TheNee­dle’sEye

The Economic Times - - Pure Politics - CHAI­TANYA KALBAG

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-

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