POLL VAULT 2011

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1. ASSAM

The Congress Is Doing A BJP Here

CM Tarun Gogoi is desperately wooing the Hindu voters in southern Assam, says Ratnadip Choudhury

1.ASSAM 2.WEST BENGAL 3.TAMIL NADU

THE DESPERATION in the ruling Congress was evident when Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi tried to reach out to a vote bank that the party has traditionally not paid much attention to. “The Bengali Hindus of Assam deserve refugee status as persecution forced them to migrate from Bangladesh,” said Gogoi while addressing a rally in the Bangla-dominated Barak Valley of southern Assam. He reiterated his stand at a press meet in Guwahati, saying it was a mistake to treat Bengali Hindus as illegal migrants.

Since 1971, the demography of Assam has been suffering a major change due to the influx from Bangladesh,” says Prof Charvak of Assam University in Silchar, the biggest city in the Barak Valley. “The Bangla-speaking Muslims comprise 32 percent of the population and have been a major vote bank. Now, the 18 percent population of Bengali Hindus has also emerged as a major vote-swaying chunk. The BJP has been harnessing this vote bank in Assam for a long time.”

The Bangla-speaking Muslims enjoy a majority in seven of Assam’s 27 districts and dictate terms in 52 of 126 Assembly constituencies, thus ensuring a vote bank that has traditionally supported the Congress. That was until perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal launched his All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a regional party that has been eating into the Congress’ minority vote bank. This split down the middle of the voters has forced the Congress to sing a different tune.

The Barak Valley, comprising the three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, is home to 18 percent of Bangla-speaking Hindus of the state. There has always been a social and linguistic disconnect between the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley with the Barak Valley and the region did not see much development during any regime. Seizing the initiative, the BJP started playing the Hindutva card in the region from the 2001 Assembly election. Now, the party is turning out to be a formidable force in the state, something that has made the ruling Congress sit up and take notice.

State of play Digvijaya Singh did not help matters by making a statement that only alienated Hindu voters
Photo: Ujjal Deb

“If Tarun Gogoi wishes to complete his hat-trick of wins in this upcoming election, then the 15 Assembly seats of Barak Valley are going to be the key,” says Saatrajit Pal Choudhury, a journalist from Silchar. “The defeat of former Union Minister for Heavy Industries Santosh Mohan Dev changed the political equation of Silchar. The present incumbent MP of the BJP, Kabindra Purkayastha, should thank the AIUDF for swaying a large chunk of the Muslim and tea garden votes away, which cost Dev dear.”

For years, Dev has been the face of the Congress in the Valley, but his larger-than-life image has not helped the party retain its traditional voters, and the electorate blames him for the region’s underdevelopment. The saffron party made sure that the Hindutva card pays huge dividends in the region. The BJP was the first party to term the Bangla-speaking migrants as refugees.

Ajmal’s minority politics is only adding to the Congress’ worries. “The Congress had promoted only Bangla-speaking Muslims in the Barak Valley,” says Partha Sarkar, a businessman in Silchar. “In all three districts, the story has been the same. It is the Congress that has helped in the influx after 1971. The Bangladeshi Muslims have now gone over to Ajmal’s side.”

What added fuel to the fire was the AICC General Secretary in-charge of Assam, Digvijaya Singh’s statement. During a recent visit to Silchar, he said that all those who settled in Assam post-1971 are ‘foreigners’. He was, of course, referring to the ethnic Bengali Hindus.

Bangladeshi Hindus, who constitute 18 percent of the population, will have a big say in the poll

But Gogoi understands that with the BJP growing in strength and shaping up as a potential adversary to the Congress, the 15 seats in Barak assume a lot of importance. Then, there is the Asom Gana Parishad, the Congress’ arch rival in the state. Hence, the new tone that the settlement of the ethnic Bengali Hindus in Assam should be seen from a ‘humanitarian angle’.

“The Congress is finding it extremely difficult to get a foothold with the end of the Santosh Mohan era,” says Ramendra Nath, a retired government schoolteacher from Srikona near Silchar. “Dev has only helped dynasty politics in the region, now his daughter Susmita has also got a Congress ticket. This will irk the people even more.”

Toeing the BJP line might help the Congress, but Ajmal’s minority politics could play spoilsport too.

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