Politics

Assam: How Divided Speech United Voters Behind Two Poles

AIUDF chief Badarruddin Ajmal easily played into the hands of the BJP in the recent Assam assembly elections

File photo of Badruddin Ajmal. Credit: PTI

File photo of Badruddin Ajmal. Credit: PTI

Guwahati: If there is one politician in Assam who can be single-handedly given credit for helping the Bharatiya Janata Party make deeper inroads by making the undocumented immigrants issue a poll plank in the recently-concluded assembly elections, it has to be Maulana Badruddin Ajmal. It is strange but true that in the run up to the April elections, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) founder ended up forging unity among different sections of the state on the migrants issue like never before, the impact of which will certainly show in the May 19 results.

On January 23, Ajmal made a fervent case at a rally in Rangia in Kamrup district for all the minorities of the state to unite against what he said was the polarisation of Hindus on one side by Narendra Modi and the BJP. By making this call, he played into the hands of the BJP which was desperately looking for a propeller to wrest majority support in a state where it doesn’t have a very strong base.

On cue, BJP leaders lit into Ajmal. Reacting to his speech, the party demanded  that Ajmal be arrested under the National Security Act and even filed an FIR against him in a Guwahati police station.

Thereafter, there have been very few rallies in the state where the party didn’t identify Ajmal as the “real danger” to Assam.

“Ajmal and his AIUDF must be defeated. They are all for protecting Bangladeshis,” thundered Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, at a rally in Majuli with the crowd applauding.

This poll posturing of the BJP struck a chord with almost all communities in the state. Even though the AIUDF has most often been viewed by a majority of ethnic Assamese voters as a party of “Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants”, this perception was underscored forcefully only during these polls.

Polarisation helps both polarisers

Observes professor Monirul Hussain of Gauhati University, “Ajmal and BJP-RSS complimented each other in enhancing the fear of illegal immigrants. Politics in the state certainly took a communal turn during the elections because of these parties and organisations.”

So far, elections in Assam had never been openly contested on religious lines. No wonder then, Ajmal’s efforts to use religion to polarise the electorate have been described as a “threat” by Assamese Muslim organisations which, apart from their religious identity, also emphasise their ethnic identity. A few leaders of these organisations even went to the extent of “boycotting” Ajmal in the polls.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. The BJP’s campaign team, which comprised four IIT graduates and a party functionary, seized the opportunity to splash posters behind auto-rickshaws all over the state – barring AIUDF strongholds – featuring Ajmal and Sonowal with the question to voers, “Who would you want to see as the next CM?”

“Ajmal has no doubt contributed towards making the people more conscious about the immigrant issue. The BJP cleverly picked up on this and clubbed the issue with the misgovernance of the Congress government. Its fallout was the huge turnout of voters aspiring for change, security and better governance,” says Nani Gopal Mahanta, political analyst and an associate professor at Gauhati University.

In this frenzy, the electorate forgot that Prime Minister Modi had not fulfilled the “promise” made weeks ahead of the general elections in 2014 to solve the Bangladeshi immigrants issue. Many voters also chose to ignore the fact that the BJP government at the Centre tore apart the Assam accord by allowing undocumented Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh to stay in the state without valid papers even though the accord says anyone who entered the state after 1971 is a foreigner. The All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) threatened to launch an agitation against the BJP on the issue but voters seem not to have been bothered as they felt the ‘threat’ was more from the “miya” – a derogatory term used to refer to Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants – than the Hindu immigrants.

The religious posturing of the AIUDF is likely to help the Asom Gana Parishad too, which had a poll pact with the BJP for 26 seats. Even though the AGP has a dark history of scams and alleged orchestration of secret killings of former militants and their families in the late 1990s, the party, in all likelihood, will benefit from the anti-immigrant wave that has swept the state and could very well end up increasing its 2011 tally of nine seats.

In the 2011 polls, the AIUDF grabbed 18 seats. The party, by making its provocative January 2016 statement, was hoping to increase its 2011 vote share of 12.57% – which in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections haf increased to 14.8% – even higher.

In 2005, emerging from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the AIUDF projected itself as a party that will protect the interest of the the state’s Muslim community, which constitutes over 30% of the electorate. However, like the AGP – formed on the lines of ethnicity and regionalism –  the AIUDF too failed to devise a strategy to establish deep roots among the electorate after making an initial splash. Ajmal, an MP from the Dhubri constituency, has barely spoken on the state’s burning issues in parliament.  He has never been able to seriously counter the allegation that the AIUDF is and will remain a party of and for immigrants – except declaring from time to time that it stands for secularism.

In Dhubri, Goalpara and the Barak Valley, there are many Bengali Muslims who have been living in the region much before 1971 but have been somehow clubbed in the category of “illegal” immigrants now. The AIUDF has neither been able to frame a roadmap nor display the requisite political will needed to resolve the issues confronting such people.

The Bengali Muslims in Assam have always displayed a tendency to vote for the government or the party that is seen as likely to come to power. Even though they have traditionally voted for the Congress, they supported the AGP in 1996 since it was certain that the party would sweep to power that year.

Some Congress leaders claim that in the 2016 assembly polls, a high percentage of Bengali Muslim voters has shifted from the AIUDF to the Congress. A Congress functionary at Baghbor admitted to this writer that Bengali Muslim voters were repeatedly briefed by the party “about the danger of voting for the AIUDF.” There is also speculation that many AIUDF cadre are waiting to cross over to other parties after the polls.

AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal with ticket seekers. Credit: PTI

AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal with ticket seekers. Credit: PTI

The AIUDF contested only 74 out of the state’s 126 seats in the April polls. Party insiders say it is reeling under a financial crisis which affected the party’s poll preparations. “We wanted to field more candidates but it was financially unviable,” a functionary said, even claiming that the party supremo had auctioned some seats at high rates to a few candidates.

Also, Ajmal’s conduct in the run-up to the elections was no less confusing for the voters.  Even though he was making a case for a tie-up with non-BJP and non-Congress parties, he also indicated his willingness for an alliance with the Congress and, in a further y-turn, praised Modi for being an “efficient PM”.

Meanwhile, the BJP continuously alleged that there was “a secret deal” between the Congress and the AIUDF. The party appears to have been proved right when the AIUDF voted for the Congress in the recently concluded Rajya Sabha elections, helping two Congress candidates to get elected to the Upper House. At the same time, Ajmal also fielded candidates in some seats in upper (eastern) Assam even though its base there was weak, supposedly to dent the prospects of the Congress candidates.

Gogoi keeps his distance

However much the AIUDF had wanted a pre-poll alliance with the Congress, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and a majority of his senior party leaders were opposed to it. Senior Congress leaders in Delhi tried to convince Gogoi to go in for a tie-up with the AIUDF during the 2016 assembly polls in much the same way as Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar tried to bring the two parties on a common platform a few months before the assembly polls for a Bihar-like grand alliance against the BJP. But Gogoi and other leaders who understood Assam stood firm, knowing fully well that the Congress would also be seen as a communal outfit if the proposal was accepted and would lose support among non-Bengali voters.

After much speculation, on April 10, Ajmal finally revealed on Twitter that his party had been keen on an alliance with the Congress but that it did not materialise. A day after the second phase of the polls, he blamed the Congress for the “division” of secular votes which might help the BJP.

With May 19 nearing, Ajmal appears to be fighting a losing battle. There are media reports claiming that all potential AIUDF winners would be herded onto a flight by their chief on or before the day of counting and taken to an unknown destination to prevent other parties from poaching the MLAs.

Ajmal has also called for a “third front” comprising Bodo Peoples Front, AGP and AIUDF with support from Congress.

It looks unlikely that the AGP and BPF will desert the Hindutva party for the AIUDF.  According to some poll observers, the BJP could end up becoming the single largest party while the AIUDF might actually find it difficult to repeat its 2011 performance.

“The question of joining AIUDF does not arise at all under any circumstances. We will join the government that will be headed by the BJP,” AGP president Atul Bora told The Wire.

Senior leaders of BPF and Congress have echoed the same views in the past few days and perhaps not without reason.   A top functionary of the Congress who preferred anonymity pointed at the “inconsistent and communal behaviour” of Ajmal ahead of the polls which benefitted the BJP and its allies.

In hindsight, Ajmal would be in greater danger if somehow the Congress was to come back to power since the decimation of the AIUDF would be in the interest of the party. The BJP has already promised that it would crack the whip on “illegal immigrants”, indirectly meaning to attack his support base.

With his back against the wall, Ajmal has been heard saying on the TV that he will emerge as the “kingmaker” when government formation takes place.  With little space for manoeuvring, he is hoping that the Congress will approach him for a post-poll tie-up if he can produce the numbers. While the BJP and its allies seem confident of forming the next government, the Congress has adopted a wait-and-watch policy until the results are announced.

Rajeev Bhattacharjee is a Guwahati-based journalist and author of Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men