Election 2011 in Assam is perhaps the most keenly contested elections that the state has seen in the post-independence period. The demographic pattern of the state is so diverse that it is extremely difficult for a single party to claim support of all sections of the society.
Theoretically, the Congress has a slight edge over other political parties as it is a centrist party and plays all primordial cards depending on context and population pattern. For example, the powerful minister and the star campaigner of the Congress, Himanta Biswa Sarma, utilizes all arsenals of communalism to woo Muslim voters, whereas chief minister Tarun Gogoi did a somersault by declaring that the issue of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh is to be systematically considered as they are victims to discrimination.
Gearing up: Election officers in Guwahati arrange electronic voting machines ahead of the Assam election.
In all probability, the Congress is likely to face unprecedented challenge in upper Assam from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); in northern, central and lower Assam from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP); and in Barak valley from the All India United Democratic Front (AUDF) and the BJP.
The AUDF, supposedly representing the interest of the immigrants from Bangladesh, is likely to erode the hitherto substantial vote base of the Congress. Congress stalwarts at the behest of Digvijay Singh make the last ditch effort to woo the AUDF to come for a post-electoral alliance in case of a hung assembly.
The Congress faces challenge from its ruling partner Bodo People’s Front (BPF) as they are contesting each other in various Bodo-dominated areas. The BPF made it absolutely clear that if the Congress fails to acquire the required numbers, they will prefer an AGP-BJP combination to form a government.
The premier opposition party, the AGP, is much stronger this time as all factions of the party have come together for a united fight against the Congress. The party has forged a pre-poll alliance with various tribal and ethnic groups of Assam such as the Bodos (another Bodo party—the Bodo People’s Progressive Front); the Gana Shakti, which represents the second largest plain tribe of Assam (the Mishings); and the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) representing hill tribes from Karbi Anglong.
The party, which had an electoral understanding with the BJP in previous elections, has decided to snap the ties with the saffron party. However, there are unconfirmed reports that both the AGP and the BJP are in a tactical alliance to defeat the Congress.
To be sure, these are combinations and permutations contemplated by various political parties. What are the issues of election 2011 in Assam?
Research and Development Initiative (RDI) undertook a comprehensive opinion survey in Assam from 20 January 2010 to 25 February 2011. The survey covered all 126 assembly segments. A representative sample of 37,800 registered voters was drawn from across the state giving due representation to urban and rural pockets as well as social groups.
The sample was evenly spread across all 126 assembly segments. After the price rise, unemployment has emerged very strongly—as many as 38.8% respondents mentioned it, followed by corruption by 27.1% respondents. People are facing many other problems, but the price rise, unemployment and corruption bother people so much that they seem to have forgotten their other problems. Other issues, which have emerged in the survey, are electricity (7.5%), bad roads (5.9%), drinking water (5.1%), militancy (4.9%), illegal migration (3.7%) and law and order (3.5%).
Unemployment is a problem everywhere, but it has emerged more strongly in lower and central Assam. Similarly, corruption is a bigger issue in Barak Valley and upper Assam. Though militancy is no more considered a problem in the state, as many as 15% repondents referred to it in Barak Valley.
Illegal migration bothers more people in upper Assam and bad roads in Barrak Valley. Militancy stands out in the autonomous district with 52% respondents referring to it as their biggest everyday problem. Unemployment stands out in Dhubri, Guwahati and Mangaldoi.
Thus, the most potential issues that can go against the ruling party include the price rise, unemployment and corruption. But how far will these issues translate into effective voting against the ruling party? The Congress’ basic plank is development for the poor people, which effectively means free distribution of mosquito nets, blankets and heavily subsidized rice to people below the poverty line.
However, objective assessments, particularly the human development report, put Assam at the bottom of all north-eastern states in the region and an India Today report in November put Assam as among the worst governed states in India.
The biggest issue, which has of late become the most potent issue against the ruling Congress, is rampant corruption in the state. Akhil Gogoi, perhaps the most popular civil society leader who has become popular nationwide by utilizing the Right to Information Act, has mobilized public opinion against corruption at the behest of the ruling party. A safer conclusion will be that the Congress is in a retreat.
The author is an associate professor of political science at Gauhati University.
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