Lok Sabha election: AGP's vacillation on citizenship bill, U-turn on alliance with BJP points to party on road to extinction

Sanjib Kr Baruah
Once a regional political powerhouse with Assamese sub-nationalism as its credo and pregnant with immense possibilities for the future, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is a pale shadow of its former self

Once a regional political powerhouse with Assamese sub-nationalism as its credo and pregnant with immense possibilities for the future, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is a pale shadow of its former self. It is becoming clear that from here on, AGP's battle in the political arena will be a long hard struggle to retain relevance.

"I have stopped attending the meetings for the ongoing parliamentary polls as have many. Not even our own party cadres are going to vote for the party," a mid-level AGP party functionary in Upper Assam said in a resigned tone. Not surprising is the fact that Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, two-time Assam chief minister and a party stalwart refused to cast his vote to support his own party candidate in protest against the BJP's proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). Nor did he campaign for the party he founded.

It was over the CAB that the AGP pulled out of the ruling Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government in Assam in January 2019 and in effect, from the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a clutch of small regional parties under the BJP's umbrella. But in less than two months, it reversed its decision and returned to the BJP-fold and NEDA.

And in doing so, the AGP eroded its very raison d'être €" its anti-foreigner, anti-immigration stance that found profound expression in the Assam Accord signed between the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Centre on 15 August, 1985.

So what explains the AGP's U-turn and return to the BJP fold and NEDA, particularly when top saffron party leaders including party president Amit Shah have given determined assurances that it will bring on the CAB? It also goes against the AGP's grain when Shah declared in a public meeting in Howrah on Monday that his party will bring in the National Registry for Citizens (NRC) after the CAB.

The AGP, largely comprising AASU leaders, was born in 1985 after the inking of the Assam Accord that signed off on the anti-foreigner sentiment. Riding on a huge wave of indigenous Assamese support, it bagged a massive 67 of Assam's 126 Assembly seats in the 1985 state polls, not to speak of the seven Lok Sabha seats of the state's total of 14. Even in 1996, it won 63 of the 126. Cut to 2019, the party with the elephant symbol has just 14 MLAs in the Assam Assembly and none in Parliament.

While the opposition to CAB was a natural extension of its politics of identity, the return was a necessity dictated by the demands of the time as also by the fact that the BJP was trying to dislodge the Congress that considered the North East region to be its traditional borough.

The 15 years since 2001 have seen a gradual decline in the fortunes of the AGP till it opted for an alliance with the BJP in 2016 and bagged three ministerial positions in the Sonowal government. The 15 years had also been a period when its support base was gradually usurped by the saffron party and others in a big way. The Assamese Hindu community was the AGP's core constituency while the BJP's main support base comprises that and more including many of the tribal communities and non-Assamese Hindus like Bengalis, Hindi-speaking people and others. The AGP's perceived 'chauvinist' stand also ensured that the doors to the non-Assamese segments of the state's population were closed.

Moreover, an association with the ruling party at the Centre will also ensure access to funds, the source of which had been rapidly drying up during its 15-year hibernation. But the latest association with the BJP will be another nail in the AGP coffin because in the ensuing parliamentary polls, while the BJP is contesting 10 seats out of which it won seven in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it has given three seats to the AGP €" in Koliabor, Dhubri and Barpeta €" where the AGP's prospects are not bright, to say the least.

So while it may score a nil in the parliamentary polls, the AGP's prospects in the state Assembly polls in 2021 will be greatly diminished by the vacillating posturing on CAB €" opposing it initially and then joining hands with the BJP €" and thereby relinquishing its core political space among the Assamese-speaking public. In short, the AGP is a party on the highway to demise.

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