It was the first day of Rongali Bihu " the festival acting as a combining factor of Assamese sub-nationalism " and a day when hundreds had lined up to catch a glimpse of Congress star campaigner Priyanka Gandhi on her maiden rally outside of Uttar Pradesh. For a state that is battling contradictory views on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, Priyanka's roadshow in Silchar, in southern Assam's Barak Valley, and her support for party candidate Sushmita Dev may have consequences removed from what the Grand Old Party desires in the region.
While the Barak Valley, consisting of a large Bengali Hindu population, has consistently vouched for 'protection' of the people whose names were not included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) by passing the citizenship bill, the whole of the Assamese-majority Brahmaputra Valley has stood opposed to it.
This opposition stems from the fear that extensive migration of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh will wipe out the identities and cultural systems of Assamese and other indigenous communities.
The roadshow may, therefore, also send out signals of the Congress backing off in its promise to withdraw the contentious Bill which seeks to give citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Assam had witnessed huge protests from all corners, barring Barak Valley, against the Bill. Angry protesters had burned copies of the legislation, announcing a shutdown of the region. Upset over the Centre introducing and passing the Bill in the Lok Sabha, BJP's alliance partner Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had, on 7 January, 2019, also snapped ties with it for a short period of time.
Taking on from these protests and using it as an election plank, senior Congress leader and former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi had said that the party would seek support from all groups and organisations opposing the Bill in the coming Lok Sabha elections. The party had also asked Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to quit the BJP and form a new government with its support. The Congress has eight Lok Sabha members from the North East " three from Assam, which has a total 14 constituencies.
Incidentally, two months after severing ties, the AGP was back with the BJP. The issue of the Bill having been kept aside to be discussed after the polls. This happened even as several BJP leaders continued to promise to bring the Bill back at election rallies across the country.
The result " many in the Barak Valley now count on the saffron party to rescue them from being stateless. This promise, a report in Scroll states, has also pushed "a large section of vulnerable Bengali Hindus further into the BJP fold."
The Silchar unit of the Congress had recently released its manifesto with no mention of the Bill whatsoever. Chairperson of the party's media committee, Partha Ranjan Chakraborty, was quoted by The Times of India as simply saying: "See what Union minister Kiren Rijiju has said about the Bill. If implemented, it will be detrimental for the North East states."
Not surprising then to also see why Rahul Roy, a former Congress MLA from Algapur and district president of Hailakandi unit in Barak Valley, had resigned, citing the party's stand on the Bill. He had said how the Congress should support the citizenship bill on "humanitarian grounds".
In a situation as this, Priyanka's support for Dev, who is also the president of the All India Mahila Congress, might fail to garner votes for the party. Dev, who is battling anti-incumbency, finds herself in trouble with her party's stand against the Bill in a region that is overtly supportive of it. She is seeking to retain her seat against BJP candidate Rajdeep Roy
Comparing Dev with her own grandmother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi, Priyanka had said, "If you remember Indira Gandhi even today, it is because she worked for you. I have come here for Sushmita. She has that courage which Indiraji had. Sushmita has that honest and good intention, and wants to work for you from the heart."
Priyanka later criticised the BJP-led NDA government for its "flawed policies and intentions" in the last five years, and cited the withdrawal of the special status to Assam, snapping of the North East-specific industrial policy and suspension of two paper mills in the state.
She had gone on to say: "Aware and inform yourselves. See which party and leader is saying what. Support that leader only who works for you and make him or her victorious."
It is only time, however, that shall reveal if the Congress Uttar Pradesh (East) general secretary succeeded or not in staving off anti-incumbency against Dev.
Polling for the General Election will be held in three phases in Assam, on 11, 18 and 23 April.