Interview: 'Rise of Regional Formations in Assam a Blessing in Disguise for AGP'

In conversation with newly re-elected Asom Gana Parishad president Atul Bora on his pro-CAA stance, Assamese regionalism, the state of agriculture and more.

New Delhi: On August 28, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) re-elected its president, Atul Bora.

The re-election of Bora, also the state’s agriculture minister, comes at a time when the regional party born of the Assam Accord of 1985 is facing a factional divide due to his, and some other top leaders’, pro-Citizenship (Amendment) Act stand.

The forthcoming elections are being looked at by political observers in the state as crucial for the ruling BJP-Asom Gana Parishad combine because of the huge public protests against the CAA. Banking on those protests, some regional formations have already come into existence to challenge the ruling alliance in the coming polls.

In an extensive interview to The Wire, Bora dealt with not just how his party is looking at the fresh challenge posed by the regional formations, but also why AGP is supportive of the CAA and will continue to be so.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have been re-elected as the AGP president. With the 2021 elections barely a few months away, can we call your re-election as party president proof of the cadres’ trust in you as their leader? The reason I am asking this question is, there are several media reports to suggest that there are now two clear factions within the AGP on the question of the party’s support to the CAA.

My re-election to the post is definitely a significant development. See, there will always be some amount of differences within a party. But this time, the entire house at the party’s conference offered us support, made me the president, and hoped that we as a strong party should face the 2021 elections. Since the middle of the national lockdown, we have begun preparing for the coming polls. We were pretty weak in the social media aspect compared to some other parties but we have begun addressing that now.

Also, before we contested the 2016 assembly polls, the number of youth associated with our party was negligible. Under our (my) leadership, for the first time in the party’s history, we started a youth wing, the Chattra Parishad. It has been successful to a large extent to attract young voters to AGP. I can’t give you an exact figure at the moment but our youth membership has shot up quite a bit.

Before the 2016 elections, the party was not in a good position. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, we failed to grab even one of the state’s 14 seats. This was even thought the party was in power for two terms. The people of Assam denied us even the position of the main opposition party at the assembly. There are many reasons for voters going away from us, we have dwelt on those points at length from time to time, have done self-introspection, have tried to embark on a new path; many experiments have also been tried out.

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, we joined hands with the BJP. It was also because the party had an earlier alliance with BJP during the presidentship of former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. In the 2016 polls, we contested 24 seats as per a seat sharing arrangement with the BJP and won 14 of them, and thereby became a part of the BJP-led coalition government. Myself and two other senior AGP leaders became ministers in the Sarbananda Sonowal government. We have since then tried from these positions of power to serve people. I want to point out here, though, that our partnership is considerably less in the government because the number of our MLAs is less. Finally, it is a numbers game. Still, we have tried because this government is not of just one party. I feel we can also claim credit for what this government has achieved and done for the people.

Also read: Will Anti-CAA Political Formations Dent the BJP’s Chances in 2021 Assam Polls?

Some political observers in Assam are of the opinion that AGP doesn’t have the electoral heft to go it alone in an election.

During my presidentship, we started working in the ten constituencies that we lost in 2016. Since the birth of the party in 1985, we have won in 85 of the 126 constituencies at different times. In some seats, more than twice. For instance, the present AGP minister Phani Bhushan Choudhury has been winning from Bongaigaon continuously since 1985. What I mean to say is that AGP still has its roots in 85 constituencies. We are trying to strengthen those roots. For this purpose, we have also amended our party constitution. We have reorganised our district committees and have zeroed in on a strategy to work at the grassroots till the village level.

So far though, we have not thought of going it alone in the elections. We need help from others and should also be able to help others.

So the 2016 pre-poll alliance between the BJP and AGP will continue? How many seats will AGP contest in 2021? Will it ask BJP for more seats this time?

Yes we are optimistic about the alliance. We were together even in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This is also because the BJP has kept all the promises it made to us after the anti-CAB protests which had led us to walk out of the government then. For instance, it had promised us that one of the first batches of the vacant Rajya Sabha seats from Assam will be given to the AGP. So after a long gap, we could send an AGP member, Biren Baishya, to the Rajya Sabha in 2019.

As I said earlier, by staying within the government, we have tried to serve the people of the state. I have an ardent belief that people of Assam have not forgotten yet the corrupt Congress government. They have been in power in the state for the longest period since independence and since 2001 continuously till early 2016. We joined hands with the BJP to get rid of it. We are banking on the work done by the Sonowal-led coalition government to seek a re-election. We are hoping to win more than 14 seats this time.

About seat sharing arrangement with BJP, the elections are a few months away, so we have not discussed it with our partner in details yet. We want to contest more seats than 2016 but we will also have to keep in mind our winnability.

The delimitation exercise is underway in Assam after many years. Do you think it will be an advantage to the AGP in the coming polls? As per some political observers from Assam, it will give AGP an edge of 15-16 seats.

There was a cap on the delimitation of constituencies till 2026. But now, the Central government has begun the process. But I am not sure whether it will be completed before the 2021 elections. If it takes place before the polls, it may be good for us. It can be a blessing to the AGP. Also, if it doesn’t happen in the coming elections, sometime in future it will. So the future of the AGP in Assam exists.

Atul Bora. Photo: Special arrangement

The anti-CAA protests have led to the birth of some regional formations to take on the BJP. AASU too may form a party. These parties will operate within the Assamese jatiotabad (sub-nationalist) space, which is also AGP’s space. How do you see your party’s prospects in the 2021 elections because of this development?

I don’t think it is a threat to the AGP; instead it will be a blessing in disguise. AGP is a symbol of Assamese regionalism. It was born after a mass-based agitation, was born of a people’s wish. Yes, at times, it has lost its steam; attempts have been made to rip apart its roots many a times but none has been successful yet. There were regional entities even before the birth of AGP. But the push and pull behind those formations and that of AGP is different. AASU alone didn’t form AGP. AASU organised the Jatiyo Rajnaitik Abhibartan (community political conclave) in which people from different walks of life took part and came to a conclusion that we will have to grab power to get what we need. That was how AGP was born.

AGP is not a one-man, self-styled formation like what we are seeing now. Only this week, Rajya Sabha MP and leader of the newly formed regional party Asom Jana Morcha said we are existing only by holding the tail end of the BJP. I don’t want to say anything against such a senior person. I wish him luck. But what kind of a formation will theirs be? His recent election to the Rajya Sabha with support from the Congress and the AIUDF only suggests what kind of a party it will be.

There have been differences within AGP since its birth. This trend has never left us. But in the recent party conference, we saw that the house is completely united. It wants us to take the party forward on the basis of progressive Assamese jatiotabad sentiments which brings under its umbrella all people crossing the barriers of community, religion, language. That is what we will endeavour. We have seen the agitation, saw so many governments after it; we have to be practical now; we have learnt that we have to take everyone along with us. I have always said that people who have been termed Indian by the Constitution will remain Assamese, provided they engage with the language, the local culture, adapt the practices of the people of the land and consider themselves as a part of wider Assamese society.

AGP under your leadership opposed the CAB, which was widely welcomed by people. But the party finally supported CAA even though the amendment violated the Assam Accord’s core clause. AGP is a party formed out of the Accord. What led to that shift?

Nobody forced us to walk out of the government then. Not even the party. We resigned from the government on our own because we felt that the spirit behind the Assam agitation was violated. When the BJP central leadership invited us to New Delhi for a discussion, we went. For us, the soul of Assam Accord is its Clause 6 – granting constitutional protection to Assamese people. So we strongly feel that if that is granted by the Centre, the community will be saved from losing its importance in its own state. That reassurance was given. Therefore, we re-joined the government. The high powered committee was formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs thereafter and we sensed a political will to implement Clause 6. None of the earlier governments took any step to implement it except Narendra Modi and the home minister Amit Shah.

One of the main reasons we went with BJP in 2016 was because Modi visited Guwahati in 2014 and gave a public speech saying that if he got elected, the Bangladeshis staying in Assam would have to leave the state bag and baggage. Since people of the state have been angry with the AGP for not able to anything substantial to implement the Accord and solve the state’s foreigner issue, we thought if we join hands with an anti-foreigner party, it will be good for us.

During the CAB protest, we joined hands with other regional parties of the Northeast to oppose it. Since we are also part of the NDA at the Centre, our behaviour and the voting pattern during the passage of the Bill in parliament was different. Certain party compulsions as part of the NDA are there.

Also read: Manipur Delimitation Raises Old Concerns Around Power Sharing and BJP’s Agenda

But the Centre has been sitting over the committee’s report for the last six months.

We are hopeful it will be implemented. Prior to the elections, we will put enough pressure on the BJP and the Central government to implement it. At the state level, the present government has taken some steps related to it, such as granting land deeds to landless indigenous people. The small tea growers are being encouraged to augment their business. We have recently taken a few steps towards protecting the Assamese language and also the other indigenous languages of the state. This government has reached out to the families of those who died during the Assam agitation, built a swahid smarak (martyr’s memorial) and parks. Also, the Central government is now more proactive in sealing the border with Bangladesh.

Some people may say we have indulged in opportunist politics, or for our own personal ambitions we returned to the government, but we want to do progressive jatiotabad. We had hit the streets to demand certain things, my children’s generation will also do the same but finally what will we gain from it? AGP has not given up its regional stand. It has a regional outlook, but a national outlook too.

You are the state’s agriculture minister. Agriculture is the mainstay of Assam. Several agri-based schemes have been launched. Recently, we noticed the chief minister speaking about reclaiming our pothar aru bozar (the fields and the bazaars). You were also seen speaking on those terms, asking singer Zubeen Garg to be the brand ambassador of the initiative to take up agri-based business. So, both the BJP and the AGP together will try to take credit for it in the coming elections?

The Sonowal-led government would collectively take credit for it. Of course, as the agriculture minister of this government, I have certain duties which I perform. When I became the minister in 2016, the department was in a terrible state. There was massive corruption. Today, it has become farmer-friendly. The Central government has awarded us twice for our schemes at the state level; we got an India Today award too.

Aside from the Central government schemes, the state government schemes like the Chief Minister’s Samagra Gramya Unnayan Scheme have been useful to rural people. We have also taken steps to set up or refurbish rice mills. During the coronavirus crisis, we realised all the more that Assam is an agricultural state and our economy is dependent on it. We will have to concentrate a lot on that sector. So many youths who had migrated to other states for menial work have returned now. We want to engage them along with those unemployed in the state but have land to do farming. We have also set up some farmers’ bazaar to provide an interface with buyers.

At the beginning of the national lockdown, we had registered a loss of Rs 40.8 crore in the agricultural sector but in the later stage of the lockdown, we succeeded in doing business worth Rs 350 crore. This includes exporting agri-products outside of the country. In the unlock period too, we have done business worth around Rs 400 crore. So far, as per initial estimate, there has been loss in agriculture worth about Rs 1,000 crore due to the several bouts of floods.  We are in the process of figuring out how to make up that loss.

There can be progress in the agri-sector if we succeed in creating a mindset in our youth to take up agriculture as a profession. Zubeen Garg had started farming in a small scale in 2018. He has many followers among youth. So I have requested him to be the ambassador for the initiative. The agri-horticulture sector can lead to an economic uplift in the state.

Talking about corruption, in 2016, soon after becoming agriculture minister, you had given a go-ahead to the state CID to proceed against at least 31 agriculture officers facing corruption charges. Any progress in those cases? Also, recently, there were reports in the local media about lapses in the PM Kisan scheme. Many undeserving people were listed as beneficiaries.

The enquiry in the earlier cases is on. The legal progress takes time. We are constantly monitoring so that corruption can’t take place anymore. About the PM Kisan lapses, I admit it happened. We have suspended some officers, have revised the beneficiary list, the chief minister has ordered an inquiry into the matter. We are also in the process of recovering the amount transferred to the wrongful beneficiaries. Corruption is deep-rooted in the state. It is not easy to get rid of it very easily.

Finally, the Assamese jatiotabad is hinged on language and culture. But lately, one observes that one’s religion is becoming an important component of it too. Do you want to comment on this shift?

I wouldn’t like to see Assamese jatiotabad from the prism of religion. It is not based on one’s religious faith. People from different linguistic and religious backgrounds have come together to form the Assamese identity and the sense of Jatiotabad. That is why I have mentioned earlier that we believe in progressive jatiotabad which includes people from all caste and creed, all jati janagusti, spanning across religions.