INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

Three Way Battle

It may have brought a semblance of peace in an insurgency-ridden state, but the Congress faces a challenge from parties who are using the Illegal Migrants' Act as a ploy to garner votes


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In Assam, they don't fight elections, they play them. BJP's general secretary Pramod Mahajan, was thrilled when party workers approached him saying "Mohakhoy, main bhie election khelna chahta hun (Sir, I too want to play elections)". "To me, it is the most appropriate phrase because in sports it's not important whether you win or lose, but how you play it. We played well," he says. The playful and festive atmosphere bears testimony that people are enjoying the game too. Sixteen-year-old Sushmita, leading a rally in Dharampur in Nalbari, says, "This is our election, not of the political parties." Though out of the 997 candidates in the fray only 68 are women, the fairer sex outnumbers men in the election rallies.

The Congress, which had secured 39.60 per cent votes and 71 seats out of a total of 126 in the 2001 polls, has reason to feel shaky this time; the performance of the Gogoi government has been largely lacklustre and there has been a rise of regional aspirations within the state after the Supreme Court struck down the controversial Illegal Migrants' (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT) as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Also, the BJP's bid to win over the anti-foreigner section and the rich Hindi-speaking populace has left the Congress perturbed. For the first time the party has realised that its traditional votebank-Muslims, tea tribes and Bengalis-has turned away. "The Congress knows that a renewed mandate for it in this election is impossible now," says Mahajan.


UNITED: The AGP and its allies have joined hands against the BJP; Pramod Mahajan at a rally

Maybe. Maybe not. In an essentially three-cornered fight between the Congress, the BJP and the AGP (and its allies), parties are banking on their promises to restore peace and curb infiltration in the state. The Congress is taking full credit for reining in insurgency and bringing some semblance of normalcy to the state by involving militant groups in the peace process. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the BJP, locked in a close fight, are harping on the infiltration issue. The AGP is attracting a large number of Muslims who favour the ouster of foreigners. The BJP wants only suspected Bangladeshi Muslims to be driven out and Bangladeshi Hindus, who are being persecuted in their country, to be allowed to stay as "refugees". Adding to the Congress's woes is the Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF), a Muslim outfit with 65 candidates, led by orthodox Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, who has vowed to destroy the Congress for failing to defend the IMDT Act. "Ajmal's party is contesting only to disturb Congress votes by creating confusion, but he will not succeed," says AICC General Secretary Digvijay Singh.

Another issue which created a furore in the state was the Foreigners' (Tribunals) Order, 1964, which was amended by the Centre. To pacify ruffled feathers in Assam, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the amendment was carried out to ensure that genuine citizens were not harassed. The amended order was tailormade for Assam-it put the onus on the complainant to prove whether a person is a foreigner or not. Following petitions by the BJP and the AGP, the Supreme Court had declared the IMDT Act unconstitutional and asked the Centre to determine the status of foreigners in Assam under the Foreigners' Act. Last week, it served notices on the amendment. The court's intervention, just prior to the polls, left the Congress red-faced.

The hullabaloo over the "foreigners" issue is understandable. The Muslim population in the state rose from 24.68 per cent in 1951 to 30.90 per cent in 2001. The huge demographic shift is attributed to the massive influx of Bangladeshis, for which the Congress alone is being blamed. But the party has some pluses on its side too. This is the first time that peaceful elections are being held in the state, thanks to the Congress initiatives of involving militant groups ULFA, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Bodo Liberation Tigers in dialogue. Considering the challenge, the BJP is leaving nothing to chance, deploying a 60-member team to train its candidates. But its nemesis is the AGP, allied with regional parties like the Telugu Desam, Samajwadi Party, Akali Dal, National Conference, Mizo National Front and Nagaland Peoples' Party in the North-eastern states.

The Congress's problems, however, are more profound. Its failure to award the Scheduled Tribe status to the tea tribes (who dominate over 30 constituencies), has angered the tribal youth, who have now rallied around the BJP. Clearly the party is facing more than a storm in a tea cup in these elections.

Assembly Elections: Assam- Innocent Grow Up

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