The Assam Battlefield

Stage is set for Assam to take a call on who it would elect for the next 5 years.

Deepak Nagpal

Assam is going to polls in two phases on April 4 and 11. And the elections could not have come at a better time for the north-eastern state when the entire nation is being swept by the latest trend in Indian politics: vote for development. Amply visible in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India with low level of literacy among the masses, the trend is likely to continue in Assam as well.

As anywhere else in the country, basic issues like development, education, growth, price rise, corruption etc. are likely to dominate the election campaign and the voters’ mind over the next few weeks. The illegal migration issue too has always been a major factor in Assam politics, as also the ULFA-internal peace equation.

Congress, which has been in power for the last two consecutive terms, is facing the anti-incumbency factor, mostly on the issue of not-up-to-the-mark performance. While its efforts in improving healthcare and transportation facilities in the state have been widely acknowledged, the main issues dogging the state government include rising prices of essential commodities (like in other parts of India), failure to tackle large-scale corruption (now synonymous with any aspect of Indian life), and lack of inclusive development, including in the education sector.

Unemployment and poverty too continue to be major polls factor here. Statistics suggest that half of the state’s population still lives below the poverty line, compared to national average of 25 per cent.

Assam is abundantly rich in natural resources but the consecutive governments (Congress and others) have failed to utilize them to pump up the local economy and usher in sustainable growth. The vicious circle of poverty, population growth and unemployment has Assam caught in a tangle.

Couple the high unemployment rate among the youth with price rise, and you get a situation where it becomes difficult to survive. Such kind of situation was the main reason why many youth joined the ULFA when it came into existence in the late 70s demanding a sovereign state.

While the ruling Congress may approach voters by taking credit for renewed hopes of peace post Centre-ULFA talks, the opposition BJP would play up the threat to national security by illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

Turning to the recent ULFA-Centre peace talks, it all started when almost the entire top ULFA leadership was nabbed by Bangladesh in late 2009 by the Sheikh Hasina government and handed over to India. This was the second crucial blow to ULFA after the 2003 Bhutan operation. The subsequent release from jail of ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and his men paved way for talks with the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre, this time without any pre-conditions (read demand for sovereignty) for the first time in history.

However, many continue to remain sceptical with the insurgent group’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah still at large (believed to be hiding in China or Myanmar) and steadfastly opposing any move for peace. The recent grenade attack on local Congress office in Guwahati and the ambush killing of nine BSF troopers – the first suspected to have been carried out by the anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the other by the anti-talk faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) – clearly show the road to peace is still rocky for Assam, which has in the recent past been hit by deadly blasts and militant strikes.

This is why incumbent Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, while filing his nomination papers, appealed to Paresh Baruah faction of ULFA to abjure violence and join the peace process, clearly knowing any step-up in attacks before polls could derail his plans for a possible re-election.

It should also be noted that the pro-talks faction of ULFA, while agreeing to come to the talks’ table without any pre-conditions (did it have any other option when the entire leadership was behind bars), has made it clear that it will not participate in the forthcoming Assembly polls.

As regards the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, the people of Assam feel cheated by political parties which have repeatedly used it to win their votes (AGP/Asom Gana Parishad used it to claim power in 1985) but have so far done nothing to deal with it. And it is a well-known fact that most political parties in Assam depend on illegal migrants for crucial votes.

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has even gone on to ask all the political parties to take a pledge to give up their hopes for getting votes of the foreign nationals and to implement the Assam Accord within a specific time frame if voted to power. Under the Accord, all the migrants (irrespective of their religions) who arrived in India after March 25, 1971 should be deported back.

But political parties are what they are. BJP has already said that the problem of infiltration of foreigners would be its main poll issue in Assam. The saffron party, which has the "3D - detect, delete and deport - formula" to deal with the issue, has even gone on to categorise the migrants, with its Assam in-charge Vijay Goel saying Bangladeshi Muslims should be seen as infiltrators and deported back while Bangladeshi Hindus should be registered as voters in the state. The result: a new votebank for the BJP!

The ruling Congress, which has always been accused of appeasing the minority section, is not staying far behind either. CM Gogoi has already said that he will approach the Centre to seek legal ‘refugee’ status for the displaced Bengali Hindus who fled Bangladesh fearing persecution, even after the cut-off year of 1971. The CM may claim he would do so on ‘humanitarian’ grounds but the statistics make it clear that Bengali Hindus are an important votebank in at least 10 Assembly seats in the Barak Valley and 15 more in the Brahmaputra Valley.

The issue of corruption will also play a major role in the upcoming elections. Like in any other part of India, corruption has become a way of life in Assam too and the common man here has to shell out money like anything to get simple things done in a government office.

While national scams like the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum allocation are also playing on the Assamese voters’ mind, local siphoning of money is what is bothering them more. The Gogoi government has allegedly been involved in many scams, with the multi-crore North Cachar Hill scam grabbing the most headlines. Others include the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council scam and Irrigation Department scam. All three were brought to light in the past one year, putting Gogoi on a sticky wicket.

The Comptroller and Auditor General had detected misappropriation in the Assam government’s Budget, saying more money was being pumped in than what was allocated in the Budget for the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council.

The National Investigating Agency, which deals with terror related crimes, has even claimed that the millions of rupees siphoned off in the North Cachar Hill scam, went straight to the coffers of a separatist group, Jewel Garlosa faction of the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD-J).

The opposition is also likely to play the Manmohan card in the upcoming polls. Manmohan Singh, a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam, will face scrutiny in the election campaign with the BJP likely to approach voters ruing that even the Prime Minister of the country, who represents the state in the Upper House of Parliament, could not ensure development here. How much importance voters accord to this issue is another matter.

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