Assam polls: Can Congress stop BJP juggernaut?

Express News Service
GUWAHATI: The results of the Assam elections on Sunday will decide if the BJP retains power or a nationally-weakened Congress stages a comeback.

Assam, in one way, is a vital state for both parties. For the BJP, the state is important not just for the party organisation but also for party ideology – the National Register of Citizens or NRC is its flagship ideological programme.

For the Congress, which is losing almost everywhere, the return to power will give the party much-needed oxygen. The exit polls have given an edge to the BJP-led ruling coalition which has the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) as components.

Similarly, 10 parties, led by the Congress, had formed a grand alliance of Opposition ahead of the polls. Its two other key constituents are minority-based All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which is an estranged ally of the BJP.

The elections were fought on the planks of development, welfare of state’s tea garden community, Citizenship (Amendment) Act, waiving off the loans of women taken from microfinance institutions, giving jobs to the unemployed, protecting the “satras” (Vaishnavite prayer centres) and the rhinos etc.

Forty-seven of the state’s 126 seats, which went to first phase elections on March 27, will be decisive for the BJP. In the 2016 polls, the BJP-AGP combine had bagged 35 of them, spread across five Parliamentary constituencies of Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Tezpur and Kaliabor in Upper and Northern Assam. They have large numbers of Assamese and tea garden voters.

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For long, the tea workers had voted for the Congress until they started shifting allegiance to the BJP in 2014. The BJP initiated several steps for the welfare of the community and also doled out money to keep them in good humour but failed to give them a daily wage of Rs 350 despite a commitment. Raising it from the existing Rs 167 to Rs 365 was one of the five “guarantees” announced by the Congress.

If the first phase polls were more about the fate of the ruling coalition, particularly BJP and AGP, the stakes were high for the Congress-AIUDF combine in the next two phases across constituencies in the Barak Valley and Central and Lower Assam.

Bengali Muslims, considered the vote banks of Congress and AIUDF, are in a large majority in a number of the seats. The two parties had come together to thwart the split of anti-BJP votes. In the last elections, their combined vote share was more than that of the winning candidates from the BJP coalition in 14 seats.

Thirty-nine constituencies went to the second phase polls on April 1. Fifteen of them were in the Bengali-majority Barak Valley where Hindus and Muslims constitute a nearly equal percentage of populations. The BJP had won eight seats, AIUDF four and Congress three in 2016. This time, however, the Congress-AIUDF combine was expected to fare better, thanks to their alliance.

The Opposition alliance also had an edge over the ruling alliance in the final phase polls held in 40 constituencies of Lower Assam on April 6. In 2016, BJP and Congress had won 11 seats each, AIUDF six, BPF eight and AGP four.

One factor that could possibly harm the BJP was its decision to sever ties with the BPF and align with the UPPL in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). The BPF had won all 12 seats in the BTR in 2016.

The BJP will also suffer somewhat due to the birth of two regional entities – Asom Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal. The perception was that the two new entrants would cause the split of AGP votes, for the options for people believing in regionalism, had widened. A loss for the AGP is a loss for the BJP.

Meanwhile, both alliances have trashed the exit-poll predictions. According to the BJP’s assessment, the party will bag 70 seats, AGP eight and UPPL five. However, questioning the scientific basis and sample size of exit polls and alleging that they are manipulated, the Congress claimed the Opposition alliance would win at least 75 seats.