Aditya Sinha: Politics in the Wild Wild East

As 2016’s only Congress-BJP match-up, the Assam polls will likely be this year’s murkiest contest

I visited Assam to welcome 2016 and write my best books column but instead found a muddy, dirty battle underway that was unmissable. A former state minister named Nilamani Sen Deka bade 2015 a farewell by publicly calling Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “second wife”. Naturally, the state units of the BJP and the Congress brawled on Guwahati’s streets. I tossed aside the books column.

BJP members are felicitated on January 7, after being released on bail from jail for leading attacking Congressmen at the party headquarters, Rajiv Bhawan on December 28. Pic/PTI
BJP members are felicitated on January 7, after being released on bail from jail for leading attacking Congressmen at the party headquarters, Rajiv Bhawan on December 28. Pic/PTI

Of course, trashy gossip like Nilamani’s ought to be outrightly condemned, not just because it’s stale but because it does nothing to dislodge an anti-intellectual know-nothing like Ms Irani from a crucial ministry. Local newspapers and TV channels were outraged, some vapidly tut-tutting that it was against Assamese culture. Speaking of which, the hyper-pitch breathless commentary on Assamese TV news explains everything about Assam’s most famous son, Arnab. One channel repeatedly showed Nilamani laughing, his shoulders shaking, prompting my father-in-law to say that Nilamani resembled a monkey.

However, there is no doubt a method to Nilamani’s madness.

Nilamani is a close aide to chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who has been CM for 15 long and painful years of non-governance and apathy. He is lately given to utterances such as “I may be old but my blood is young”, and “If BJP has Hema Malini, we too have beautiful ministers”, all the while maintaining a zen-like inscrutability that makes voters wonder if it isn’t time he retired. Gogoi welcomed 2016 by calling the BJP a “party of killers”, so he is far from politically senile.

Normally, an incumbent like Gogoi would have zero chance of retaining power in the next Assembly election, which along with polls in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala, is due after April 14 (Bihu) but before May 24 (when the TN assembly’s term is over). Though Assam has the least Lok Sabha seats (14) it will be the most-watched simply because it is 2016’s only Congress vs BJP match-up. The two national parties figure nowhere in the other states (Congress may get dislodged from Kerala), and so Assam is a do-or-die battle for them.

Assam ought to have been a cakewalk for the BJP, but things haven’t gone well so far. First, the BJP’s image has been tarnished by the induction of ex-Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma and his gang of rowdies. It distresses BJP supporters no end because Himanta is a bully and is implicated in corruption cases. Also, he fancies himself as a future BJP CM, and his gang is bull-dozing the state unit, much to the chagrin of central minister Sarbananda Sonowal and local MP Bijoya Chakravarty. Trouble ahoy!

The “second wife” remark led Himanta et al to attack the local Congress party headquarters and 20 Congressmen were hurt. Himanta then fled to Bangladesh, not the favourite country of BJP’s Assamese supporters, and dared Gogoi to arrest him upon his return (Gogoi ignored him.) Ironically, Himanta had been Gogoi’s number two and would have been the successor; now the Congress has no choice but to stick with a near-comatose CM.

Second, the PM’s policies vis-à-vis Bangladesh — the exchange of enclaves, the citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus — have not gone down well in Assam where the issue isn’t Hindu-Muslim (even the 2012 Bodoland rioting was tribal-Muslim) but of foreigners inundating the Brahmaputra valley. The Assamese can’t reconcile the BJP pandering to Bangladeshis.

Third, inflation has not abated and the price-rise is blamed on Modi.

And fourth, the demographics of Assam — whose border districts’ population has helped the rise of a pro-Muslim party led by ittar king Badruddin Ajmal — prevent the BJP from winning an outright majority of seats.
This means the BJP, trying to turn the tide after Delhi and Bihar, will have no choice but to deploy Modi heavily during the election — he still has charisma, unlike the rest of his party — even if it does project a CM candidate in Assam.

Given that Modi will again be at the forefront, the other side will naturally try to tarnish his image. After all, personal attacks on his proxy Arun Jaitley worked in Delhi; and during the Bihar elections, after Modi ill-advisedly taunted Lalu Prasad’s daughter Misa, she pointed out that he had deserted his wife. Modi has no right to complain given the fact that he has a history of making vulgar personal attacks.

Finally, the Congress has hired Prashant Kishore, the strategist behind Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha win and Nitish’s 2015 Bihar win (Kishore is also a son-in-law of Assam). Though he doesn’t have much material to work with, given Gogoi’s blinding charisma, he’s already plastered Guwahati with posters that say, in Asomiya: “15 years of vishwaas, 15 years of vikaas”.

Thus begins a full-throated, no-holds-barred election battle of the year. For those who relish a street brawl, this one promises to 2016’s muddiest and murkiest.

Journalist and writer Aditya Sinha is the co-author of Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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