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Assam Elections 2021: Is it Too Late for the Congress to Catch Up?

The Congress must understand that only an aggressive social media game won’t help its prospects in Assam.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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With the assembly elections for Assam slated for the latter part of March 2021, political leaders are pulling out all the stops, to be seen and heard. Among the states that are going to polls this year, Assam is where the BJP stands the best chance to retain power. Not to rue the outcome later, the party has been campaigning aggressively in the state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign when he addressed a rally on 23 January 2021. The Congress, on the other hand, kickstarted its campaign much later, when Rahul Gandhi addressed a rally on 14 February, his only rally in the state so far. Since then, the former has visited the state thrice, while he is likely to visit at least as many times till the poll starts.

Similarly, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra started her campaign on 2 March 2021 when Amit Shah had started the BJP’s campaign in late December 2020. He has since addressed many big rallies as against only one by Ms Gandhi so far. Why has the Congress leadership been reluctant for so long to pep up the voters and their cadres?

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Why AIUDF May Further Consolidate Vote Bank at the Cost of the Congress

The state government led by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is not facing the classic anti-incumbency wave. With the various popular welfare measures pushed forth heavily by the BJP and due acknowledgement of managing the COVID-19 pandemic efficiently, it has been successful in defusing tensions created in the aftermath of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). When the odds are pretty clear and they know the organised and often impeccable electioneering management of the BJP, why did the Gandhis choose to visit Assam just before the election like ‘political tourists,’ as identified by BJP’s NEDA convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma?

There has been a lot of hoopla around forging critical pre-poll alliances by the Congress. While this is surely a boost for the cadres of the grand old party, the ground realities are not as predicted.

The issue of ‘illegal immigrants of Bangladeshi origin’ remains significant in the Assamese polity but it has lost its past importance. The anti-CAA sentiment is more relevant in upper Assam which was once a Congress stronghold. The ‘Ali-Kuli’ political strategy of Congress paid dividends for many elections until the dissolution of the IMDT Act by the Supreme Court at the behest of Sarbananda Sonowal, then leading a campaign to repeal the unpopular and unconstitutional law. The ‘Ali,’ essentially referring to the Muslim vote bank of Bangladeshi origin, switched loyalties from the Congress to the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by perfume baron Badaruddin Ajmal.

The AIUDF is likely to further consolidate their vote bank at the cost of the Congress. The ‘Kuli,’ essentially referring to the tea tribe community, switched their allegiance to the BJP as a result of rigorous ground work by the RSS and of course the Modi wave.

Entry of the Bodoland People Forum into the ‘Mahajot’

While the Congress tying up with the AIUDF will help the Mahajot in the lower Assam, it is likely to create a flutter among the electorate in upper Assam to vote for the Congress, where people are already upset with the BJP over the promulgation of the CAA. This is clearly evident from the disappointing commentary by Congress leaders from upper Assam, who are concerned over the outcome of this alliance. The Assamese-speaking big communities like Tai Ahoms are likely to go with Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP), who is championing the anger of the CAA and is led by Lurinjyoti Gogoi.

He is an ex-All Assam Students Union (AASU) leader and an Ahom contesting from Duliajan. The unfortunate demise and absence of a tall leader like Tarun Gogoi is also going to hurt the fortunes of the Congress in the region.

Coming to the recent entry of the Bodoland People Forum into Mahajot — it is as was expected. The leadership of the BPF pleaded with the BJP to form the government after its recent drubbing at the Bodoland Territorial Region’s elections.

Since the BPF did not get a favourable response, a break up was only to be expected. The BJP’s partner in this election, the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), is led by the ex-leaders of popular Bodo students’ body, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU). The Bodo votes are likely to get divided between the UPPL and the BPF, with the former at an advantageous position following a strong anti-incumbency wave against the latter. The vote share in the BTR also shows non-Bodo votes consolidating for the BJP as against the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP). The latter has since joined the NDA alliance, further beefing up the prospects of non-Bodo votes going in favour of NDA.

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A Faceless Congress in Assam

In Barak Valley, the dominant Bengali Hindu votes remain firmly with the BJP. This can be gauged from the fact that Congress remains non-committal over the fate of CAA. Sushmita Dev, the face of Congress from the valley & President of All India Mahila Congress, refused to wear a Gamosa where ‘No CAA’ was written in the rally addressed by Rahul Gandhi. She was the only one who refused to wear it among all the other Congress leaders on stage that day. Again, the Gamosa campaign strategy of Congress did not match with the ground realities. This clearly shows how the sentiment in the valley remains in sync with the BJP’s commitment to push forth CAA.

Another major drawback in the Mahajot is the state Congress’s failure to project a face this election.

While all the parties – irrespective of their ideologies – have clearly put forth their leaders, the Congress is the only party that remains indecisive about its face in the state. The absence of Tarun Gogoi is felt more inside the party when various sections within the party are trying to prop up different names. The success of Mahajot in Bihar was due to the positioning of Tejaswi Yadav as the Chief Ministerial candidate. However, for a common man, there is no clarity on who is going to be Congress’s or Mahajot’s Chief Ministerial candidate for Assam less than a month before we go to polls.

Can the Congress Make the Turnaround It Is Hoping For?

It is unlikely to do as bad as the General Elections of 2019. The tally of Congress should improve, thanks to the other parties who have taken their pound of flesh from old Congress vote bank. But, is it going to be enough?

The elections in 2016 was a mandate against the Congress more than being a vote for the BJP.

The central theme of ‘poriborton’ (change) by BJP echoed well with the desperate call by the people against rampant corruption by the Congress government, the APSC scam, the widespread killing of one-horned rhino and intense infighting within the rank and file of Congress. The NDA government has done fairly well to counter these major issues like cleaning up the APSC, controlling of poaching of rhinos and a clean leadership by Sarbananda Sonowal as Chief Minister as well as Himanta Biswa Sarma as political acumen as a strategist has worked well for BJP.

Congress remained elusive in addressing such issues but tried to stitch up an alliance which is likely to help its partners but Congress. The hullaballoo around a resurgent Congress campaign is just a social media bubble that does not necessarily represent the ground realities.

(Tituraj Kashyap Das is a Delhi-based communications professional. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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