently too, Mamata, who has prime ministerial ambitions, is pushing for a united-Opposition but not led by Congress.
Also, significant was the invitation extended to AAP, although it didn’t turn up. Last month AAP’s National Convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal along with Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann visited the Northeastern state and addressed a meeting of the state party workers.
The meeting was to solidify the presence of the party in the state and the Northeast. Interestingly, state Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma launched a full attack on Kejriwal, when he visited the state. This showed how the BJP is interested in welcoming another Opposition party in the state — as it believes that it is likely to benefit the saffron party by splitting the anti-BJP votes. Last year, AAP secured 10% votes and won a seat where Muslims have sizeable votes, in the Guwahati Municipal Corporation and these votes mostly came from Congress, which polled 13% and drew a blank.
Why Is Congress Avoiding AIUDF?
The invitation to both TMC and AAP shows that the Congress is eager for an Opposition unity in the Northeastern state — however, this kind of invitation isn’t extended to Badruddin Ajmal led All India United Democratic Front, which has 16 MLAs in the state assembly. In the last 2021 state elections, it was a part of Congress-led Grand Alliance, which consisted of many parties including the three Communist parties and Bodoland People’s Front. Upset that it was not invited, AIUDF’s MLA Aminul Islam accused Congress of falling into the trap of BJP.
After the assembly elections, Congress broke the alliance with AIUDF while BPF came out of the Grand Alliance and currently provides outside support to the BJP-led NDA state government.
By excluding AIUDF, which has a substantial base among Bengali Muslims, from the anti-BJP Opposition front, Congress has taken a risk. Muslims account for 34% of the state’s population and a large majority of them are Bengali Muslims, who are largely concentrated in areas of Lower Assam, Barak Valley, and in parts of Central Assam. In the last assembly elections, the Grand Alliance was ahead of the BJP-led NDA in Central Assam and Barak Valley as Muslim votes polarised and consolidated as Congress and AIUDF fought together, though they had friendly fights in four seats.
However, the Grand Alliance fared badly in Assamese Hindu-dominated areas like Upper Assam, North Assam, and in parts of Lower Assam. Assamese Hindus consider the AIUDF as a party representing the interests of illegal Muslim immigrants. As a result, Congress had to face the burnt of the Assamese Hindus for allying with AIUDF. In the bypolls held months after the state elections, the grand old party further lost two of its winning seats — Mariani and Thowra — of Upper Assam to the BJP.
The Dilemma of the Congress
The grand old party is aware that without the support of the Assamese Hindus, it is very difficult for the party to come into power in the northeastern state, which once was a stronghold of the party. So, it is avoiding the AIUDF, despite knowing that no alliance with Ajmal’s party is going to hurt its prospects in the Bengali Muslim-dominated areas. It knows that the BJP, as seen in the 2021 state assembly elections, is likely to polarise the Hindus, comprising Assamese, the tribals, and the Bengalis, against the Congress-led alliance if it includes AIUDF.
After the 2016 state elections, there was a gradual shift of AIUDF’s Muslim voters to Congress and this was seen in the 2018 rural body polls. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party lost the Muslim-dominated Barpeta Lok Sabha seat to Congress. But the grand old party in its desperation to defeat the BJP in 2021 allied with AIUDF and gave the latter a new lease of life.
In the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, Congress, if it doesn’t get the support of AIUDF, is likely to face a strong battle to retain its three seats — Kaliabor, Barpeta, and Nagaon. While Barpeta is a Muslim-majority seat, the Muslim population in Kaliabor and Nagaon is estimated to be 37% and 43% respectively.
It is not that the grand old party has no appeal among Bengali Muslims. In the 2021 bypolls, the grand old party came second in Bhabanipur constituency, which was wrested by the BJP. Just months before, the seat was won by AIUDF in the assembly polls, but in the bypolls, it was relegated to the third spot. This by-poll result may be an isolated event but it can’t be denied that it provides a ray of hope to the grand old party.
If the grand old party isn’t hesitating to invite AAP and TMC, it is because it wants to show that it is really serious about challenging the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls — this way it is also trying to send a message to the Muslims of the state. On the other hand, by keeping a distance from AIUDF, it is trying to get back its lost base of Assamese Hindus — that’s also the reason it has already allied with Raijor Dal and AJP, the two parties based on Assamese regionalism.
Congress is currently allied with 10 parties but it is more concerned about AIUDF. Publicly, Congress has been calling AIUDF a B-Team of BJP to attract the Muslim voters — although how much this is going to work in its favour remains a question as the BJP, aware of Congress strategy, doesn’t want to miss any opportunity to bring AIUDF into the limelight of the state politics.
(Sagarneel Sinha is a political commentator and tweets @SagarneelSinha. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)