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How a new political party to be formed by AASU can change Assam’s political dynamics

In December 1985, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta moved his belongings from a hostel room in Gauhati University to the chief minister’s bungalow. So did most of his cabinet colleagues. They were all office-bearers of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) spearheading an anti-foreigners movement (1979-85) before forming a new political entity and wresting Assam’s political power from the Congress. Unquestionably, it was a novel episode in India’s democratic history when a bunch of young university students overnight metamorphosed into a state chief minister and ministers.

The political party which the students then formed — the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — ruled Assam for 10 years and is now an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As many as five legislators of the present Assam government, including CM Sarbananda Sonowal and two of his cabinet ministers, are former AASU presidents, demonstrating the student body’s power to churn out leaders.

Thirty-five years after that epochal event, the AASU is at it again. It is likely to announce the name and objective of a new regional party this week, thereby igniting a variety of possible political scenarios and alignments ahead of next year’s assembly poll. The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), another powerful students’ body, and a few other social organisations have helped the AASU in opening its second political innings. Further, a 16-member panel — which is formed by the AASU and the AJYCP, and comprising writers, advocates, filmmakers and former governor Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary — has submitted a 47-page report, asking students to plunge into regional politics once more. The report has not yet been made public.

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As it appears, the new party’s principal targets will be the ruling BJP as well as the recently amended citizenship law. But the party will likely tread carefully when it comes to its proximity to the Congress, the principal opposition party, which has also protested against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, thereby positioning itself on the same page as the AASU. The new law fast-tracks citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from three neighbouring nations even if they had entered India illegally on or before 2014.

According to the AASU, the new law has violated the Assam Accord of 1985 under which all immigrants, Hindu and Muslim, who illegally entered the state after March 24, 1971, will be detected and deported.

“Both the BJP and the AGP have betrayed the people of Assam by imposing a new citizenship law. And, characteristically, the Congress is no different from the BJP. So, our new political party won’t allow the oxygen cylinders to be controlled by the Congress either,” says AASU’s general secretary, Lurinjyoti Gogoi, over the phone from Guwahati, adding that regionalism and the rights of the indigenous people will form the central theme of the new party.

Gogoi, who came into prominence during the anti-CAA protests, thanks to his oratory skills and frequent diatribe against the state’s powerful minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, says he won’t immediately resign from the students’ body but he does not rule out the possibility of quitting later to contest the assembly election.

The question is, who will be the political beneficiary if the AASU-engineered party stands equidistant from the BJP and the Congress? After all, it’s 2020, and not 1985 when the AASU-backed AGP clinched a majority on its own. Today, the BJP is a formidable force in the state. If the recent return of 30 prominent actors and singers to its fold is any indication, many of its supporters who had deserted the party during the height of anti-CAA protests are slowly making a ghar wapsi. In a press meet in Guwahati on Thursday, state BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass did not mince words when he said the new regional parties, including the one to be formed by AASU, will only divide anti-BJP votes, thereby indirectly aiding his party.

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Editor-turned-Rajya Sabha MP from Assam, Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, argues that the only way to defeat the BJP in the next election is to form an umbrella alliance, comprising the Congress, the AIUDF and regional parties, including the one to be formed by the AASU and the AJYCP. “The AASU has to decide who is its bigger enemy — the BJP or the Congress. It must move tactically. Assam’s population pattern can’t sustain a standalone regional party of Assamese people. The way out is to have a broad alliance with the Congress and the AIUDF,” says Bhuyan, himself a staunch anti-CAA protester, who got elected to the Rajya Sabha recently as an independent candidate backed by the Congress and the AIUDF.

About five years ago, poll strategist Prashant Kishor had extended a private visit to his in-laws’ place in Guwahati to clandestinely meet the leaders of various parties, making an attempt to create an anti-BJP force of the Congress, AIUDF and the AGP. The attempt, however, did not fructify. The AGP, which simultaneously bargained with the BJP and the Congress, finally chose the former as its partner.

As of today, the Congress and the AIUDF have almost made up their minds to come together, something that could give the combo an additional 10-12 seats in the minority-dominated areas of lower and middle Assam. But there’s a big hole in that strategy. It will give enough ammunition to the BJP’s campaign firepower to paint the Congress as a pro-Muslim party, not a pro-Assamese party — a tactic that could result in the Congress getting wiped out in upper Assam where Badruddin Ajmal-headed AIUDF is seen as an outfit that favours illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Upper Assam is where anti-CAA protests struck a chord with the people and where the new, AASU-backed party could find a stronghold.

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The Congress seems willing to sacrifice its own seats and embrace new allies. “The Congress’s arms are wide open for a broad coalition. We want all pro-Assam, anti-BJP parties to come together on one platform,” says Gaurav Gogoi, the party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha and a member of Parliament from Assam.

Clearly, the Congress will need the AIUDF to consolidate its bases in lower and middle Assam as well as the AASU-backed party to retain its select pockets in upper Assam, a Herculean pre-poll engineering that could well make 2021 an evenly contested battle.


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