The recent assembly elections in Assam, with results out in mid-May, represent a turning point in the state’s political evolution. New outfits are jostling for political space with the older ones, and in many cases replacing them. The discourse that has dominated state politics for decades seems to be gradually taking new contours. An erstwhile militant group has successfully joined mainstream democratic politics. And ‘minority politics’ has made its presence felt. Moreover, beating the anti-incumbency trend, the Congress (I) has returned to power in the state, albeit with a diminished mandate. To understand these trends, it is important to locate them in their specific state contexts and to trace the micro-processes that influenced the poll outcome.
Since 1979, the issue of illegal large-scale immigration from Bangladesh has dominated the political discourse in Assam. In 1983, when the Congress (I) was in power at the Centre, the Indian Parliament passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, or IMDT, a controversial legislation on immigration applicable only to the state of Assam. Under the Act, the onus of proving the citizenship credentials of a person lies with the complainant and the police, not the accused. Since then, elections have been fought with parties aligned on either side of the IMDT divide. The Congress and the Left parties have supported the act, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other regional outfits like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had opposed it.
The IMDT Act dominated the 2006 elections as well. The emphasis was not the Act itself, but the fact that the Supreme Court had struck it down as unconstitutional, following a petition by Sarbananda Sonowal, a former president of the All-Assam Student’s Union and a sitting member of Parliament of the AGP. The court found that the IMDT and its rules had been so made that insurmountable difficulties were created in identification and deportation of illegal migrants. This once again polarised the political arena; but ironically, this time the Congress was put on the other side of the IMDT fence.
In an effort to retain its vote base among the immigrant Muslims, the Congress rushed through an ordinance that was almost a carbon copy of the IMDT. Despite this, many minority organisations blamed Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and the Congress for not doing enough to retain the Act. As a consequence, a conglomerate of 13 mainly Muslim organisations came together and formed a party called the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), led by perfume dealer and business tycoon Badruddin Ajmal. This party did not make a secret of its support to the IMDT or its resolve to fight for the cause of the minorities.
Logically, this should have made the AUDF natural allies of the Congress, which all along had been championing the minority cause. Instead, the AUDF was seen cozying up to the regional parties such as the AGP, whose raison d’etre was to oppose illegal immigration. Such a dual strategy, AUDF hoped, would prevent the Congress from winning in minority pockets, as well as negate the logic of the emergence of anti-immigrant outfits like the AGP. Interestingly, though the Congress has traditionally played the politics of minority vote-banks, this time around it made no major effort to woo the AUDF. Instead, it signed a pre-poll pact with the indigenous political formation, the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (Hagrama faction), or BPPF(H), a party made up mainly of former militants of the dreaded Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT).
The irony of the political realignment was not lost on anyone, least of all the electorate, which the election results clearly demonstrated. The BPPF(H) succeeded in winning 12 seats, and its support was crucial in ensuring a second consecutive term for the Congress. The 24 seats won by the AGP was less than half the seats that Congress did. At the same time, though the Congress retained power, its vote share declined to just over 31 percent, from nearly 40 percent in 2001. This reduction may be partly explained by the formation of the AUDF. The new formation won 10 seats, eight of which it wrested from the Congress.
The fact that the Congress refused to align itself with the AUDF greatly endeared itself to the indigenous voters. Moreover, the party also seemed significantly committed to bringing the militant groups to the negotiating table. That the former BLT militants could give up arms and ally with the Congress made the latter’s commitment to peace all the more credible. In addition, there was hope that with the Congress return to power, the talks between the government of India and the ULFA-nominated People’s Consultative Committee would continue unhindered.
For its part, the performance of the AUDF in the Assam elections also had a national impact. Syed Ahmed Bukari, the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, even suggested a national front of minority political groups along the lines of the AUDF in Assam. Even as the other groups were banking on the AUDF to be the lynchpin of such a formation, the outfit decided to play it safe and maintain a distance. Neither the AUDF nor its leader, Ajmal, seem prepared to act as the catalyst for the nationwide Muslim Front.
This reluctance on the part of the AUDF stems from the party’s conscious effort to shed its image of being a party of the minorities. Instead, AUDF is keen to call itself a “party for deprived ethnic groups in Assam”. ‘Minority’ in Assam, after all, has always meant the immigrant Muslims, and not all of the state’s Muslims. A small yet influential section of the state’s citizens profess the Muslim faith and speak the Assamiya language, and they are averse to being dubbed minorities whose mother tongue is Bengali. Political formations carrying the minority tag have never succeeded in occupying anything but the peripheral space in Assam’s politics.
The AUDF seems to have realised this fact, though belatedly. It was probably hoping to play a pivotal role in the government formation, as it was anticipated that no political party would command a majority in the house. In the new political realignment, however, parties of the indigenous people, as those of the Bodos, came to grab the political limelight. The BPPF(H) not only gave the Congress the numbers to form the government, but also reinforced the matter of indigenous legitimacy in government formation. The fact that an erstwhile militant force emerged as the key to the power battle so soon after joining democratic politics may just hold lessons for other armed groups across the region.