New Delhi: Barely a month after former Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma took over the reins of Assam as the new Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister, his former colleague Rupjyoti Kurmi has also shifted his allegiance to the ruling dispensation.
Kurmi – elected from the Mariani assembly constituency of Jorhat district in the 2021 elections on a Congress ticket – tendered his resignation from the house to speaker Biswajit Daimary on June 18 before abandoning the Congress. He joined the BJP in Sarma’s presence four days later. Sarma called him “one of the strongest youth leaders in the state”.
In a tweet, the chief minister said, “the State BJP shall immensely gain from his experience.”
At the first glance, when a considerable swathe of present BJP MLAs and members in Assam are former Congress leaders, Kurmi’s move to the party which is now in power for a second consecutive term shouldn’t have any shock value. Aside from Sarma himself, the former two-time cabinet minister in the Tarun Gogoi government, Ajanta Neog, is also a minister in the BJP government.
The trend of ‘professional’ politicians trooping from the Congress tent to the BJP has been a constant since the run-up to the 2016 assembly polls in the state, and in all probability will likely remain so until the saffron party is in power at the Centre.
And yet, why was Kurmi, a relatively junior leader from the top-heavy state Congress, suddenly such a big draw for the BJP that he needed to be publicly welcomed by the chief minister himself? Aside from reducing the Congress’ tally from 29 to 28 in the 126-member assembly, barely a month-and-a-half after the results were announced, how does Kurmi’s shift help the BJP?
To understand this better, it would be prudent to focus one’s lens on the Congress first. More precisely, on the party’s decision to enter into an official alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) – a party that promotes the interests of Assamese Muslims of East Bengal origin, who are locally, and at times derogatorily, addressed as the Miya community – before the assembly elections.
The Congress says that the Mahajot or the pre-poll alliance that it had stitched together had nine other parties too. So why single out its ties with the AIUDF? What its national and state leaders had overlooked, though, is the weight of the fact that the political interest of the AIUDF is at the very core of the BJP-RSS’s communal politics in the northeastern state, which shares a border with Bangladesh. This factor could have significantly weakened the Congress’s basic premise for constructing the Mahajot for those elections as an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) front. The inclusion of the AIUDF was also one of the reasons why two parties created to oppose the CAA – the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal – stayed away from the ‘grand alliance’.
The character of Assam’s CAA protests
While the anti-CAA protests elsewhere in India took on the ruling BJP primarily for excluding Muslims from the fast-track process to Indian citizenship, their character in Assam was different. Here, people took to the streets because the Act violated the core clause of the Assam Accord, achieved after six years of agitation. In such a scenario, the Congress’s alliance with a party that was formed to consolidate the political interests of the immigrant Muslim community due to the Assam agitation – even though the AIUDF outwardly supports the March 24, 1971 cut-off date for citizenship in Assam, which the Accord guarantees – proved costly.
The Assamese community saw in the Congress’s alliance with the AIUDF a dilution of their political interests. This handed the BJP-RSS the weapon it urgently needed to face the elections. It helped the Hindu right to plug the shortfall in popularity that it suffered within the majority community (in spite of its direct bank transfer beneficiary schemes) due to the CAA. The party knew the anti-CAA protests were fundamentally anti-BJP and needed something to counter this burden.
In political terms, the Congress committed a blunder by announcing a formal poll tie-up with a party that represents the interests of a religious community and is backed by the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, the bête noire of the RSS. The Sangh parivar has, by now, spread its tentacles deep into the state’s tribal and non-Muslim belts. This helped accentuate the communal angle while blunting the initial wave seen in favour of the Congress in some pockets of Upper Assam – the Assamese heartland which is forever wary of the elusive ‘Bangladeshi’. While the Congress had to pay a heavy price in that belt, which has the largest number of assembly seats, the AIUDF could consolidate minority votes in the Muslim belt, pushing its tally up from 13 in 2016 to 19 in 2021. In essence, the alliance facilitated a blurring of the lines between an immigrant Muslim who votes for the Congress and an AIUDF voter. They are not the same.
The tie-up also gave the BJP-RSS yet another communal tool to attack the Congress further: the presence of 31 Muslim legislators in the state assembly, for the first time since the controversial 1983 elections, which were held at the height of the anti-foreigner agitation and were boycotted by the majority community. Of the 31 MLAs elected to the house in the 2021 polls, 16 are from the Congress and 15 from the AIUDF.
In the end then, the tie-up allowed the Congress’s opponents to spread the narrative that had been fed to the majority Assamese, tribal and non-tribal, voters over the past few decade: the Congress backs only the interests of the immigrant Muslim community.
Since the 1970s, the identity of the ‘other’ in the state has mutated from bohiragoto (outsider) to ‘foreigner’ to ‘Bangladeshi’. Since the students’ agitation, the line between ‘Bangladeshi’ and the ‘Miya’ community has only thinned, triggered by the latter’s voting in favour of the Congress in the 1983 elections. Since that agitation, the relationship between the Congress and the Assamese middle class has been wobbly. A formal tie-up with the AIUDF only made matters worse for it.
So where does Kurmi’s defection to the BJP fit in this particular post-election matrix?
Hours after resigning from the house, Kurmi told an Assamese news channel that the “Congress is becoming a party that gives importance only to the Miya Mussalman.”
He asked, “Where are the party’s leaders from the smaller Jati-Janagusti (essentially, tribal leaders) today? Just see where did Bharat Narah, a leader from the Mising community, win from this time? He won from the Naoboicha constituency with help from the Miya Mussalman votes. He had won five times from (the Mising majority) Dhakuakhana but had to go to Naoboicha because the Mising community no more wants a Congress MLA.”
Kurmi continued, “Where are the Bodo leaders in the Congress? [Where are] the Rabha, Thengal Kachari, Dimasa MLAs from the party? To my mind, the Congress today doesn’t want to save the Congress. Its top leaders in the state are looking only at their own victories, at any cost.”
In that blurt-all conversation, Kurmi’s gripe was particularly directed at the fact that he was the sole Congress candidate to have won in the recent elections from the Adivasi (tea workers) community. He, therefore, felt he deserved more attention from the party than it was ready to give him. The other leaders from the community had lost the elections.
In that interview with a senior journalist from Prag News, Prasanta Rajguru, Kurmi said that banking on his win and as a representative of his community, he had applied for the post of the president of the state Congress. It was not accepted. Immediately after the dismal performance of the Congress in the polls, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) president Ripun Bora had put in his papers. No replacement has been announced yet.
Kurmi also said that he had expressed his interest to be leader of the opposition in the assembly. “But that was also not granted. Then I wanted to be a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC); that too was denied. I may want to be with the Congress, but the Congress should also want me,” he said.
In the 2021 polls, Kurmi’s victory margin over his BJP rival was a slender 2,100 votes. Since the 2011 elections, his winning margin has been steadily declining in a constituency that has a large chunk of Bengali Hindu voters, who are increasingly voting for the BJP. His defection should also be seen in this perspective.
He said in the interview, “In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Congress couldn’t do well; same in the panchayat elections that followed. In the 2019 parliamentary elections too, I failed to organise for the Congress candidate from the Jorhat Lok Sabha constituency, Sushanta Burhagohain, at least 12,000 to 13,000 votes from Mariani.”
About four months prior to the 2021 elections, Kurmi had told local media that he wouldn’t mind moving to BJP if it gave him the ticket. Indeed, his victory may have become possible because the anti-CAA front, Raijor Dal, decided to withdraw its candidate in favour of Kurmi, make it a bipolar contest instead of a triangular one.
Kurmi, naturally, sought increased importance in the Congress after his hard-won victory. He shifted base after not receiving it.
Now, with Kurmi’s departure, the Congress no longer has an MLA from the Sah Janagusti (tea tribe) that it had seemingly tried so hard to woo. So much so that the Gandhi siblings – Rahul and Priyanka – were engaged to interact with members of the community inside tea gardens, where they have the largest concentration. Aside from taking away the Congress’s base within the Bengali Hindu community, the RSS, since the 2014 parliamentary polls, has been successful in shifting the tea tribes away from the Congress.
However, in the run-up to the 2021 assembly polls, the BJP got a rude shock from leaders of the tribe, who wanted promises that had been made to the community – in particular, raising the minimum wage – to be fulfilled. That the Congress had formally announced that it would do so if it comes to power had helped pinch some amount of votes from the community this time around, triggering a modest win for the Congress in some Upper Assam pockets. Sushanta Burhagohain, who won the Thowra assembly seat, was one such beneficiary.
The BJP-RSS leadership realised that certain steps had to be taken immediately to prevent further weakening of their base. Therein lies the significance of Kurmi’s move to the BJP from the Congress, soon after the polls.
With the addition of Kurmi, a four-time Congress MLA, the state BJP has three leaders from the community. The other two are minister of state in the Union government Rameshwar Teli, and Rajya Sabha MP Kamakhya Prasad Tasa.
Kurmi’s move to the BJP has also robbed the Congress of the option of any future course correction through an elected MLA. On the other hand, if BJP state sources are to be believed, former state chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal – keen to become the state party president after he was unseated by Sarma – is most likely not going to be offered that position. This is simply because Sarma, ever an astute politician, is keen to install someone from the tea tribe in that top post to consolidate the party’s position within the community.
“It would most likely be Kamakhya Prasad Tasa. At least, Sarma has his backing,” a senior party leader told The Wire recently.