Road to Dispur 2021: Would AASU or Naba Sarania be the New Kingmaker?
With talks of the formation of a new political party comprising Assam intelligentsia, another having already been announced, AASU seeking to play a proactive role in the 2021 state elections, G Plus does an extensive analysis of the various permutations and combinations that would go towards the formation of the next government.
“People are talking about the need of a new alternative political force and the process will be intensified after February.” – This was the announcement made of the rise of another new political party in Assam to dent BJP’s 2021 dream of retaining power. All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) president Dipanka Kumar Nath said that there have been suggestions from various quarters for AASU to explore the possibility of alternative political force.
“We need to take this new alternative to the Centre, for the Centre has imposed CAA against the wishes of the people of Assam. The state government has surrendered before the Centre. We need an alternative political force to protect the language and culture of the state. Assam has been neglected by the Centre,” Nath added.
The uproar over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) could see the rise of a new political party in Assam ahead of the 2021 assembly elections. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) is hinting at the launch of an alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Indian National Congress (INC).
The social arithmetic
It is difficult to comprehend politics in Assam without understanding its ethnic and religious make up. More than one in three persons in Assam is a Muslim, accounting for 34% of the state’s population. In numbers, Assam has the second largest Muslim population for a state, after Jammu & Kashmir—a fact no political party can ignore.
The dominant Muslim voter base does give an indication of the strength of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The same applies to the Congress, which positions itself as a secular alternative. AIUDF is an important player in Muslim-dominated areas, particularly in lower Assam, accounting for 64% of the Muslim population, where it polled more votes than the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However, these votes are unlikely to be divided, and the Muslim vote will consolidate behind the candidate who stands a better chance of beating their BJP rival.
On the other hand, Bengali Hindu & Tea Tribe community have the potential to break down the political scenario here in Assam.
Religion Wise Vote share
According to the 2011 census, 61.5% were Hindus, 34.22% were Muslims. Christian minorities (3.7%) are mostly among some of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/ST) population. The Scheduled Tribe population (both ST(Plains) and ST(Hills) combined) in Assam is around 13% of which the Bodo people(an indigenous Assamese community) account for 40% and the Scheduled Caste population is about 7.4% of which the Kaibarta and Jal Keot (both indigenous Assamese communities) combined account for about 36%.
Out of 32 districts of Assam, 11 are Muslim majority according to the 2011 census. The districts are Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaon, Nagaon, Hojai, Karimganj, South Salmara, Mankachar, Hailakandi, Darrang and Bongaigaon. These Muslim Majority Districts will play a major role in the run up to the assembly elections in 2021 but only if the Muslim votes do not get divided.
On the other hand, Bodos have a population share of 12% and the Kaibarta and Jal Keot have a total share of about 10% (all of which are a part of the indigenous Assamese community). The share of the indigenous Assamese communities in Assam was about 47% in the 2001 census which has reduced to about 40-45% in 2016 as predicted by experts. Indigenous Assamese Muslims, also known as Khilonjia Muslims, include ethnic groups such as Goria and Moria, and are estimated to be around 40 lakhs in population out of a total 1 crore (4 million out of 10 million) Muslims in Assam.
Challenges for the BJP
On paper, the transfer of votes among the NDA partners should not be difficult because their support base shares a strong anti-Congress sentiment. That said, the aspirations of some local leaders of the BJP, BPF and AGP are so high that several of them may rebel if denied tickets; the recent “perceptive” split in the AGP only reinforces these fears.
In addition, the 34%-strong Muslim vote is expected to get polarized against the NDA; thus even a little division in the non-Muslim vote will impact the NDA’s chances drastically.
To sum up, with a strong alliance, the NDA looks slightly ahead of its opponents, at this point of time, but the Congress cannot be underestimated because of historical reasons. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah will have to work hard to turn the arithmetic into chemistry and defy history to set up its second government in Assam.
Besides the Hindu-Muslim divide, other ethnic groups will also play an important role in certain pockets. For example, the districts of Kokrajhar, Sidli, Baksa, Chirang and Udalguri are home to Bodos. But, this area has seen rapid growth of the Muslim population. The proportion of Scheduled Tribes (mainly Bodos), constituting about a third of the population in these four districts, has lessened. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is expected to benefit from an alliance with Bodoland People’s Front (BOPF) and anti-Muslim sentiments in this belt again this year. But ex-ULFA turned MP Naba Sarania will be the next biggest factor in BTC’s 12 seats this time.
The tea tribes are another important socio-economic group, accounting for more than 9% votes in the state. They are particularly significant in Sivasagar, Sonitpur, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Golaghat, Jorhat and Kokrajhar districts. In the past, the tea tribe has backed the Congress but the party’s defeat in the tea tribe-dominated Dibrugarh and Jorhat Lok Sabha constituencies in 2019 made this vote bank “float” away. Two BJP members of Parliament (MPs), Rameshwar Teli from Dibrugarh and Topon Kr Gogoi from Jorhat, will be key vote catchers for the BJP in this belt.
Historically, a party needs minimum 35% votes to get a simple majority in Assam. The BJP polled 36.41% votes in the 2016 Assam Assembly election. At the peak of the Modi wave, BJP got just 36% votes (which incidentally also included votes from its alliance partner, particularly AGP and therefore in reality BJP’s vote share would be a few percentage points lower and closer to 30-31% since BJP fielded more candidates than AGP in the assembly elections), while Congress got 35.79% votes in Assam. With the help AGP’s 8.31% and BPF’s 2.51% votes, BJP formed the government. But the recent CAA protests, AGP’s probable split and the rise of a New Political Party backed by Zubeen Garg-led Silpi Samaj (Artist Fraternity) and AASU, forming alliances becomes critical. It is a fair assumption to make that the alliances with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the BOPF will help the NDA cross 35% vote share, provided AGP maintains its vote share of above 10%.
On the other hand, due to CAA and probable alliance of INC and the new political party, UPA’s vote share can even increase towards the 37-40% mark - sufficient for a simple majority. Already, Congress has responded by UG Brahma’s United People’s Party (UPP).
All set for a new political party backed by AASU?
AASU, Assam’s politically active students’ organization, is all set to create conditions that will ensure the birth of a new political party that would cater to the state’s regional aspirations. If this happens it will be a recall of the 1980s where a similar agitation happened against illegal migrants under the leadership of the AASU. With the demand of that time, AASU had to the form the political party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which ruled the state for two terms albeit not continuously. However, this time, the AGP finds itself alienated from AASU’s support because of its support to the CAA in the Parliament.
The time has come when the leaders of the “jatiyo sangathans,” civil society members and artistes wish to protect the indigenous people from cultural and linguistic threats and they will be on board when the new political party is formed.
However, one interesting anecdote here: most of the intelligentsia getting together to form the new political party has never been at the political battlefield one way or the other and it remains to be seen whether the candidates of the new party would be able to get their acts together on time.
Time for political alternative in Assam is here!
In a recent telephonic interview with G Plus, AASU General Secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi did not deny the possibility of floating a new political party. He said, “People are looking for a political alternative in Assam. It is because every political party who came to power betrayed the people of Assam. We all know that the Congress used illegal immigrants as their vote bank. People had high expectations from the BJP as they had promised to implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit. Now, they too betrayed us by bringing in the CAA. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), born out of the AASU, too betrayed the people by supporting the CAA. Thus, people are now looking for a political alternative with a true ideology of Axomiya Jatiyotabad (Assamese Nationalism) to protect the interest of the indigenous people of Assam.”
On the other hand, AASU President, Dipanka Kumar Nath said recently in Goalpara, “There is a need for a political party which is concerned about the indigenous people in Assam as all the political parties have failed to protect the people. We will start planning soon and the groundwork for the new party will start post-February onwards.”
He also recently said at a public event, “We are in talks with Silpi Samaj (artist fraternity) and are also discussing with the people of Assam to think about an alternative. With the permission of the people of Assam, we will not hesitate to go in that direction and launch a new political party.”
But AASU will remain apolitical!
Though the AASU has started talks to form the political party already and to start the ground work post this February, it will remain apolitical. This has been said by AASU President Dipanka Nath. Nath said, “AASU will remain apolitical. But in the interest of the people, along with Silpi Samaj, we are ready to go in that direction.” But who will lead this political party? Dipanka Nath and Lurin Jyoti Gogoi? Or will AASU Advisor Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya be the new avatar of Prafulla Mahanta, the former chief minister from AGP?
However, AASU activists maintain that they will remain apolitical and will help only in creating an environment for such a political move. One of the AASU activists (who did not wish to be named) said, “Ballot is the strongest form of protest. People are wondering, how long we will continue with our protests. What will be its outcome? This is the reason why the people of Assam want a regional party which can represent the Assamese society in a real sense.”
All decisions, which need to be taken politically in the state Assembly or Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha, be it land rights for indigenous people, implementations of the Language Act, etc can be done only through legislative power. So the people of Assam want a strong regional force that can protect the interests of the indigenous people.”
Who will evolve as New Kingmaker in 2021? AASU or Naba Sarania!
AASU has successfully brought many faces to Assam’s political field, right from ex CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta to current CM Sarbananda Sonowal. Atul Bora (Sr), Atul Bora (Jr), Bharat Narah, Late Bhrigu Kr Phukan, Tapan Kr Gogoi, Sankar Prasad Rai and the list never ends. And now the AASU-led anti-CAA movement is all set to give birth to a new set of destiny makers of Assam. AASU is set to project a set of influential leaders of the current times through the discussed political party. In this background, the first names will be Dr Samujjal Kr Bhattacharyya, Lurinjyoti Gogoi and Dipanka Kr Nath from AASU and Palash Changmai from Axom Jatiyotabadi YuvaChatra Parishad. With this whole scenario, AASU is likely to be seen as the kingmaker of Assam Assembly election in 2021.
As of now, the process for the formation of the new political party is at an advanced stage, with many district units being “formed” informally and if sources are to be believed, by February end, most of the district units will be formed (target being 25) and the state convention will be held sometime in April which will give the final seal of approval to the name of the new party.
Fear of losing Identity; what we learnt from Assam Agitation
The political history of Assam bears testimony to the fact that whenever the Assamese are fearful of losing their identity, the ruling governments pay a heavy price. Congress’s Hiteshwar Saikia government in the 1980s is an example of this. The Assam Agitation brought AGP as the new dawn of Assam and it had ruled Assam for 10 years. The people of Assam can now relate the Saikia government’s activities with the current Sonowal government. With the fear of losing identity, people are wondering if AASU will lead the state towards a new political party again. This speculation of a new party in Assam has started haunting the BJP. Consequently, several rallies are being held across the state for “peace and progress” to counter the agitators.
Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, while addressing the media on 1st January in Sualkuchi had said, “Don’t ostracize me, where would I go? I am your son, a part of you. You have chosen me to lead you, how can I let you down? I have never compromised with the interests of the people of Assam.”
100+ Seats for BJP in 2021?
In spite of AASU’s announcement of groundwork for a new political party, Himanta Biswa Sarma, current finance minister of Assam, is very confident about the BJP’s performance in the assembly elections to be held in 2021. He recently claimed that BJP will retain power in Assam, with at least 100 of 126 Assembly seats in 2021 elections despite the protests against the party over Citizenship Amendment Act. He added that those who are daydreaming about floating a political party would lose their deposits.
Countering Sarma, Tarun Gogoi, ex-chief minister of Assam, challenged the BJP to get minimum 25 seats, if elections are held within three months. On the other hand, Apurba Bhattacharya, general secretary of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee recently said in a press meet, “The Congress is a national political party and we have nothing to say on any new party in Assam.”
Who will benefit through the new political party?
Though the new party will bring some challenges to the BJP in the state, it might dent the Opposition’s vote bank as well. From the last Assam assembly election and Lok Sabha election, the scenario has been clear that the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has made its strong base in 14-18 constituencies in Assam and has become the principal opposition party in the state. It won 18 of 126 seats in the 2011 legislative assembly election and in 2016 it won 13 of 126 seats. And from the current situation, the new political party will adversely impact the vote percentage of the Congress and AGP mostly, rather than AIUDF’s. Even BJP might be more benefited with the divided votes.
For this fear, Assam Pradesh Congress’s general secretary, Apurba Bhattacharyya said, “Our humble submission to the initiators of this new political party in Assam is that if somehow the new party helps the BJP to come to power again by dividing the Opposition’s vote, they will have to face the people.”
On the other hand, some leaders who are losing their political presence are now supporting the anti-CAA movement. If this new political party is formed, these leaders stand to be benefitted from it.
Given the state of fluidity surrounding the formation of the new political party, there could be two possible scenarios:
1. If the new political party is formed, it is unlikely that any single party would be able to get to the near majority mark. This would be so, because, with the waning of influence of BPF in BTAD and with Naba Sarania planning to take BPF head on in 2021, out of 12 seats, BPF’s share is bound to decline thereby denting NDA’s numbers. The picture would get clearer after the council elections in April this year. With AIUDF maintaining its share of 12 seats, Naba Sarania getting at least 6-7 seats and the new political party getting into a minimum of double digits, BJP and Congress would be fighting for 90-95 odd seats which, in the backdrop of CAA and possible swing of votes against BJP, is unlikely that both BJP and Congress would get closer to the majority mark of 64. In such a scenario, the new political party and Naba Sarania led front would decide who would ultimately control Dispur.
2. If the new political party is not formed and given the fact that BJP would expect to lose some popular votes especially in upper Assam belt, Congress will still have an uphill task to unseat BJP from power in Assam. In this scenario too, Naba Sarania led front will be crucial if it garners sufficient number of seats at the hustings.