Existential crisis for Assam’s only regional party

FPJ BureauUpdated: Wednesday, May 29, 2019, 12:33 AM IST
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People in Assam are confused by the AGP’s (Asom Gana Parishad) sudden decision to back the BJP coalition and fight national elections together. After leading the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and walking out of the government this sudden somersault has stumped the Assamese.

More so because the BJP has made it clear that if it is returned to power at the Centre, the Citizenship Bill will brought in again. The BJP has made no bones about this as party President Amit Shah as well as other senior leaders has openly said so. So what made the AGP rethink its stand and go back to the BJP fold?

It is an existential crisis for Assam’s only regional party. Fighting elections without the BJP was an impossible task, considering the party is bankrupt. Getting back to the coalition was imperative for the AGP because elections need financing. Though many believe that the party had committed hara-kiri and would eventually be reduced to a minor player in the state, it has little option. After all elections cannot be fought without adequate money for the campaign. In Assam, as in the rest of the eastern states, most of the big businesses are run by Marwari traders.

Most of them are loyal supporters of the BJP. They would not go out of their way to fund the AGP in a big way, though it is common practice to hedge their bets and distribute money to all parties. So one reason for getting back to the BJP are the empty party coffers. Though initially AGP’s former chief minister Prafulla Mahanta opposed the decision and said so publicly, he later toned down his criticism. He had earlier rejected the BJP’s offer to be made governor of a state. IS this the end of the road for the AGP?

In politics one can never tell. But how will the AGP, which hit the streets and mobilized support against the amendment bill explain to an angry public that it now had no objections. The AGP stand against the Bill was winning it traction from the local Assamese. But even with support parties need funds. For most parts AGP will try to push the Citizenship issue under the carpet. But as the BJP in the Bengali dominated Cachar areas will possibly woo voters by promising to bring in the Citizenship amendments if returned to power, it will be a tough call for the AGP.

The Assamese are as much against illegal Bengali Hindus as they are against Bengali Muslims. But the BJP see’s this differently. The amendments introduced by the government to the Citizenship Bill gives easy citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from neighbouring Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. The BJP argument is that while Muslims have other countries to go to, Hindus have no option. It is a spurious argument and goes the spirit of the Indian Constitution, but that is another matter.

What will work for the BJP is the visible signs of improvement in infrastructure that has come up in the last five years. Though many of these projects were started by the Congress, they have been completed at breath neck speed by the BJP government. The BJP has also focused hugely on the north east, with an eye to getting all 25 seats of the region in the 2019 elections.

Whether the voters will be persuaded by the BJP’s development agenda remains to be seen. The Congress which had previously deep roots in the north east, is now being seen especially in Assam as a corrupt party. Assamese middle class have been quite opposed to the Congress. However much of the tribals and large numbers of Bengali Muslims have faith in the Congress. How all this plays out remains to be seen.

The fact is the AGP’s fortunes have been on the decline since the emergence of the BJP as a powerful force in Assam. The AGP grew out of the anti foreigners student movement which swept the state from 1979-1985. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) had spearheaded a popular mass agitation to rid Assam from immigrants, slipping into Assam in search of work from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The students were supported by local Assamese speakers as well as indigenous tribals and other groups living in the state. The students accused the ruling Congress party of entering the alleged foreigners into the electoral rolls, and using them as vote banks.

From the beginning, the AASU got the backing of the then BJP opposition leaders. Bigwigs of the party including Atal Bihari Vajapyee, L K Advani, Jaswant Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi were frequent visitors to Assam. All of them were there to lend support to the student leaders in their fight to rid the state of foreigners. The Assam Accord of 1985, brought the agitation to an end and propelled the student leaders to power. However the accord’s promise of detection and deportation of foreign nationals remained unfulfilled. Very few people were handed back to Bangladesh.

In 2014, when Narendra Modi campaigned in Assam he spoke of throwing out all illegal Bengali Muslim immigrants into the Bay of Bengal, bag and baggage. While this was rhetoric, people of Assam believed that a BJP government unlike the Congress was not dependent on immigrant votes and would act against foreign nationals. Now, the Hindu card that the BJP has raised is reviving fears of the indigenous Assamese getting the wrong end of the stick.

Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.

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