TheAssamElections:The Politics of Little Change
The only thing going for Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is his longevity in electoral politics
seats. The BJP’s ‘vision document’ promises to “(work) closely with central government to achieve complete sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam”.
The savvy 53-year-old asserts that he is serious about the honour of Assam and the expulsion of illegal immigrants. Sonowal told me at the BJP’s crowded and chaotic office in Guwahati’s Hengrabari area that there are more than four million MuslimswhohavelivedinAssamfor centuries. He should know his numbers – after all, he is a former president of AASU. As for deportations, which most Assam politicians doubt willeverhappen,Sonowalhedgeshis bets. He says the Assam and Bangladesh governments will have to talk.
One sign of simmering tensions in thestatewastheviolencethaterupted won 18 to become the state’s main opposition party. In the 2014 parliamentaryelectiontheAIUDFwonthreeof Assam’s14LokSabhaseats,thesame as the Congress party. In fact, it is now the largest Muslim party in parliament’s lower house. “If there is a hung assembly, we will be a decisive force,” says Aditya Langthasa, the working president of the AIUDF.
Ajmal, who also controls a formida-
ernment on September 8, 2015 that amended passport rules to read that all non-Muslim minorities in Bangladesh, if they claimed they were persecuted, would be granted Indian citizenship, no questions asked. This was a U-turn by Modi, who had vowed during his 2014 election campaign to throw all infiltrators out of Assam.
Mahanta is clearly unhappy about his party’s poll alliance with the BJP. “It was a decision of the party,” he told me at his quarters in the Old MLAs Hostel in the Dispur legislative complex. “We want that the AssamAccordshouldbeimplemented in letter and spirit,” says the man who signed the accord in 1985. He argues that if Modi adopts a different policy, he should rehabilitate the migrants outside Assam. “Otherwise local Assamese people will become a minority in Assam.”
Bangladesh’s Hindu minority totalled 20 million in 2013, and they could all seek asylum in India under the new citizenship rules. Mahanta asks how Assam can bear that burden. “Certainly I am disappointed… (Modi) swore he would not give an inch of Indian land to Bangladesh. Now he has also given away land to Bangladesh.”
Still, Mahanta feels it was important for opposition parties like the BJP and the AGP to come together to topple Congress.
Assam’spovertyandethnicandreligious schisms have not benefited the Communists. In 1978, just before the anti-foreigner agitation erupted, the Left parties together won 28 seats in the state assembly. They have never tasted such success since. Although the Left parties have put up 59 candidates this election, their leaders are not brimming with confidence.
In 2001 the Left did not win a single seat; in 2006 they won just two; and in 2011 they went back to zero. Their cadres came under fierce attack whentheBodotribalslaunchedtheir own protests in 1979 (the Bodoland People’s Front is now an electoral ally of the BJP and the AGP).
Isfaqur Rahman, a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretariat, meets me at the deserted Hedayetpur office where a forlorn sign reads “There is no alternative to socialism”. He says identity politics and ethnic divisions have made things difficult for the communists. Even in the tea gardens, which used to once be strongholds, trade unions have dwindled from59to25. TheCPI(M)hasonly119 full-time workers in all of Assam.
“It is very difficult to attract the younger generation,” Rahman tells me as he lights up another cigarette. The senior leader complains good-naturedly that he himself has to get by on a monthly stipend of just Rs 5,000.
Rahman is still better off than the homeless in Guwahati. Walking the crowded and ramshackle streets of the state capital, stepping carefully over cement planks covering open and stinking sewers, I recall a shocking statement from the Guwahati city boss and chairman of the Housing Board. Dwijen Sarma, a Gogoi man who was refused a ticket for the election, boasted that his picture was everywhere in Guwahati. What achievement was he proudest of ? “I have put up roofs at bus-stands so that the homeless can sleep somewhere at night”.
It was time to look elsewhere for clues to Assam’s future.