At no time was an election anywhere in the country awaited with so much interest as it was in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala this time around. It appeared as if the country was waiting with bated breath for not so much about how the results would pan out in the above states but rather how the BJP as a party would fare.
Hence Assam was of great interest to political observers as it was the one state where the BJP had the greatest chance of forming a government. And indeed it has got itself a strong foothold to make its presence in the so -called Christian dominated states of the North-east.
There are several factors that came together for the BJP in Assam. First, it chose its alliance partners very strategically. The Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People&’s Front are regional parties that have some standing in Assam&’s politics.
The latter, particularly, has a strong hold over the Bodo vote bank, despite disaffection from a section of political rivals who have a long-standing rivalry with Hagrama Mohilary, the rebel turned politician who has been holding the reins of the Bodoland Territorial Council, (which is like a state within the state of Assam) since 2005. This time, the BPF won all the 12 seats in the BTC while the AGP managed to win 14 seats although it had set up candidates in only 30 constituencies. But Assam is also a classic case of a vote against the dynastic politics of the 81-year-old Tarun Gogoi. He wanted to foist his son Gaurav Gogoi on the people of Assam by first sending him to Parliament but with the long term goal of seeing him safely ensconced as the chief minister of the state.
Since the All India Congress Committee is led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty where elections for the top posts of Youth Congress president and AICC president are never by election but by nomination, the party has no moral fibre to prevent other regional satraps from doing the same.
This time in Assam, Congress tickets were given to the children or family members of sitting legislators, etc, in 34 constituencies! People have shown their disgust by this proclivity of the Congress to take them for granted. Hence nearly all of the 34 candidates bit the dust. It is also true that Tarun Gogoi is a victim of anti-incumbency, having been in the driving seat for 15 years.
But the grim prospect of the Congress in Assam and its electoral fortunes dimmed the moment Himanta Biswa Sarma, once Gogoi&’s blue-eyed boy, revolted against his mentor&’s dynastic politics and left the party last year. Sarma joined the BJP along with nine others because he said he was fed up with blue-blood politics. He approached Rahul Gandhi several times on this issue but was rebuffed by the Nehru-Gandhi scion. That&’s when Sarma decided to have his revenge on the Congress. He is a votecatcher and this was evident from the large crowds that gathered at his rallies. He untiringly addressed about 78 rallies a day across Assam. The Congress, with an aged and tired leadership, just could not keep pace with him.
Then there is also Sarbananda Sonowal, the young and energetic face of the BJP in Assam — a tribal who was projected as its chief ministerial candidate. The BJP had learnt key lessons from Bihar and Delhi where it foisted outsiders as chief ministerial candidates! As Union sports minister, Sonowal had brought the South Asian Games to the North-east. This is a credit for him and and the NDA government. And this added a feather to Sonowal&’s cap as also the BJP&’s in Assam. Also, this time the BJP plank in the state revolved solely around development and on addressing the protracted issue of illegal immigration — an issue that united the voters this time around.
The Congress in Assam had always projected itself as a secular party but with a slant towards the Muslim “minority”. This minority, however, is threatening to become the majority since it comprises a large chunk of illegal immigrants. This is what drove Assamese Muslims and Hindus to vote for the BJP. And as far as the BPF is concerned, it makes sense for regional forces to align with the government in power. This is common sense politics.
The AGP, which was a spent force, also got a new lease of life after aligning with the BJP. On the whole therefore, things worked for the saffron combine against the Congress. We cannot also discount the fact that the voters of Assam have matured politically. They voted for the BJP despite it being projected as a Hindu communal party that would intrude into people&’s cultures and eating habits. This plan adopted by certain Leftist forces and the Congress no longer works. That the people of Assam also rejected Badhruddin Ajmal&’s communal All India United Democratic Front, which had surreptitiously built a vote bank of illegal immigrants, also reflects their distaste for communal forces. Also, the call given by a section of Assam&’s Left-leaning intellectuals not to vote for the BJP only boomeranged on them.
There was a clarion call by many non-partisan voters before the Assam election that it would be akin to the last Battle of Saraighat — a do and die fight against illegal immigration from Bangladesh, which the Congress had not addressed in its 15-year rule. All these factors worked in favour of the BJP and its allies.
Now to Meghalaya, where a by-election was necessitated following the demise of Purno A Sangma, sitting Lok Sabha member from Tura. Here, Conrad Sangma, the Nationalist People&’s Party candidate and the late Sangma&’s son, won an unprecedented victory, garnering 192,000 votes against Congress candidate Dikkanchi D Shira, legislator from Mahendraganj and also the wife of chief minister Mukul Sangma.
Conrad Sangma has managed to come into his own and evolve into a politician with acumen and a leader in his own right. He left his mark in state politics as state finance minister in a non-Congress government that presided between 2008-2010.
The NPP is a constituent of the NDA and the BJP refrained from setting up a candidate of its own. It decided to campaign for the NPP instead and it launched a vigorous move right from the word “Go”. So much so that the Congress targeted the BJP instead of the NPP! Let&’s face facts. Dikkanchi Shira is no match for Conrad Sangma in terms of delving into issues and articulating them in Parliament. When people elect an MP they also want to see him/her speaking with conviction in the Lok Sabha. It is not enough to be a woman in politics. It is important to have the political bandwidth to fathom national politics and the varied issues that one is expected to vote on
. I sometimes wonder why Mukul Sangma, an otherwise intelligent politician, took this desperate step. Is there no one else in the Congress other than his immediate family members who could have contested the Tura seat? He has himself suffered reverses in the past; his brother, too, lost against PA Sangma. Then Mukul Sangma foisted Daryl Momin, a rank newcomer, into politics and pitted him against PA Sangma in 2014. Momin&’s only credential was that he is the grandson of Captain Williamson Sangma, Meghalaya&’s first chief minister.
These unilateral decisions taken by some Congress leaders are also what has destroyed the party. If there is no democracy in the election to the topmost post in the AICC,there is also no democracy in the selection of candidates for state assembly and parliamentary elections. The Tura Lok Sabha result is a vote against the Congress as much as it is a vote for the NPP and, indirectly, for the BJP. That Shira could only win from one assembly constituency (Ampati) and lost even in her own constituency (Mahendraganj) was a definite vote against both the candidate and her party. If this is not a wake-up call for the Meghalaya Congress then one is left to wonder! For a long time now there has been no visible leadership other than that of Mukul Sangma. There is no challenge to him. There is no free and frank deliberation within the party to reflect on the trajectory that the government is taking. In such a situation, dictators take roots. And the grand old party, whose claim to fame is that it led the freedom movement, had long since degenerated into a family fiefdom both in Delhi and the states.
Now that the BJP has a foothold in Assam and a toehold in Meghalaya, it might not be long before the political rumblings begin and the clamour for leadership change becomes a real challenge. The BJP will certainly not sit with folded arms. Its aggressive campaign for the Tura by-election says it all! Let&’s wait and watch how the party uses Conrad Sangma to do a Rijiju in Meghalaya. But first, it would have to give due recognition to PA Sangma&’s legacy.
(The writer is Editor, Shillong Times, and Member, National Security advisory Board. She can be contacted at- [email protected])