Odds Of Winning

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The BJP bit the dust in Bihar and is running a not so good race in Bengal against Mamata. But it remains hopeful of Assam where it is pulling out all the stops to win. From engaging the AASU to offering sops and admitting defectors, the slog overs are on. BY ARCHISMAN DINDA

What happens when the Left, Congress party leaders from West Bengal and marginalized Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mukul Roy get together with expelled CPI-M leader Abdur Rezzak and the state leadership of the Janata Dal and the RJD? Unthinkable perhaps? Or a flight of someone’s fancy?

The line between fancy and reality blurred in Kolkata during celebrations marking Jawaharlal Nehru’s 126th birth anniversary. With the state Congress Committee playing host, all the above mentioned parties got together and pledged to fight “fascist forces out to destroy the secular and democratic fabric of India.” Clearly, the Bihar results have given hope for a greater alliance of “secular parties” to take on the ruling TMC led by Mamata Bannerjee in the state, not to forget the BJP in 2019.

MAMATA’S PROSPECTS

“Bihar has shown the way,” said former communist leader and Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. “If the party in power is misusing its power, then it is time for other parties to unite. The opposition has to be united and rise above partisan sentiment,” he urged adding that the late Left patriarch Jyoti Basu once held hands with Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take on the Congress in the Bofors scam.

“Confrontational politics is greatly weakening our democratic structure and simultaneously stifling the country’s progress and there is need for reversing the process,” Chatterjee claimed overlooking the point that he was only encouraging more confrontation. “Most alarming,” he went on, “intolerance, divisiveness, corruption confrontations and disrespect for dissent are increasingly vitiating our socio-political system.”

A Congress leader rather grandly proclaimed: “This is the starting point of what can be a real political alternative to the divisive forces that now rule the state and the country. The Congress has to act as a catalyst in such a formation and we are even willing to play junior partner as we have done in Bihar.”

Great political copy there but the alliance is only at the talking stage as of now, and while taking on Narendra Modi in 2019 is heady (even inspiring for some), the goal is more immediate: Toppling Mamata from her Kolkata citadel next year.

Hemant Sarma, who recently quit the Congress, is considered a “master strategist” and the architect of the Congress party’s spectacular victory in the 2011 Assembly polls. His switching side’s is seen as the single best possibility of the BJP emerging victorious in Assam

Let’s look at the arithmetic, which suggests the elections could go down to the wire. In the last elections to the state Assembly in 2011, the TMC secured 38.93 per cent of the popular vote (in alliance with the Congress which bagged less than 10 per cent), while the CPI-(M) won 30.08 per cent. Other Left parties including CPI and Forward Bloc secured close to 10 per cent of the votes; BJP managed just four percent of the votes not winning a single seat.

Things got a little complicated in 2014 when the BJP, riding the “Modi Wave”, won 16.8 per cent of the vote bagging two seats and emerging second in three major constituencies including two in Kolkata. This was far behind the TMC’s 34 (the CPI(M) won two seats) but the saffron party had broken new ground worrying politicians like Mamata. That and the prospect of the CPI(M), Congress and Mukul Roy’s breakaway faction getting together next year could pose problems if her party did not do well.

The silver lining for the chief minister is the lack of leaders among her rivals. Stitching together such a grand alliance is primarily a leadership issue. The CPI-(M) does not have such a leader nor for that matter the BJP. In fact, TMC insiders say Mamata believes the BJP setback in Bihar has hit its party cadres in her state hard. Their morale is perhaps at its lowest point. Add to that, her support for Nitish Kumar could work to her advantage.

More important, the Bihar rout has worsened the BJP’s position in the Rajya Sabha. It will be even more dependent on Mamata’s support for passing legislation, therefore it may not want to alienate her.

As state minister Partha Chatterjee put it: “Any alliance can be a challenge and if it is formed irrespective of ideological beliefs, just to defeat a political party with a track record of good governance in the last five years, then people will defeat them hands down.”

The worry for TMC insiders is a hung assembly even though their party emerges the single largest. “We have governed since we had a complete majority from the people. But if we win less 147 seats of the 294 assembly seats, then survival for five years will be an issue,” admitted a TMC legislator.

ASSAM CHURNING

Turning to Assam where polls are due in April next year, the BJP anticipates winning despite the fallout from Bihar. It is working on a list of election sops including scheduled tribe status for six communities (Motok, Moran, Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbonshi, Sootea and Tea tribes) that together make up over 40 per cent of the population in the state. Incidentally, this is also the demand being voiced by the “pro-talks” faction of the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam).

But (as Bihar demonstrated) the party has a tendency to score self-goals. Take Modi’s recent decision to grant citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh resident in Assam and other states, two powerful student bodies the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), launched a protest against “the BJP’s attempt to shelter illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”, an issue which was at the root of their popular, six-year-long agitation in the 1980’s. Their contention is that the Centre’s decision “is in complete disregard of the Assam Accord for which many Assamese gave their lives”.

AASU rallies saw participation of a large number of people from across the state. If the BJP was rattled it didn’t show it. Assam BJP president Siddhartha Bhattacharjee told Parliamentarian that the Bihar failure has given the state unit an opportunity to revise and redraw its poll strategy. “The people of Assam are willing for a change as the results of 2014 has shown. However, we have to counter the measures taken by our opponents politically to ensure victory,” he reasoned.

In fact, the party has underscored to the AASU leadership it was serious about implementing the Assam Accord of 1985, with the focus on ending the immigrant issue. The return of ULFA leader Anup Chetia from Bangladesh and the hectic confabulations another ULFA leader Arabinda Rajkhowa is having with Central interlocutors, is indicative of how serious the BJP is.

Sensing the ground slipping from under his feet, current Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is pushing the case for a “grand alliance” on the lines of Bihar. Likely allies could be the Asom Gana Parishad and the All India United Democratic Front. Other allies could be difficult to find, this when Gogoi is under pressure to take forward what the party brass sees as its “rising graph in Bihar” (from four to 27 seats now).

in Assam where polls are due in April next year, the BJP anticipates winning despite the fallout from Bihar. It is working on a list of election sops including scheduled tribe status for six communities

Gogoi is aware, as political observers are, of the BJP’s Achilles heel: The need to project a consensual chief ministerial candidate, the argument being that as Bihar conclusively demonstrated, fielding or projecting national level leaders for an assembly election was a bad move. The problem here is the number of aspirants for the chief minister’s job. There are quite a few including Bhattacharjee and Hemant Sarma, who recently quit the Congress. He is considered a “master strategist” and the architect of the Congress party’s spectacular victory in the 2011 Assembly polls when it won 78 of the 126 seats. Sarma was also instrumental in crafting the party’s victories in the 2001 and 2006 Assembly elections.

Sarma’s been told he will not be the BJP’s choice for the Assam’s top elected job, but that is hardly likely to deter him from trying his best. His switching sides is seen as the single best possibility of the BJP emerging victorious in Assam. Already nine Congress legislators have followed him to the saffron camp.

But the political churn in Assam could see many turning their backs on the BJP. The Hindus for instance, who form about 20 per cent of the population, are nervous about their future (if the BJP goes ahead with its promise of scheduled tribe status for six communities). Scheduled castes are also worried over potential loss of privileges.

“Irresponsible statements” by cabinet ministers, local leaders and Central leaders including party president Amit Shah, have not helped matters. “We need to stick to the script of development and only development. Any deviation as Bihar has shown will affect the party’s fortunes,” warned a state BJP leader.

In the end, none of these calculations may work. Unlike Bihar, Assam is a dense and bewildering patchwork of ethnic, religious and language groups. Elections are fought mostly over religious and ethnic issues, ethnicity in fact works like caste. Again unlike Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, elections are fought booth-wise because of the presence of so many small communities. This means voting patterns in different booths within a constituency could differ.

For the BJP though, winning Assam is crucial after successive electoral reverses. A victory here and in Bengal would signal its emergence as a national party and reassure the faithful that the Modi wave was not just a seasonal wave.

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