On 10 March, firebrand Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) leader and Sootea MLA Padma Hazarika filed a lawsuit in the Gauhati High Court challenging the party’s decision to expel him. The reason given for Hazarika’s expulsion was that he committed a “deliberate mistake” during the recent Rajya Sabha polls due to which his vote was rejected. He has challenged the cancellation of his vote and filed a 3 crore defamation suit against AGP publicity secretary Manoj Saikia for tainting his image.
This kind of squabble is nothing new in the AGP, a party once thought to have ignited the idea of regional politics in the country when it was spawned from a six-year-long anti-foreigners’ agitation between 1979 and 1985. But the homegrown party is battling for survival following its dipping popularity and a series of electoral debacles.
At a time when all the political parties in Assam are finalising their candidates to fight the 14 seats in the state, AGP leaders are fighting fire on multiple fronts. Former party chief Chandra Mohan Patowary and former minister Hitendra Nath Goswami have jumped ship and joined the BJP. The two senior leaders allege that party supremo and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has led the AGP to oblivion.
Hazarika’s vote was cancelled during the Rajya Sabha polls because he put a tick mark against the name of the candidate of his choice while the rule is to use a number as specified by the Election Commission. He decided to move court because he feels his expulsion was illegal.
“I was not served any show cause notice,” says Hazarika. “The party did not conduct an inquiry and I was not given a chance to defend myself.”
Hazarika’s fight with Mahanta has been a longstanding one. In 2012, the two leaders locked horns in the party president election, in which Mahanta prevailed. Last year, Hazarika called for a leadership change after the AGP’s poor showing in the Guwahati local body polls.
Apart from Hazarika, senior leaders such as Birendra Prasad Baishya, Ramendra Narayan Kalita and Hitendra Nath Goswami as well as nine members of the party’s executive committee and 15 members of its Guwahati city committee have resigned from their party posts.
There are indications that Patowary will contest the Lok Sabha polls on a BJP ticket from Barpeta constituency.
“I had been part of the AGP right from its inception and actively worked to strengthen the party,” he says. “I willingly sacrificed my personal ambition for the greater cause of the party. But after a series of political debacles, when I had asked the leadership to urgently implement certain changes, they ignored me.”
Before his exit, Patowary was keen to forge an alliance between the AGP and the BJP. While the BJP central leadership fancied a tie-up in a bid to corner the anti-incumbency votes, the state unit was dead against the idea. State BJP president Sarbananda Sonowal, who was once an AGP MP, had been active in triggering a series of desertions from his former party to the BJP fold. Thus, by poaching Patowary and Goswami, it seems the BJP has taken the initiative away from the AGP.
“We were keen on an alliance with the BJP to prevent the division of anti-Congress votes,” says Mahanta. “The AGP had performed poorly in the past but it has the capacity to do well in the Lok Sabha polls. Patowary was meeting BJP leaders to work out an alliance. But it seems he was actually negotiating for his future in the BJP.”
As a result, the stakes have increased against the party which ruled the state during 1985-1990 and 1996- 2001. “The AGP has failed the people of Assam,” says former leader Apurba Kumar Bhattacharyya. “The main mandate of the Assam agitation was to drive out illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The AGP has failed in this aspect because of the lack of political farsightedness.”
The AGP’s slide started in 2001, when the Tarun Gogoi led Congress trounced the party in the Assembly polls. In 2004, the AGP had a vote share of 19.95 percent. Five years later, it slipped to 12.61 percent. At the same time, its alliance partner, the BJP, managed to double its tally to four seats in the 2009 election.
This election will be an acid test. If the AGP fails to retain its lone seat, its annihilation will be complete.