A Week Ahead of Results, BJP Struggles to Keep Together its Pre-poll Alliance in Assam

With results to be out on May 19, the parties have had considerable time to undertake a post-poll stock of their performance for the elections held on April 4 and 11.

The sixth and final phase of polling will be held on May 5. Credit: PTI

Credit: PTI

At a recent interaction with media persons at his New Delhi home, sports minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s chief ministerial candidate for Assam Sarbananda Sonowal, said, “We will form the next government in the state.’’ He added, “With support from our allies.”

Sonowal’s candid post-poll admittance of his party’s inability to form the next government in Assam without the help of its allies – the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) – is certainly a shift from the fervent pre-poll claim of a virtual cakewalk awaiting the BJP over the Congress in the state assembly elections held last month. The admission by Sonowal, also the BJP state president, hinted that it still considered the Congress as a formidable force. This, despite the BJP’s ideological backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), working hard to create a ground for the party to contest elections amid what appeared to be considerable anti-incumbency against the three-time Tarun Gogoi led government.

Now that the BJP feels the need to bank on BPF and AGP to garner the magic number of 64 in the 126-member assembly to form the next state government, the importance of the two regional parties will certainly be levitated, that is, if they succeed in getting the seats they expect.

With results to be out on May 19, the parties have had considerable time to undertake a post-poll stock of their performance for the elections held on April 4 and 11. Sonowal’s April 30 statement in New Delhi clearly sprung out of such an exercise.

Interestingly, the long wait for the poll results seems to be also giving the parties the luxury of time to weigh in “other options” if required. The local Assamese media is already predicting a hung assembly.

In such a scenario, all the major contenders may have to realign their pre-poll partnerships to sew up the numbers. There are reports that a section of AGP and BPF leaders are already hinting at their parties’ willingness to break the pre-poll alliance with BJP if May 19 throws up numbers that may be different from their pre-poll expectations.

On May 5, AIUDF president Badarruddin Ajmal, who has been claiming that he will be the “king maker”, since the run-up to the elections, came up with the idea of a “third front”. Ajmal told the media, “Efforts are on to cobble a third front with AGP and BPF.” He said, “We will decide the chief ministerial candidate later. Congress can also join the third front.”

BPF, the BJP’s pre-poll ally in the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) area, was seemingly the first to respond to it, albeit in an indirect way. As per a May 7 media report, the party will discuss “other options of government formation” at its two-day conference to be held in Kokrajhar on May 13-14. Even though the BPF supremo Hangrama Mohiliary was reportedly on a holiday with party MP Biswajit Daimary and his “old friend” and Congress-turned-BJP poll strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma in London, his party insiders told local media, “Mohiliary will seek his party’s approval for authority to decide on the course of action it has to take in case of unexpected results.”

Another surprise came from the BPF camp to the BJP on May 3 when the party senior leader Pratima Rani Brahma said Sarma should be given an important position in the government for his role in helping the BJP come to power in the state. Sonowal was quick to respond to it. Without naming Sarma, he said in a press meet in Guwahati on May 5, “The BJP is not a party that gives importance to individuals. Every party worker worked hard during the elections.”

Brahma also said if BPF has to join a BJP-led government, it will have to keep aside “four ministerial berths” for her party.

Some poll observers say BPF may well claim to get majority of 16 seats in the BTC area but May 19 may lob a surprise. It is facing strong opposition from the newly formed United People’s Party (UPP) – an ally of the Congress – in the four Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD). They predict UPP, with support from the powerful All Assam Bodo Students Union (ABSU), will corner at least four seats.

“This time, the BPF tally will certainly not match its 2011 tally of 12 seats. The Sanmilita Janagosthiya Aikyamancha (SJA), supported by the non-Bodos, is likely to wrest at least two seats in BTAD. SJA chief Naba Sarania is then more likely to go with UPP headed by a mild mannered U. G. Brahma than the BPF. In fact, we feel, some non-Bodos have also voted for us,” said a UPP leader from Kokrajhar.

The state BJP sources said BPF’s reported rethink was not true. “The BJP entered into an alliance with BPF only because of Sarma. He will not let BPF go away,” said a senior party functionary.

However, more than the BPF, what is turning into a worry among the ranks of the BJP is the Congress’ likelihood of faring better than what was being imagined. “Conservatively, we think that Congress will get at least 40 seats. In such a scenario, it will certainly try to form the government with support from others. More so, if it comes out as the single largest party. If such an occasion arises, we will bank on Sarma to split the Congress. Already, this point was taken into consideration during the ticket distribution. Sarma has already given a smooth passage to some Congress candidates who were likely to win and they will certainly like to go with him,” a top party source close to Sarma told The Wire.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, however, is confident of forming the next government on his own. At a press meet in Guwahati on May 7, he ruled out the possibility of a third front. “Ajmal’s dream will remain a dream. Why should we prop up a third front? Congress is not having such bad days that we will need to seek support of Ajmal or extend our support to him,” said Gogoi.

Though both Gogoi and state Congress chief Anjan Dutta have not made any public statement yet, local media is abuzz with reports of the party engaging in “secret talks” with BJP ally AGP for a possible post-poll tie-up. As per the Assamese daily Dainik Asom, the news has been further strengthened by AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s recent visit to New Delhi “to meet a few senior national leaders.”

Speaking to The Wire, Mahanta avoided a direct answer on the issue. The two-time state chief minister said, “This is only speculation. Some people in our party are saying we will get 14 seats, some say 18 but I don’t want to speculate. Only on the evening of May 19 shall we sit in a party meeting and decide the next course of action based on the numbers.” He said, “The ‘third front’ is not a reality in today’s Assam. It will be difficult for us to accept it.”

About drawing conjectures on his New Delhi visit, he laughed saying, “Onyo jegat sorai ure, aamar axomot koniu ure (Birds fly in other places, in Assam, bird’s eggs also fly). I went to Delhi to pay a visit to a friend who lost his wife recently but media read many things into it.”

However, even when Mahanta denies it, there is a strong suspicion about “AGP-Congress talks” in some ranks of the state BJP. “Mahanta and three other senior party leaders have an ego problem with Sonowal. Sonowal was junior to them in the AGP. They are not too comfortable taking orders from him,” a senior BJP leader from upper Assam tells this correspondent.

Local media sources claimed Sonowal skipped the first day of the poll agents’ meeting in Guwahati on May 6 to rush to Delhi to meet senior national leaders and the RSS brass to take guidance on the next course of action after news of AGP and BPF doing a rethink. On April 30, Sonowal visited RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in Nagpur too. Four days later, he reportedly went to see Bhaiyaji Joshi in Hojai district in Assam where the RSS second-in-command was engaged in a workshop. On May 8, he along with some senior state BJP leaders had a close-door meeting with Joshi in Guwahati.

“The leaders discussed various post poll scenarios including how Governor P. B. Acharya, who is an old RSS hand in the Northeast, can help the BJP form the next government,” said the senior party leader this correspondent spoke to. He said, “As per the two-day stocktaking meeting with poll agents that ended on May 7 in Guwahati, BJP should get 50 to 55 seats.”

“If we get even one seat more than the Congress, we will not lose time in staking claim to form the government. The governor then shall give it the maximum time possible to negotiate with the allies and others to reach the required number. The idea is to prohibit the Congress from staking claim,” he said.

Even if the BJP forms the coalition government in the state, political observers wonder if it will be stable. “In such a scenario, it is often seen that governance takes the backseat in the process of nurturing the alliance,” remarked an editor of an Assamese daily, requesting anonymity.

The senior BJP leader The Wire spoke to countered, “The party is well aware of it. So there is a strong suggestion from the RSS brass to follow the model of the Modi government in Assam too. Like Modi has made the PMO his government’s main monitoring agency for day to day work, Sonowal has also been suggested to form a strong CMO through which his secretariat will monitor all the ministries, no matter which alliance partner runs them.”

Will the allies agree to such a one-man system of governance? “There is a secret file on each of these leaders. The CBI is, after all, with the Modi government,” he retorted.