NEW DELHI: Of the states that are going to polls, for the Congress, the stakes are high in Kerala and Assam, where two of its incumbent Chief Ministers Oommen Chandy and Tarun Gogoi, are facing the toughest test of their political careers.
But particularly in Assam, it now boils down to the grand old party’s fate in the 61 assembly constituencies that go to polls in the second phase of polling on April 11. Of these, 61 seats in the 126-member assembly, 30 are spread over lower and central Assam, 11 in Nagaon area, 16 in Bodoland and four in Guwahati. In the last four urban seats of the state capital, BJP and its ally AGP seem to be on the upswing.
But what could make the second phase decisive is the fact that it is AIUDF’s stronghold. Apart from the Barak Valley, the biggest chunk of seats won by perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF in the previous assembly polls fall in this second phase, which the Congress is struggling to wrest from him.
And this struggle between the Congress and the AIUDF over minority votes — of Bengali-speaking Muslim voters — that could shape the outcome of the battle, to a large extent. The BJP is seen to have made inroads in the Congress strongholds in the first phase, in which 65 seats of Upper Assam, North Bank of Brahmaputra, Barak Valley and hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao polled heavily.
The party sees in this tussle between the Congress and the AIUDF its main chance. The saffron party is banking on a counter consolidation. Quite significantly, Kokhrajhar where Bodo-Muslim violence took place goes to polls in the second phase.
By unabashedly playing the Hindutva card, (Amit Shah declared in a rally that if the BJP comes to power it will not let a bird fly from across the border), the BJP and its regional allies, the AGP and the BPF, are addressing the fears of local ethnic groups, the Assamese-speaking voters and the Bodos, who feel financially and culturally swamped by the East Bengali (Bangladeshi) settlers. It’s not just their language but their daily fish, meat, vegetable and fruit trade running into crores — essentially the wet-market business, which is now controlled by the settlers.
On the one hand, the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance is campaigning about a tacit understanding between Tarun Gogoi-led ruling Congress and Ajmal’s AIUDF, on the other, they are harping on the point that both are contesting for the minority vote. Once in power, their overt sympathies would be detrimental to the ethnic local groups. BJP claim that this sentiment along with Sarabanda Sonowal’s appeal among the youth may work wonders for them.
Grand Old Party’s Desperate Hope
The Congress may be a bit apprehensive, but it also sees an opportunity in the harsh campaign. It expects a return of the Bengali-speaking Muslim voters to the fold of a national party, like Congress, from AIUDF. The latter, however, is fighting the polls in an alliance with the JD-U and RJD. It had won 17 of its 18 seats from the areas going to polls in the second phase.
Party Left in the Lurch in Bengal?
In West Bengal, the Congress is finding a challenge of a different sort. Its traditional die-hard voters — often called the “purana Congressi” in Bengali — who remained with the party during the 34 years of Left Front rule and at the height of the Modi wave in 2014, now seem reluctant to shift their allegiance to the Left, especially in Murshidabad, Nadia and West Dinajpur. They would rather vote for the Trinamool than the Left, which it has fought for years. This despite West Bengal PCC chief Adhir Chowdhury’s repeated assertion that the Left-Cong tie-up was forced upon the leadership by grassroots activists of both sides. Similarly, in pockets of Cooch Bihar and the 24-Paraganas, supporters of the small Left, RSP and Forward Bloc, are refusing to transfer their votes to Congress candidates.