Can Congress-AIUDF dethrone the BJP in Assam? 

The Congress in Assam has said it favours a pre-poll alliance with all anti-BJP parties for the assembly election scheduled early next year. This includes the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). “We are entering into an alliance with the AIUDF in the greater interest of the people of Assam,” Congress veteran and former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi said.

Interestingly, Gogoi had, in the run-up to the 2006 state election, ridiculed Ajmal’s political existence, asking: “Who is Badruddin?” Floated in 2005 by the Assam-born and Mumbai-based perfume baron, the AIUDF was contesting elections for the first time. Ajmal set up the party soon after the Supreme Court in 2005 struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983. The court was acting on a PIL filed by Sarbananda Sonowal, then Lok Sabha MP from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and now the BJP chief minister of Assam. The PIL argued that the IMDT Act made the detection of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh almost impossible.

Ajmal launched the AIUDF on the plank of protecting Muslims from harassment in the name of identifying illegal settlers. The party won 10 out of the 126 seats in the 2006 Assam assembly election. In 2011, it won 18 seats, becoming the largest opposition party in the assembly. In 2016, the AIUDF won 13 seats.

In the past, Gogoi had called the AIUDF a “communal” party and a “B team of the BJP” that fields candidates to eat away Congress votes. Most Congress leaders, including Gogoi, believed an alliance with the AIUDF, perceived as a party protecting immigrant Muslims, could mean a loss of Hindu votes, more so given the BJP’s attempt at communal polarisation. The BJP, on the other hand, has often alleged a secret Congress-AIUDF pact. While there have been murmurs about such an alliance, the Congress and AIUDF never had a formal arrangement for the assembly or Lok Sabha election.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, the Congress won three of the total 14 seats, all in the minority-dominated areas. In two of these seats, the AIUDF did not field any candidate, indicating perhaps an unofficial understanding. The ‘friendship’ was out in the open this March when Gogoi and Ajmal walked out of the state assembly, hand in hand, after filing the nomination of the Congress-AIUDF joint candidate, senior journalist Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, for the Rajya Sabha election.

The Congress now seeks to formalise its understanding with the AIUDF, taking a U-turn from its previously stated position. Political observers see this move as a combination of both the party’s desperation and hope. Since the 2014 general election, the Congress has failed to win any election in Assam—losing even civic body and gram panchayat polls. The party’s three-seat tally in the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections is its lowest ever in the state. The Congress won 26 seats in the 2016 assembly election, which was among its worst performances (it had won an identical tally in 1978 and 1985). The Congress had been keeping off an alliance with the AIUDF to avoid losing majority Hindu votes, even if that meant a division of votes among Muslims, who constitute about 35 per cent of Assam’s population.

Now, however, the Congress foresees a new electoral arithmetic following the intense anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) agitation in the state. Last December, the Union government passed the controversial citizenship law, which seeks to provide Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Though this provision covers refugees from the three Islamic countries, Assamese-speaking people in Assam feared it would primarily benefit the illegal Bengali-Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, who they think have settled in the state in high numbers. As a result, the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley had erupted in protest against the CAA, though the agitation fizzled out with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Sensing an anti-BJP mood among the Assamese-speaking people because of CAA, the Congress feels an alliance with the AIUDF will not be as damaging as it could have been in the past. There are 36 assembly constituencies in the state where Assamese-speaking people determine the electoral verdict. The AIUDF is not a player in these seats and the battle is between the Congress and the BJP-AGP alliance. The Congress hopes to at least triple its tally in these seats from four in 2016. Overall, if the Congress-AIUDF alliance can avoid a division of votes in the 33 Muslim-dominated assembly seats, it can look at a tally of at least 40 seats. “I agree, they (Congress-AIUDF) can win 45 seats without much difficulty across Assam,” says a senior BJP leader.

However, these calculations are theoretical for now. There are several hurdles to cross before the Congress and AIUDF can clinch a deal. Though Gogoi and Assam Congress president Ripun Bora have shown enthusiasm for an alliance with the AIUDF, several party colleagues oppose it. They fear a backlash from indigenous Hindu voters, especially in the seven upper Assam districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Charaideo, Majuli, Jorhat and Golaghat. They believe this will mean playing into the hands of the BJP and helping the saffron party polarise the elections all the more.

The BJP has already begun attacking the Congress over the proposed alliance. “I am deeply concerned at the way the Congress is rolling out the red carpet and opening its doors to Ajmal, who is a threat to Assam’s culture and identity,” said Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s key man in the Northeast and once Gogoi’s most-trusted aide. The communal overtone was evident in Sarma’s attack. He said the name of the state Congress headquarters in Guwahati would change from Rajiv Bhawan to “Ajmal Bhawan” and “another kind of meat” would be served, apart from chicken and mutton during feasts. Sarma also said that given his age, Gogoi, 85, should seek “Ram and Krishna”, but had chosen to seek Ajmal.

The BJP’s assault aside, the Congress leadership will also have to contend with internal dissent as an alliance with the AIUDF will mean tickets being denied to several party leaders. The two parties will have to work out a seat-sharing formula, which is easier said than done. While the AIUDF will want to keep most of the Muslim-dominated seats, it has very little to offer to the Congress in most of the upper Assam and tribal-dominated constituencies.

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