Will AASU's Latest Foray Into Politics Yield the Desired Electoral Dividends?

Could AASU have instead focused on going beyond the limited mandate of capturing electoral power and developed a broad-based mass movement inclusive of all ethnic and linguistic minorities in the state?

In a country where political parties form student wings to broaden their membership base and recruit young leaders to the party, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) has been able to establish two parties within a span of 35 years.

Two movements, led primarily by the union, with the support of other organisations, led to the formation of each of these parties.

While the Asom Gana Parishad was formed immediately after the Assam Accord was signed in 1985, the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) is now being formed to ride the nationalist wave following anti-CAA protests in Assam. Whether the AJP will be able to replicate the electoral successes that followed immediately after the formation of the AGP is yet to be seen. The AJP, formed by the AASU and AJYP, is looking to contest the 2021 assembly elections in Assam.

Following the formation of the AJP, questions about AASU’s role in the party have been raised. Many have called on AASU to remain ‘apolitical’. These calls, I believe, are problematic. It seeks to continue the age-old divisions of limiting students’ organisations to ‘activism’, while parties playing the necessary role to assume electoral power. While the former is ‘celebrated’ the latter is seen as ‘something dirty’, a game of negotiations, where ideology gives way in the quest for power etc.

The call for AASU to remain non-electoral is probably also based on the experience, where it is often seen, in the relationship between the party and student organisations, the former plays the dominant role and the student organisations are often reduced to being the cheerleader for the party’s goals. This is perhaps the case with most of the parties.

But there is a need for a change. Can AJP usher in that change? Rather than call for AASU to remain apolitical or pay less attention in electoral politics, a better approach would be to push for AASU to be the party’s watchdog. The relationship should be based on equality, where AASU and AJYP do not allow AJP into political negotiations in the power game, at the risk of compromising its ideology, which has been the experience with the Assam Gana Parishad.

Also read: AASU-AJYCP’s Party to Contest 80-100 Seats in Assam Polls

Assam has had a long history of regional parties in the state. Even before the AGP was formed, there were parties like Purbanchaliya Lok Parishad, Asom Jatiyatabadi Dal and Plains Tribal Council of Assam. Even now, parties like the Liberal Democratic Party and the Peasants group Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) have indicated that they would float an electoral outfit within a week.

This raises a few pertinent questions: how and what will make the AJP different from other regional parties? Even after repeated failures of the electoral system to address grassroots concerns, why is forming a political party considered the natural progression or a logical conclusion to social movements in Assam? Should AASU have instead focused on going beyond the limited mandate of capturing electoral power and developed a broad-based mass movement inclusive of all ethnic and linguistic minorities in the state?

Like the AGP, the AJP has also highlighted that it would work together with other regional forces in Assam to form a credible alternative which would contest elections in 2021 against other parties like the BJP and the Congress, with the objective to ‘protect’ the interests of the indigenous people.

But the party has already been embroiled in a controversy with the LDP over membership, and the KMSS has highlighted that the AJP did not respond to its appeal of forming a common platform within the stipulated time limit. So, from the initial days, it does look like old wine in a newer bottle.

Can the AJP make inroads into tribal communities?

The party calls for strong regionalist sentiment and highlights ‘Assam First-Always and Ever’ as its ideology, while its slogan is ‘Ghore Ghore Aami’, which means ‘AJP in every household’. The party, as per its ‘leaders’, will be opposed to communalism and will be inclusive in its approach by giving representation to each of the indigenous communities and tribes of the states.

The tribes, however, have remained fairly indifferent to the formation of the new party. A tribal student leader, on the condition of anonymity, told me, ‘AJP is the B team of BJP’. I insisted on a serious comment. He highlighted that most of the tribal groups had no opinion about the formation of the party itself.

Moreover, the Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organizations of Assam (CCTOA), a joint platform of various indigenous tribal communities of the state highlighted that while it offers its moral support to the newly formed party, no tribal leaders are joining the party. This is no different from the attitude the tribes had towards the AGP.

Also read: In Assam, Nostalgia Shelters Asom Gana Parishad’s Flexible Regional Beliefs

This indifference probably stems from two reasons: the tribes have never strongly related to the existing discourse of ‘Assamese nationalism’, which they consider to be narrow and non-inclusive; and many of the tribes, like the Bodos, Misings etc. have their own parties. These parties are already in strong coalitions with the BJP. Making inroads into these existing coalitions would be extremely difficult for the AJP. The AJP, in order to penetrate this support base, may have to initiate steps that go beyond the mandate of the existing discourse of ‘Assamese Nationalism’. How it defines ‘Jatiyotabaad’ in its constitution will be of great consequence.

Rather than vaguely drafted promises, concrete steps like support for the sixth schedule status, land rights, support for language protections are measures that could be highlighted. Rather than forcing the ‘Assamese’ tag on them, recognising their distinct identity and supporting their attempts and initiatives towards the protection of their culture and belief systems should take precedence.

The tribal middle class is no longer content with just representation for the sake of it but desires concrete inclusion in leadership positions. Proper seat sharing as constitutional mechanism could meet the aspirations of the tribes and might enable the AJP to gather support.

Manoranjan Pegu is a trade union activist based in Delhi and can be contacted at [email protected]