Voter turnout in the first phase of Assam’s election on Monday was very high. By the time polls closed it had hit 78%. Assam’s voters usually turn out in large numbers, but this time the numbers bode ill for the Congress party, in power for an unbroken 15 years. Voting in the remaining 61 constituencies takes places on April 11. For Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is a make-or-break election. Of the four states and one union territory going to the polls in April and May,Assamistheonlyonewherethe BJP stands a decent chance of snatching power. The BJP is fighting for 88 of the 126 seats in the state legislature, and has given its coalition partners the remainder.
If the BJP and its allies win, it will be the first time since the 1979-85 antiforeigner agitation that an Assam government has ruled without the support of a Muslim party.
The only thing going for Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is his longevity in electoral politics – six terms as a member of the Lok Sabha, stretching back to 1971, and three terms as chief minister. Gogoi shrugs off allegations of corruption and inefficiency, but the state’s comatose econo my is testament to the do-nothingness of prolonged incumbency. The state’s GDP grew by 5.87 per cent in 2013/14. About a third of the population lives below the poverty line. About 86% of Assamese live in the countryside, but the share of agriculture in the economy has fallen steadily from about 55 per cent in 1950 to about 17 per cent last year. The 2011 Census showed that Assam was one of India’s worst-off states in regard to health and sanitation.Only54.8percentof households in Assam had access to drinking water within their premises, and only 10.5 per cent had tap water.
Despite this dismal track record, Gogoi maintains his hold on his Titabar bailiwick; his 35-year-old son Gaurav, a political rookie, easily won his father’s old parliamentary constituency in 2014.
Gogoi’s anointing of his son as the heir apparent triggered the exit of his best organiser and fund-raiser -health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was with the party since 1991 and who clearly saw his ambition for the top post thwarted.
A 47-year-old ex-lawyer, Sarma joined the BJP in August last year with nine other defectors and was quickly made the BJP’s campaign chief. He started his career as a schoolboy courier for All Assam Students Union(AASU)leadersduring the agitation. Sarbananda Sonowal, youth and sports minister in Modi’s cabinet, is the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate. He masterminded a stunning setback for Gogoi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with the BJP winningsevenof Assam’s14lowerhouse on Monday in Majuli, the huge riverislandconstituencywhereSonowalis standing. Dominated by the Mishing tribe and home to some of Assam’s mostsacredVaishnavite‘chatras’,the shrinking island is criss-crossed by deep ethnic animosities.
Assam’s most influential Muslim party is just 11 years old, but so confident that it is fielding 67 candidates. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, 66, a cleric, founded the AIUDF in 2005 after the Supreme Court struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983. The court said the act, which was applicable onlyinAssam,wasunconstitutional.
In the 2006 state election the AIUDF won 10 seats; in the 2011 election it ble perfumery empire based in MumbaiandDubai,ownshugeAgar tree plantations in and around the town of Hojai. Alongside his businesses, Ajmal’s political dynasty is also expanding, with his brother and two of his sons turning lawmakers.
The AIUDF’s rise was inevitable. Nine of the state’s 27 districts are now Muslim-majority. In the 2011 Census, Assam had India’s secondhighest percentage (34.22, up from 30.9percentin2001)of Muslimsafter Jammu and Kashmir.
So desperate has been the quest for power by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — the state’s most indigenous party — that it has agreed to be a junior partner to the BJP; it was allocated 24 seats. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the 63-year-old former president of AASU,wastheyoungestchief minister in Assam’s 70-year history. The thorny issue of illegal immigrants was not resolved during his two terms (1985-89 and 1996-2001).
TheAGPisalsoupsetbyanextraordinary order issued by the Modi gov-