As in all elections, the Assam assembly polls of 2021 also had its share of surprises and trend-setting episodes wrought with far-reaching implications for the political trajectory of the state.
The BJP-led NDA—which is a coalition of three parties—crossed the halfway mark of 64 seats comfortably creating history in the state for a non-Congress alliance to win the polls for the second consecutive term.
The outcome was unpredictable ahead of the polls but the writing was on the wall as the exercise drew to a close. All the indications pointed towards an NDA victory which was also reflected in the exit polls.
Many winnable and veteran candidates were defeated and many scrapped through with a very narrow margin. The defeat of former minister and senior leader of Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) Pramila Rani Brahma from Kokrajhar (West) was unexpected in the same way that AGP legislator Pradip Hazarika’s win from Amguri where anti-incumbency was at its height has raised eyebrows.
Assam Regional Parties in Danger?
For the first time since its birth in 1985, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has been reduced to a single digit number of nine seats in the assembly which is not surprising given the turn of events during and after the anti-CAA protests that swept large areas in the state. On the eve of the elections, founder president and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and his coterie minced no words to express their disenchantment for being excluded from the list of contesting candidates.
Many analysts interpret the AGP’s pre-poll alliance with the BJP as an opportunist tactic of ensuring survival against heavy odds. After the anti-CAA movement, the party was not expected to win more than 5-6 seats in the assembly polls. That it went on to win nine seats was mainly due to the inability of Raijor Dal-Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) combine to portray itself as a viable alternative.
While it may be a bit early to anticipate the future of regional parties in Assam, it can be said with certainty that the road ahead would be fraught with challenges. The Raijor Dal-AJP coalition bagged only one seat but it certainly helped the BJP to wrest a few seats due to split of votes.
Polarisation Virus In Assam?
Assam seems to have been bitten by the polarisation bug as the election results indicate. None of the 75 legislators from the NDA is a Muslim while as many as 31 belong to the community out of the 50 candidates from the ‘Mahajot’ alliance led by the Congress.
A primary reason for the BJP’s success was the consolidation of Hindu votes across the state. As in the previous assembly elections, polarisation was most apparent in the Bengali dominated Barak Valley.
BJP won only from six out of 15 seats in the region which was two less than 2016. The decrease is attributed to the alliance between AIUDF and Congress which prevented the split of Muslim votes.
At the same time, it must be mentioned that there were several constituencies where chunks of Hindu votes had gone to Muslim candidates and vice versa. In Barkhetri, for instance, which was won by Congress, many Assamese Muslims had voted for the BJP. Likewise in Hajo, a small number of Assamese Hindus voted for AJP candidate Dulu Ahmed who lost to BJP with a margin of about 15000 votes.
Flight of ‘Mahajot’ Candidates
Confident of a victory in the election, the ‘Mahajot’ was unwilling to take the risk of its candidates being poached by the BJP. The alliance leaders firmed up a plan to confine all the contesting candidates at safe destinations in far-off locations till the counting of votes in a development that was unprecedented in the state.
As it seemed, the most troubled among the Mahajot allies was Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) after its candidate from Tamulpur Rangja Khungur Basumatary chose to make an exit from the contest ahead of the polls. He joined the BJP.
After the elections drew to a close, BPF shifted 10 of its 11 candidates to Sikkim and Goa to shield them from conspiracy by the BJP. The party swung into action only two days after the AIUDF and the Congress also flew 20 candidates to Rajasthan. About ten days later, most of them were lodged at a swanky resort at Sonapur on the outskirts of Guwahati where a series of meetings were also convened by the Congress.
Assam Congress president Ripun Bora told the media that there were reasons for the Mahajot to be ‘apprehensive’ due to the BJP’s money and muscle power and the support of the administration.
Akhil Gogoi – Incarcerated and Victorious
Raijor Dal president Akhil Gogoi scripted history after becoming the first candidate in Assam to have contested and won while being in jail. He was arrested for his involvement in the anti-CAA protests late in 2019 and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967.
Many BJP and Congress leaders were almost certain that Gogoi would not only lose from Sivasagar but he could drop down to the third position.
Gogoi was extremely low on funds and all that his poll managers could do was to carry out a fervent door-to-door campaign in the constituency known for returning candidates belonging to opposition parties.
Gogoi secured 57219 votes which was approximately 12000 more than the BJP candidate. After winning the seat, he has demanded that Covid vaccination for the entire state be completed within three months. His lawyer Krishna Gogoi was quoted by the media as saying that the NIA court would be moved for bail to enable Gogoi’s oath in the assembly as a legislator.
Most Expensive Election in Assam
So far, the management and flow of cash has been the most secretive aspect of the elections in Assam. All functionaries cutting across party lines are tightlipped on the strategies that were implemented for distribution of cash. But they are unanimous in asserting that the assembly elections of 2021 had been the most expensive in Assam.
Estimates vary on the total amount of cash that was disbursed but functionaries agree that it amounted to a ‘few hundreds of crores.’
On one occasion, BJP legislator Rama Kanta Deuri was caught on camera distributing money to some women at Morigaon. Between 26 February – 11 March, cash amounting to Rs 8.80 crore were seized by government agencies from different parts of the state.
A senior worker of a party explained that the the flow and disbursal of funds had been the same as the ‘mechanism’ worked out for the 2016 assembly polls when trusted businessmen were entrusted with the job for a commission. These agents are part of a larger network in the invisible money trail spanning all the major metropolises in the country.
Congress Symbol Used By Other Parties
Again, in an unusual development, the Congress had allowed its symbol to be used by four candidates in the polls who do not belong to the party. They were from other parties that were part of the Mahajot.
The symbol of the hand was used by three candidates of Anchalik Gana Morcha - Manjit Mahanta, Meera Barthakur and Pranab Doley – who contested from different constituencies in the state. The lone AIUDF candidate who was also allowed the symbol was Khalil Uddin Mazumder, who contested from Katigora in Barak Valley.
Among the four, only Mazumder won by defeating heavyweight Gautam Roy who had left the Congress to join the BJP last year.
Jinxed North Bank
The constituencies in the north bank of the Brahmaputra river inhabited by a host of communities continue to be unlucky for party presidents.
In the recent polls, Assam Congress president Ripun Bora lost from Gohpur to BJP’s Utpal Borah by a margin of over 29,000 votes. Bora has already resigned owning moral responsibility for the party’s debacle.
Some political activists are of the view that the trend in the north bank originated with the defeat of AGP president Brindavan Goswami in 2006 when he lost from Tezpur to Congress candidate Rajen Barthakur. This was followed by the defeat of state BJP president Ranjit Dutta five years later from Bihali to Congress’ Pallav Lochan Das.
Suspense Over Next Chief Minister
Never before in Assam has the suspense been so intense over the next chief minister after the declaration of the election results. That the BJP high command chose not to take a quick decision indicates that Sarbananda Sonowal’s reappointment could come up for evaluation at the capital.
The tussle between Sonowal and finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is an open secret. Sarma has dropped subtle hints in the past that he was in the race for the top post. Since 2 May, after the poll verdict went in favour of the NDA, Sarma and his supporters have been in a continuous huddle at his official residence in Dispur.
If the grapevine is to be believed, the BJP leadership in New Delhi had already arrived at a decision weeks ahead of the assembly polls in Assam. The post-poll violence in Bengal is believed to be the cause preventing an early announcement of the next chief minister in the state.
(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati. He tweets @rajkbhat.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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