After a long wait, the BJP, Congress, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and Raijor Dal have finally released initial lists of their candidates for the Assam assembly elections 2021. Though the BJP had declared that it will reveal all its candidates within the first two days of March, it released the names of 70 candidates on March 5. Other parties were even late. The delay in releasing the lists clearly shows that the parties were facing great difficulties in coming out with consensual candidates while also managing relations with alliance partners. But what do their lists reveal if we take a deeper look?
The story of BJP: Overconfidence or impeding crises?
In the first list, the BJP has dropped 11 sitting MLAs and taken over a couple of seats where it’s alliance partner AGP has sitting MLAs. The most significant of the lot is Barhampur, where ex-chief minister and ex-president of AGP Prafulla Mahanta has been elected for almost 20 years. It has given 26 seats to AGP and 8 to Bodo party United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL). Party insiders say that senior leader and minister Himanata Biswa Sarma has influenced ticket selection and this has led to not just his accomplices getting tickets, but weak candidates getting fielded against Congress candidates who are close to him. Does this mean that the party is confident it will win in any case and hence can do as it deems fit? That’s not the case even in the eyes of BJP senior leaders.
“The party seems to have done a blunder in its overconfidence, as the first list is really not that great and has ended our chances in a couple of seats”, said a senior BJP functionary in Delhi who did not want to be named. “Now there will be a rebellion, while some seats where we had the edge have become weak,” he added.
The rebellion that the functionary hinted has already started. BJP MLA and minister Sum Ronghang has joined the Congress after being denied a ticket and is likely to be its candidate in the Diphu seat of Karbi Anglong district, which he currently holds. And in the Barak valley, most of the sitting MLAs who have been dropped are either likely to join the Congress or contest as independent candidates.
But the bigger source of worry is trouble in alliance partner AGP’s home. After being denied ticket, some AGP senior leaders have formed a faction – AGP Progressive – under the leadership of Mahanta and are willing to rebel against or sabotage the BJP’s chances in a couple of seats, including Barhampur. The fact that these people have 5,000-10,000 votes in some pockets make them good spoilers who cannot win but can make another party lose or win. If they succeed in cutting away those many votes from the BJP, the saffron party would be in danger.
Further, a conspiracy theory about the BJP is doing the rounds in political circles of Guwahati. It says that Himanta Biswa Sarma does not want the BJP to win more than 50 seats, so that the party would need to engineer defections from other parties to have the majority. Sarma being the master of that craft would then salvage the party and become CM, a feat that is unlikely if the BJP alliance gets a majority on its own. Though there is no substance to this theory, political analysts point to the BJP’s first list and the presence of weak candidates in it to make their case.
Congress: Playing safe yet not in safe waters
Congress took two more days to come out with its first list for phase 1. While most of the seats mentioned in it are non-controversial and have senior leaders like state president Ripun Bora, Dabbrata Saikia and ex-minister Bhupen Bora, it has certainly made some mistakes. The biggest is Lakhimpur, where it has once again fielded J.P. Das, who lost in 2016. A ticket was denied to Ghana Buragohain, who had rebelled the last time and made the Congress lose by polling 22,000 plus votes as an independent candidate.
“Ghana was the best candidate here. He had joined the Congress after 2016 and was working with the party. He could have won this time, but ex-minister Bharat Narah and his lobby denied him the ticket this time too and we will lose here again,” said a senior Congress leader of the district, on condition of anonymity. There were rumours that the Titabar seat, which was vacant after ex-CM Tarun Gogoi’s death, will be won by the BJP this time and to prevent it MP Gaurav Gogoi will contest from his father’s seat. However, in the second list, the party has fielded a lesser known person. And on Naoboicha seat, senior Congress leader Bharat Narah is the party candidate. Narah is an outsider here, and has left his seat Dhakuakhana to come to Naoboicha reportedly because it is a safe seat with 60,000 plus Muslim voters. Both these exthe amples indicate Congress leaders are busy searching for safe seats for themselves and avoiding any risks, which is severely compromising party’s competitiveness in Assam.
Further, in the wake of appeasing the AIUDF, the Congress seems to have ceded too much ground. An example is the Sonai seat of Silchar, which the party was likely to win but has now been given to the AIUDF. Further, the latter has also succeeded in convincing the Congress to allow a ‘friendly contest‘ in Congress-held seats of lower Assam like Sarukhetri, Chenga, Baghbar etc. While the BJP seems to be pressing its allies too much, the Congress appears to be just the reverse.
AJP: A case of miscalculated strengths
The AJP also declared its list amid much fanfare in a press conference, though its alliance partner Raijor Dal was not with it when the list was being declared. Realising that it could be blamed if the BJP wins again, if this alternative alliance divides anti-BJP votes and failing to convince the AJP againt contesting in too many seats, it kind of silently backtracked from the alliance. However, an unperturbed AJP leadership declared that they will be contesting most of the seats in the state. While the party tried to look confident that it has a finger on the pulse of the state and will emerge as a major player in this election, the choice of seat for their president Lurinjyoti Gogoi indicates something else.
Gogoi is contesting from Duliyajan, a seat in upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district. The seat is dominanted by tea tribes, Nepalis, and Hindi speakers while Ahom voters – Gogoi’s community – are few and get divided. The first three form a major chunk of support for the BJP and are less likely to turn towards the AJP this time. “A better choice would have been Naharkatia,” said a senior AASU leader, on the condition of anonymity. “Where Assamese voters are more and tea tribes less. But Lurin has committed a blunder and now his seat is not safe,” he added. It is probably this reason that as an afterthought, Gogoi decided to contest from Naharkatia too.
These developments clearly indicate that the Assam elections are going to be closer than expected, and all parties are now struggling to keep their house in order. Poll pundits have already started saying it will be a repeat of Bihar, and the results will go down to the wire.
Rajan Pandey is a freelance journalist. He is associated with survey agency People’s Pulse.