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Hijacking regionalism

| WASBIR HUSSAIN
Published : Jan 19, 2016, 5:28 am IST
Updated : Jan 19, 2016, 5:28 am IST

A hundred days from now, Assam is expected to witness a watershed election.

A hundred days from now, Assam is expected to witness a watershed election. The polls to the 126-member state Assembly could well be a defining moment in Assam’s electoral history because for the first time in 30 years, the contest is primarily going to be between two national political parties — the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party — with the regional parties largely relegated to the background.

Regional political parties playing second fiddle is significant because Assam has been in the forefront of regional politics in the country ever since the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) sprung up in 1985, at the end of the six-year-long Assam agitation (1979-1985) against illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

It was a local agitation aimed at freeing Assam of illegal aliens but the scale of the stir can be gauged from the fact that it was Independent India’s biggest mass uprising. Leaders of the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) who led this agitation transformed themselves by forming a political party — the AGP — with the avowed aim of pushing Assam’s interests, like control over natural resources, constitutional safeguards for the people of Assam and rapid industrialisation. It was not surprising to see the AGP win the 1985 Assembly election, and another one in 1996.

Today, regionalism may be still relevant in a distant state like Assam, but parties like the AGP are battling for survival. This is ironic because sub-national aspirations are still being pursued by forces of different hues, including extremists.

The new force to reckon with in Assam’s political arena is the BJP. In a bid to wrest Assam, the aggressive BJP seems to be pursuing a policy of consuming the regional forces by co-opting them with their scheme of things.

Already, the dominant political party in Assam’s Bodo heartland, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), has reached an electoral understanding with the BJP for the ensuing Assembly polls. The other major political force in the Bodo Council area, the Bodo People’s Progressive Front (BPPF), has meanwhile merged with the BPF. This means that the most powerful regional entity in the Bodo heartland, the BPF, today is an ally of the BJP, having dumped the Congress with which it shared power for eight years, beginning 2006. Bodo voters have influence in 28 Assembly seats of which the BPF will contest 16 seats on its own, and leave the rest to the BJP.

Having remained out of power for 15 years at a stretch, the AGP, which has been the flag-bearer of regionalism in the entire Northeast, knows this is going to be its last battle for survival. With several of its top leaders and two of its nine members of the Legislative Assembly having already joined the BJP, the AGP is facing severe erosion in its rank and file.

No wonder, the party that emerged on a staunch anti-Congress plank thought it was okay to even hold exploratory talks with Congress point-persons for possible electoral alliance. The moment the news leaked, the AGP was bombarded with both opposition and criticism to the idea from within and outside the party.

“How could the AGP even think of siding with the Congress” was the general refrain. Being convinced that it cannot make any significant impact if it were to fight the polls alone, the AGP cosied up to the BJP that was waiting to co-opt the regional party so as to stop the split in the anti-Congress votes.

The AGP has demanded that the BJP leave 48 seats to it. This is a demand that the BJP is going to reject outright because as things stand now, the BJP has just about 90 of the 126 Assembly seats where it can put up its own candidates. This is because the BJP has to leave 16 seats to its ally, the BPF, and it is in no position to put up a real contest in at least 20 seats which are strongholds of Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s pro-minority party, the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). Therefore, the BJP can actually leave 20 or less seats to the AGP from its “quota” of 90.

AGP leaders may be in a dilemma, but the party’s grassroot workers are very clear in their mind. They generally believe that if the party were to enter into an alliance with the BJP, they will lose their regional identity once and for all because similar tie-ups with the BJP had yielded no positive results in the past for both parties. If the BJP still wants the AGP on its side, it is because the party could actually have a long-term strategy of clearing its way by actually consuming a regional party like the AGP.

What is significant is that apart from members of political parties, the BJP in Assam has inducted leaders from other major non-political regional forces like the AASU and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP).

This goes to indicate that the BJP is conscious of the relevance of regionalism in states like Assam and has, therefore, kept its doors open for people from such groups to come and join the party.

After all, the BJP is desperately trying to open its account in the Northeast by winning the elections in Assam.

Going by the demographics in the state, this is going to be a tough challenge for the BJP, something the party strategists are certainly aware of.

The writer is executive director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati, and a former member of the National Security Advisory Board