Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lok-Sabha Elections in Assam: Waveless and Unpredictable

From India News Network (INN)
Guwahati, April 29, 2009
Isfaqur Rahman

The election scenario in Assam has been hazy and the prospects of the contending parties are still unpredictable. It has been a seemingly waveless election and the campaign largely media driven. There was, however, perceptible anti-incumbancy sentiment, if not wave, sweeping across the state.

Sporadic incidents of extremist violence and subversive activities became a cause of worry on the eve of the elections. The stepped up extremist offensives of the banned outfits in Karbi-Anglong and North Cachar vitiated the atmosphere and affected electioneering in the two hill districts. In the Brahmaputra valley, too, the situation was not quite condusive, free and fair. Stray but frequent incidents of bomb-blasts and extremist attacks left several persons dead in the run-up to the elections. In the capital city of Guwahati alone, at least 10 persons were killed since the announcement of the poll schedule.

Of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam, the ruling Congress put up its candidates in 13 seats leaving one seat — Kokrajhar to its coalition partner — the Bodo People's Front (BPF). However, the BPF has fielded its own candidate in Mangaldoi LS constituency against the Congress nominee and the two parties are engaged in 'friendly' fight in the seat. In the 2006 Assembly polls, the Hagrama Mahilary-led BPF won 11 of the 126 seats and extended support to Mr. Tarun Gogoi-led Congress-BPF coalition government.

Although the BJP has been licking its wounds inflicted by its former allies in most States, it has been able to thrash out an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam. The AGP has been forced to become a junior partner by getting only six of the 14 LS seats. The regional party has still been facing hit from a substantial section of its workers and supporters who were angry with the leadership for joining hands with the communal BJP. The AGP is on the backfoot for the unholy alliance and the issue has virtually become a thorn in the flesh of its leadership. Although it has stitched up an alliance with the BJP, the regional party still maintains that it is not a constituent of the BJP-led NDA.

The Rabiram Narzary-led Bodo People's Progressive Front (BPPF) has snapped its ties with the AGP on the eve of the elections. Cracks had appeared in the two party alliance after AGP joined hands with the BJP and decided to put up its own candidate for the Kokrajhar seat. The unprincipled alliance and opportunistic position of the AGP harmed secular-unity in the State.

Barring the left Parties and the relatively new Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF), the non-Congress and non-BJP opposition Parties have little presence and influence in the State. The CPI(M) is the strongest among the left in terms of organisation and influence, area and base. The party tried to consolidate the left unity and to work out seat-sharing arrangements with other secular parties to ensure the defeat of the Congress-BPF and the BJP-AGP combines.

The non-BJP and non-Congress parties, popularly called third force, represented by the CPI(M), CPI, NCP, AUDF and BPPF have tried to build up unity and enter into electoral adjustments. Several rounds of bi-lateral and multi-lateral discussions were also held and it had evoked wide response among the voters who were disenchanted with the ruling Congress-led dispensation and who were not willing to go with the AGP-BJP combine. The seat sharing arrangements, however, could not be properly and smoothy materialised. The big-brotherly and intransigent attitude of the AUDF was largely responsible for the crack in unity among the parties. The unilateral declaration of candidatures by the AUDF before the finalisation of the seat sharing deal hampered the prospects of the third force.

The CPI(M) decided to contest in three seats — Barpeta, Tezpur and Silchar. While the talks were in progress, the AUDF unilaterally fielded its own candidates in all the three seats claimed by the CPI(M). In the Guwahati seat, too, despite a formal agreement to leave the seat to the NCP, the AUDF hurriedly decided to put up its own candidate at the last hour of filing nomination papers. However, despite the internal contradictions and fragile unity, the emergence of the third force has made the contests triangular.

The CPI(M) has put up candidates in three constituencies. It has fielded Durge Deka for the Barpeta seat, Jiten Sundi for the Tezpur seat and Deepak Bhattacharyya for the Silchar seat. Twice represented by senior party leader Uddhab Barman, in 1991 and 1996, the prestigious Barpeta seat is presently represented by the Congress. In the 2004 elections, the Congress candidate A.F. Golam Osmani, who passed away on March 31 last following protracted illness, won the seat. The Tezpur seat is presently held by M. K. Subba of the Congress and the Silchar seat is represented by Union Minister and Congress leader Santosh Mohan Dev.

The CPI (M) has extended support to the CPI candidates in Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Lakhimpur LS seats. It has also supported the Forward Block candidate for the Nagaon seat. The Party had decided to back the NCP candidates in Guwahati and Autonomous District (Diphu) seats while extending support to the BPPF candiates in Kokrajhar and Mangaldoi seats. For the remaining three seats at Dhubri, Karimganj and Kaliabor, the CPI(M) appealed to the voters to cast their votes in favour of non-Congress secular parties.

The AUDF has put up candidates in nine of the 14 LS seats with its president Badruddin Ajmal contesting from two seats — Silchar and Dhubri. Perfume baron Ajmal's brother Sirajuddin Ajmal is also contesting from two seats of the Nagaon and Kaliabor. Both the brothers are presently members of the Assam Assembly. The AUDF with a sizeable minority support base has emerged as a threat to the poll prospects of the ruling Congress in Assam. The State, a traditional Congress bastion has nine MPs from the ruling party. But the emergence of relatively new AUDF since the last Assembly elections in 2006 has made the going difficult for the Congress and it wil certainly spoil the chances of the Congress candidates in a number of seats. The Congress has alleged that the AUDF had entered into a 'secret understanding' with the AGP-BJP combine to defeat the ruling party in the parliamentary polls.

Issues Ignored by Major Parties

The performance of the Tarun Gogoi-led coalition government in Assam has been disappointing. The neo-liberal economic policies of the UPA government has been spelling disaster in the backward State. Now the Congress has been facing a challenging task as most of the 14 LS seats are set to witness triangular contest involving the Congress-BPF coalition. BJP-AGP combine and the Parties of the third force.

In the 2004 elections, the Congress won nine seats while the AGP and the BJP captured two seats each. One seat went to an independent candidate, backed by the All Bodo Students' Union, who later joined the BPF. The Congress secured 35.07 per cent of votes, the BJP 22.94 per cent and the AGP 19.25 per cent.

The run-up to the Lok Sabha elections has made many in the State question the stances of major parties vis-a-vis crucial issues which they believe should have been in the centre of political debate and discussions, but which have either been marginalised or simply ignored. The Congress, BJP and the AGP were least concerned with the issues concerning people and were indulging in mud-slinging and petty quarrels.

The AGP-BJP combine had little in common on the issues confronting the State. The BJP's views on issues like illegal migration, re-structuring of centre-state relations etc. are not similar with the views expressed by the AGP. On the development of Assam, too, the six-year rule of the BJP-led dispensation had done precious little. The BJP leader L. K. Advani had choosen Kheroni in Karbi-Anglong as the venue of his first election rally in Assam and said, his Party was sympathetic to the demand for the creation of two autonomous districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills as an Autonomous State within Assam under the provision of Article 244-A of the Constitution. This would, in fact, mean another division of Assam. The BJP's stance on this issue exposed its oppotunistic readiness to make any compromise to win power. It is widely believed, BJP's money power had a big role in stitching up an alliance with the AGP. The alliance, however, suffered a jolt when the nomination of the BJP candidate for the Dhubri constituency was rejected on the ground that he had not submitted the mandatory A-B forms along with the nomination papers.

BPF chief Hagrama Mahilary has stated that the extremist outfit NDFB, currently under ceasefire agreement, helped some Congress candidates for the current Lok Sabha elections in lieu of money. Interestingly, the BPF is a coalition partner of the ruling Congress. Mr. Mahilary, who is also the chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), accused the NDFB of helping some BJP and AUDF candidates in the elections in lieu of money. He also revealed that he himself had paid money to the NDFB in 2004 LS polls. The extremist outfit, too, issued statements and admitted that it supported Congress candidate at Tezpur and BJP candidates at Mangaldoi and Guwahati for the current elections. However, the Congress, the BJP and the AUDF are yet to make any official reaction to the accusation that the NDFB helped some of the candidates of the respective parties in exchange of money.

CPI(M) Highlights People's Sufferings

Apart from popularising the national issues incorporated in the CPI(M) Manifesto, the State unit of the Party also published an appeal to the electorate and focussed on certain state-specific issues the people are confronted with.
The State-specific issues were : speedy development of Assam with priority in infrastructure and employment generation, rapid industrialisation on the basis of huge natural resources, solution to the problems of floods and erosion and expansion of irrigation facilities, sealing of Indo-Bangla border and updating of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC), proper implementation and expansion of the NREGA schems, solutions to the problems of terrorism and extremism etc.

The CPI(M) Polit Bureau members, Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat adressed a number of well organised election rallies alongwith the state-leaders in Tezpur and Barpeta constituencies. CPI(M) central secretariat member Nilotpal Bosu and central committee members Badal Chaudhury, Tapan Sen and Noorul Huda also participated in electioneering in the three constituencies where CPI(M) has fielded candidates. Similarly, former M.P. Deepankar Mukherjee, Rajya Sabha member Moinul Hussain and DYFI General Secretary Tapas Sinha addressed election meetings in the state.

A day after Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat hit the roads to campaign for the CPI(M) candidates for the Barpeta and Tezpur constituencies, Sitaram Yechury addressed two election meetings at Manikpur and Bongaigaon on April 19 in support of the party nominee Durge Deka.

Addressing the huge gatherings, Sitaram Yechury said, "for the sake of Assam's development, I request you all to usher in a change in the political scenario by voting for the CPI(M)". He further added, the third forces had put its full strength and effort to bring the real issues — growing job losses, agrarian crisis, price rise and corruption — before the people and it was finding growing support among the people. He asserted that only a third alternative could ensure India's political, social and economic transformation.

Brinda Karat, addressing rallies at Dhekiajuli, Balipara, Jamuguri, Tezpur, Chamata and Pathsala under Tezpur and Barpeta LS seats on April 17 and 18 exuded confidence that the third forces were all set to form an alternative government at the centre. Warning that the continuance of the Congress government would spell doom for the whole country, Brinda urged the people to vote for the CPI(M) and the secular forces which aimed at protecting the farmers, working class, rural people, women and youth.

CCM Tapan Sen addressed meetings at Bahari in Barpeta and at Tezpur on 30-31 March. Ex-MP Deepankar Mukherjee campaigned at Bongaigaon, Kayakuchi, Kalgachia, Mandia , Pathsala and Barpeta Town on 3-5 April. Nilotpal Bosu addressed well-attended meetings at Dhekiajuli, Rangapara, Biswanath Chariali and Tezpur on 8-9 April. The Silchar constituency in Barak Valley was covered and election meetings were addressed by Tripura Minister and CCM Badal Chaudhury, CCM Noorum Huda and DYFI General Secretary Tapas Sinha. Rajya Sabha member Moinul Husain addressed meetings at Kalgachia, Barbala, Palhaji etc. under Barpeta seat on April 19. Most of the meetings were also attended and addressed by senior state leaders of the Party including the two CCMs — Uddhab Barman and Hemen Das.

Polling By And Large Peaceful : Stray Incidents of Violence

An estimated 69.51 per cent votes were cast for the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam. The two phase elections, scheduled for April 16 and 23, came to a close when polling for the second and final phase was over on April 23. There were 1,74,68,958 electors for the 14 seats. A total of 158 candidates were in the fray.
In the first phase of polling in three constituencies that went to polls on April 16, 64.37 per cent votes were cast in Karimganj LS seat, 70.60 per cent in Silchar seat and 69.36 per cent in Diphu seat. The polling was marred by sporadic incidents of rigging and snatching of EVMs. There were reports of clashes between the workers of the Congress and the AUDF at North Hailakandi under Karimganj LS constituency. Polling was by and large peaceful in the two hill districts of Karbi-Anglong and North Cachar under Autonomous District (Diphu) constituency that witnessed a spurt in extremist violence during the run-up to the polls.

69.82 per cent votes were cast in the second and final phase of polling on April 23 for the remaining 11 seats. However, 12 booths under four LS constituencies of Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Dhubri and Tezpur recorded nil polling with the voters boycotting to register protest against local problems. The second phase of polling, too, was by and large peaceful barring stray incidents of violence, rigging attempts and group clashes. In one incident of violence on the polling day, miscreants hacked to death a district leader of the AUDF at a place under Mornoi police station of Dhubri LS constituency. A host of senior Bodo leaders, including sitting MP and candidate for the Kokrajhar constituency S.K. Bwismuthiary, ducked indiscriminate bullets and escaped as miscreants fired on a convoy near Panbari under Gosaigaon P.S. in Kokrajhar district on April 24, a day after the polling.

The repoll in 14 polling stations under Kokrajhar, Mangaldoi and Jorhat parliamentary constituencies passed off peacefully on April 26 with an estimated 64.66 per cent polling amid tight security. Repoll was also held in five booths where first phase of polling was held.

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