After 15 years of Congress rule, the people of Assam appear to want a change. But will this mean victory for the BJP or simply a jolt for Tarun Gogoi and his party in the upcoming state elections?
Titabor (Assam): As we approached Titabor in Jorhat district, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s constituency, dark clouds covered the skies.
“It is likely to rain heavily,” warned my driver, and said that I may have to leave the township without attending the many public meetings that Gogoi was scheduled to address during the day.
Yet we drove on, some 15 kms from the town – a number of Congress flags were hanging from the windowsills of houses and shops along the way, interspersed by a few Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags and posters – to arrive at its outskirts at Borhola.
In Borhola, about a hundred people were waiting for Gogoi’s helicopter to arrive at the playground of the local high school. The weather improved a bit and Gogoi landed, much to the delight of the congregation. An old woman came forward to touch the Congress veteran’s feet saying, “We are with you.”
Amid pro-Congress and pro-Gogoi sloganeering, an enthused chief minister – elected from the constituency three times in a row – started for the venue of the day’s first public meeting in Borhola’s Shanti Path area.
As a crowd of 4000-odd people filling up a local open-air auditorium, Gogoi did not waste much time and tore into Prime Minister Narendra Modi, particularly for taking shots at him a day earlier in Majuli regarding his age.
“Yesterday, Modi made me 90 years old, which I am not. He might insinuate that I am redundant because of my old age but I want to ask you, are all old people useless? In his party surely old people are thrown aside. Senior BJP leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi, Jaswant Singh, were thrown aside after they became 70 years. This is not Congress’s culture. We don’t count age as a deterrent.”
He continued his anti-Modi tirade, “Modi always says Congress has not done anything in the last 60 years in Assam. If Congress has not done it, then who has brought Assam to this level of development and public security? People know in what condition Assam was before 2001 (before Gogoi became the chief minister). People were scared to come out of their homes then; there was law and order problem everywhere. The same BJP government was then at the Centre and the Asom Gana Parishad was ruling Assam. So many secret killings took place those days. They nearly destroyed Assam. Now both the parties have come together yet again. The BJP has nothing else to do but to only spread misinformation…”
Gogoi also did not spare his opponent, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal. “Modi called him a diamond, a heera, yesterday (on March 26). He may have diamonds, pearls and silver with him, I have copper and iron, the common people of the state. Suddenly, Sonowal, accused in a murder case (of a student leader Sourab Borah in Titabor constituency) and Himanta (Biswa Sarma), embroiled in corruption, are diamonds and silvers.”
A formidable opponent
As political bigwigs compete to announce more appealing “special packages” every now and then during the ongoing campaign, Gogoi too has announced a special package for the people of Titabor if re-elected in the April 4 polls.
As a seasoned politician, and having seen this party through many ups and downs in Assam over the years, Gogoi is well aware that this time he has a formidable opponent in Kamakhya Tasa, the BJP’s state vice president. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Tasa, formerly the president of the All Assam Tea Students Association, did the unthinkable; he defeated the Congress’ six-time winner, Bijoy Handique, from the Jorhat parliamentary constituency by an impressive margin of one lakh votes. A shocked Congress went down in a constituency that it took for granted for decades.
How much of those votes the BJP has managed to retain in the area is a question both the Congress and the BJP are anxiously awaiting the answer to.
A local correspondent of an Assamese daily said, “In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Handique was ahead of Tasa in Titabor but Tasa bagged a lot of votes from the Teok assembly constituency, which changed his fate from a possible loser to a clear winner. The gardens of Teok are much bigger than those of Titabor. So those votes were an important deciding factor in the Jorhat parliamentary elections. However, since it is an assembly election now, those votes naturally won’t count. So he needs to pull not just the votes of the tea tribe living in and around the gardens of Titabor but also the general votes to win the seat. Besides having some traditional base among the general voters in Titabor, Congress also has a lot of hold among the tea tribe. The tea workers union is with the Congress. Whether Tasa will be able to get a good number of both the tea tribe and general votes is now the question.”
If the crowd at the February 22 padyatra led by Sonowal and Sarma in Gogoi’s home turf in support of Tasa is any indication, the BJP candidate has been able to rustle up considerable support. During the 15-km padyatra from Rajabahar to Borhola, Sonowal urged the people “to give a chance to (the) BJP to form a government in the state to ensure all-round development irrespective of caste, community, tribe and religion.”
Speaking to The Wire, Tasa, who joined the BJP in 2004, asserted, “(The) media should not only look at voters from the community angle. I am a popular leader; both the tea tribe and general people are supporting me. In that padyatra, there were a large number of people; I don’t want to identify them community wise. It is Congress’s communal strategy to categorise people that way, not ours.”
He adds, “I got 40,000 votes from the Titabor area in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Even though 10,000 votes have gone away from BJP in the last two years, I will start at 30,000 certainly.”
Time for change?
A wave for change can be felt while talking to a cross-section of people in the constituency. Many are seeking “a change after 15 years”. This hope for “change” seems to supersede development work, and the populist schemes, at some places. Most agree that the township has seen progress in Gogoi’s time, that “people are getting three rupee rice every month,” “free mosquito nets, blankets and thread for weaving,” yet some feel, “there should be a new dispensation just for a change.”
Some complains though exist on the ground. “The pace of some development work was slow despite it has been the CM’s constituency for so long. The roads in the town area and Borhola are certainly very good, but those in Bokajan and Bukahola areas are not. Also, only a select few people of the constituency have benefited from Gogoi, they have become rich businessmen,” claimed Bulen Boruah, a shop owner in Titabor Chariali and a native of Bukahola.
The BJP is hoping to hook such voters. Meeting after meeting in the constituency, Tasa has been harping on corruption, nepotism, slow development, unemployment and the lack of progress in the rural areas.
The numbers game
Although Tasa is being projected as a general candidate to both the media and the voters in the constituency, there is no denying that one of the main reasons the BJP decided to field him in Titabor is because of his tea tribe identity. The party is hoping he will be able to pull a good chunk of the over-45000 votes the tribe has in the constituency, the largest vote share there. The tribe, to whom the Centre has promised scheduled tribes status, are mostly engaged in the many tea gardens of the area. The community has been commonly considered a traditional vote bank of the Congress, and many political observers believe the party will be able to retain a good share of the tribe’s vote despite the BJP fielding a well-known candidate from the community.
“(The) Congress will certainly pull the tea garden voters in Titabor but I doubt how much of it will be from the youth who is now educated and is an aspirational class,” says well-known political commentator Nani Gopal Mahanta. The youth, he hinted, would swing to the BJP “to bring in change”.
Besides the tea tribe, the Congress has a strong traditional pocket borough in the Muslim-dominated Melamati area of Titabor. On March 27, at a public gathering attended by Gogoi, the community pledged their 24,000 votes to Congress.
“Also, the Assamese Thengal Kacharis are with Gogoi. Congress district president Bimala Sonowal is from the community; she will certainly ensure her community’s votes,” claimed a local Congress leader to this correspondent.
But Tasa said, “Like (the) Congress, (the) BJP doesn’t have a traditional voter base in Assam. We are dependent only on the goodwill of the people. Our poll plank is change, end of corruption and unemployment, and development of the area.”
Local BJP members also accused the Congress of “using money power” to win the elections. “We heard that a lot of money has changed hands in the tea garden areas to buy votes,” claimed one BJP Titabor committee member, naming a few names from the Congress camp too.
There is also the “outsider” question hovering over Tasa in Titabor. Although Tasa is from the Hatikhuli Tea Estate area of Bokakhat constituency, which falls under the Kolibor parliamentary constituency, neighbouring the Jorhat parliamentary constituency, he doesn’t belong to Titabor. At a public meeting, Gogoi referenced the issue: “I am from this area; I spent my childhood here. My father belonged to this place. People know me here. I am no outsider.”
Gogoi, whose father was a doctor in a local tea garden, has his ancestral house in Titabor and a part of his larger family resides in the township. Before contesting the assembly elections, Gogoi had been a formidable candidate from the Jorhat parliamentary constituency. Old timers still recall that he defeated the bigwig of Assam’s tea industry, Heman Borooah, in the Lok Sabha elections in the early 1970s.
In the 2011 assembly contest, Gogoi won the Titabor seat by 65,418 votes, with 11,219 votes going to the Asom Gana Parishad candidate Montu Moni Dutta. However, the times have certainly changed.
Satyen Hazarika, a pan shop owner in the main market of Titabor and whose family (from the local Sutia community) have traditionally been Congress supporters, sums up for this correspondent a trend he has been noticing in the last few weeks in the area, “Whether Gogoi has done development or not, people generally are looking at a change after 15 years of Congress rule. But people of Assam usually don’t want a CM candidate to lose from their constituency. So Gogoi is going to win from Titabor but he will win only by 2000-3000 votes.”
Perhaps the dark clouds over Titabor before Gogoi’s intensified campaigning were ominous.