Fate of One Assam Seat Tells A Bigger Story for Congress


Three-time cabinet minister and adviser to the chief minister Pradyut Bordoloi has lost from the Margherita constituency to the BJP’s Bhaskar Sarmah. Credit: Twitter

Guwahati: Pradyut Bordoloi, three-time cabinet minister and adviser to the chief minister, has lost the assembly elections in Assam, bringing an end to weeks of speculation that witnessed a stiff contest between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Bordoloi lost to BJP candidate Bhaskar Sarmah from the historic Margherita constituency. Sarmah won with a safe margin of over 22,000 votes.

“Perhaps I was out of touch with the changing times and the new aspirations of the younger generation,” Bordoloi told The Wire.

Bordoloi was among the many heavyweights and former ministers of the Congress who were trounced in the assembly polls. While the fate of many candidates had been predicted even before the polls, Margherita remained unpredictable due to several factors.

Like many constituencies in Assam, Margherita has traditionally been a Congress bastion. Only once in 1998 was the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) able to wrest the seat narrowly.

With a total electorate of 162,775, the constituency is multi-ethnic and inhabited by tribal and non-tribal Assamese, including the tea tribes, as well as Nepalis, Biharis, Bengalis and Sinphos. The Assamese constitute the biggest chunk, with 48,000 votes and the tea-tribes vote coming a close second.

In the 2011 assembly elections, the Congress received 39.4% of the votes. The AGP occupied the second position with 16.3% of the vote share, All India United Democratic Front came in third, securing 12.6% of the vote and the BJP came fourth with 11.5% of the vote share. The 2014 general elections perhaps revealed the shape of things to come with a massive shift of votes in favour of the BJP.

Rampant unemployment

“There were many reasons that led to the defeat of Bordoloi. The condition of Margherita reflects the situation in Assam,” says Abhijit Barbarua, a local businessman. “Unemployment is rampant and the development indices very dismal in Margherita. We want new faces who would seriously work for the people.”

Incidentally, Margherita, has a high literacy rate of 87.7%, which has also swelled the numbers of the educated unemployed. According to one estimate, there are more than 30,000 who have no jobs or any avenue of employment. A majority of them are engaged as workers in the numerous small tea gardens that have mushroomed or in theft of coal from the mines.

Patchy development

Resentment was clearly brewing against Bordoloi over the past few years, which he failed to gauge. Remote regions like Pengeri and Burhi Dihing circles, once the hotbed of militant activities, still do not have proper roads. During the rainy season, it is almost impossible to commute through the mud and gravel roads that connect the 300 odd villages in these areas. Add to this the erratic nature of power supply and a perfect cocktail emerges for the defeat of the Congress, which has been ruling Assam consecutively for the past 15 years.

Some locals, who did not wish to be named, allege that the coal and timber mafia have been operating with the blessings of Bordoloi and top police officials. Large tracts of forest have been laid bare and the timber supposedly supplied to bigger towns like Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Guwahati to meet the demand of the booming construction industry. The former legislator has also faced the slur of being unable to put an end to graft and utilise the huge quantum of development funds that had been earmarked for Margherita.

As if this was not enough to provoke the ire of the electorate, Bordoloi’s brother Debrata had recently demolished a bus stand for the construction of a biscuit bakery. Some locals claimed that representations were sent to the legislator many times asking him to stop the demolition, but their plea on deaf ears.

Bordoloi vs Sarmah

Soon Sarmah, a businessman, came to be viewed as a viable alternative who would act differently from Bordoloi.

Bordoloi’s defeat also proves beyond a doubt the dipping popularity of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). On several prior occasions, especially in 1996 and 2001, the outfit played a role in swinging the outcome in many constituencies. The ULFA had repeatedly sent press releases from undisclosed locations with an appeal to the electorate not to vote for Sarmah for his alleged involvement in the secret killings that had rocked Assam in the late 1990s. Towards the end of March, it seemed that the ULFA’s diktat would sway voters against the BJP but the reality was somewhat different, which the rebel leaders could not grasp. The electorate remained unconvinced that Bordoloi would be able turn a new leaf if he won the elections.

Sarmah also had an advantage in that he hailed from the Nepalese community whose numbers are more than 30,000. In addition, he was able strike a chord with the tea tribes and non-Assamese communities in spite of the stain on his image that he had killed many innocent people.

Bordoloi is among the very few politicians in the Northeast with a masters degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Suave and always known to keep a low-profile, he began his political career in 1978 when he was elected spokesperson of the Assam chapter of National Students’ Union of India (NSUI). He made his electoral debut in a by-election from Margherita in 1998 and had returned comfortably for the next three terms with increased margins. He was inducted into the Tarun Gogoi government in 2001 as minister of state for home affairs and later promoted as minister of state with independent charge for environment and forest. Before he was dropped three years earlier, Bordoloi was minister for power, industries and commerce.

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