Assam Assembly Election 2021: Strong regionalism, and not polls, is key to survival of Assamese sub-nationalism

Editor's note: Regionalism or more effectively Assamese sub-nationalism has always been part and parcel of politics in Assam whether this idea is in vogue or in retreat. The ideology has passed through many political complexities and survived various intensities, but the road ahead seems to be filled with many challenges, including its survivability. This series examines the state of Assamese sub-nationalism ahead of the Assembly elections in the state and its place in the evolving political dynamics of the present times.

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Perhaps the photo above cannot be more symbolic than it is already. The newly formed regional political party Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) indeed needs a divine push to pull itself out of the impending disaster that many politically inclined individuals predict for the party in the upcoming Assam Assembly Election 2021. The Raijor Dal, another novice in electoral politics, is also likely to meet a similar fate. Unless, of course, if divinity turns the tides.

A hard look

This election if not anything provides the Assamese community with an opportunity to introspect to where it stands politically, economically, culturally and on the actions taken to preserve its dignity. The fire of the six-year-long Assam Agitation bloodied the streets and farms of the state from 1979-85 with 855 lives lost in their endeavour to end bitter days. Sadly, the zeal and the very high emotional attachment that the agitation generated towards Assamese sub-nationalism in the community is now entrapped in PDFs of research papers, books, distant memories, and hardly in the heart.

Realities of life like lost academic years due to the agitation, severe unemployment that followed, negligible industrialisation and fruitlessness of an armed insurgency (for some cadres it was, however, a career shaping step once they returned to the mainstream) soon took over. Notwithstanding, although briefly, a near similar passion for Assamese sub-nationalism made a comeback during the anti-CAA stir a year ago, but it too seems to have lost steam. Of course, a few political parties were born out of it.

As the fight of the Assamese community to preserve its identity and culture in its own land gets harder, the demographic figures are far from inspiring. As per the language Census of 2011, the percentage of Assamese speakers in the state declined to 48.38 percent in 2011 from 48.80 percent in 2001. Out of the total population of 3,12,05,576 in Assam, there are 1,50,95,797 Assamese speakers as per the 2011 Census. Leaving aside the challenges that emerge from beyond the international borders and even from mainland India, the top priority for the community is to ensure that the Assamese sub-nationalism does not die a slow death on its own.

Political relevance key for regionalism to survive

"Regionalism is not defined by elections. Regionalism is a kind of conscience. It is not just a political issue. The conscience of regionalism has to be kept alive in people. If that happens it is inevitable that a footprint of regionalism will have its impact on politics. No matter which political party it is, if the feeling of regionalism is ingrained in people, no political party will dare ignore or compromise it. I want regionalism to survive as a force and I am hopeful that it will survive as a force in Assam," said author and political observer Phanindra Kumar Dev Choudhury.

However, unless people are united by political wisdom and will, regionalism will lack a broad platform that is essential for expansion.

In the case of Assamese sub-nationalism, forays into the political dominion have been more or less constant but the real question is of strength and sustainability. Even the two new regional parties — AJP and Raijor Dal — are already neck-deep in controversies for various reasons.

"There is no doubt that regionalism is weakening vis-a-vis nationalism. The Raijor Dal and AJP came up to counter the pro-nationalism ideology but they have themselves come under suspicion from the people now. Regionalism thrives on personality. For example, AGP shaped up under the personality clout of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta but the party itself went into a self-destructive mode by surrendering space to the BJP," said AGP (Progressive), general secretary, Pranab Goswami.

The political differences between these parties only made things difficult ahead of the polls.

"We from the Asom Andolan Sangrami Mancha led by former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta for the last three months have repeatedly discussed with these two parties that the anti-CAA forces should be together but they refused to do so. The other parties agreed but these two new parties didn't agree. The manner in which these two parties are putting up candidates will only end up helping the BJP. In fact, the candidate selection by the grand alliance has been good and they are likely to put up a fight against the BJP," said Goswami.

Gyanashree Bora, a research scholar in chemistry and spokesperson of Raijor Dal, wholeheartedly bats for regionalism in Assam.

"India will not survive without regionalism," says Gyanashree, adding, "The masses are fed up with capitalist nationalism. We will fight and we will win."

In this age of coalition politics, a divided house will barely create any impact and the political progenies of the anti-CAA movement have rarely put up a united front.

"Initially, people like Arup Borbora (who opened United Regional Party-Assam) and others in Raijor Dal and AJP took a vow to stick to regionalism but as time passed it seemed that Akhil Gogoi-led Raijor Dal might have slipped somewhat from its chartered path. Had these three parties stayed together and fought this election, they might not have succeeded, but they could have established regionalism as a force to reckon with. I believe that would have been the right path," said Choudhury.

Need for the personality cult

If a personality cult is so necessary for regionalism to thrive in politics, then in Assam, the Assamese sub-nationalism movement is definitely missing out on one of the key figures.

"When Samujjal Bhattacharya is not there, it is like not having a Virat Kohli or a Sachin Tendulkar in the team. Bhattacharya has mass acceptability. My conviction is that out of the two, one party will remain but I can't say immediately which one. Whichever party survives should build its core base to strengthen the party bringing in a mix of new and experienced hands. But the thing is AGP and whichever of the new ones that stay on will have to merge one day. You can have four-five parties but only to lose. To win, you need one strong party. Support from the Indian Muslims will also prove critical in this regard," said political analyst Shyamkanu Mahanta.

Akhil Gogoi, the president of the Raijor Dal, perhaps a shadow of Che Guevara albeit in a much-diluted manner, even disappointed his party members with his candidature row in the Mariani Assembly constituency. Officially, his party is calling it a sacrifice.

A campaign rally for Raijor Dal president Akhil Gogoi in Sivasagar. Image courtesy Facebook page of Himanshu Goswami

"Out of the political leaders, we've seen in the last few days, very few have made such a huge sacrifice for the sake of the people. In this kind of situation, such a sacrifice like Akhil Gogoi's maybe very rare. And this theory proves that he is the leader of the people and really thinks of the people," said Gyanashree.

Allegations of Gogoi often changing goalpost, do little to enhance his personality which his party steadfastly rejects.

"Just as the mountains are beautiful when seen from a distance but the truth is known only when you come closer, Akhil Gogoi has never compromised in the interest of the nation. His goal is very clear. The decision against the implementation of CAA will be taken from the first session of the Legislative Assembly and the communalist BJP will be ousted. This is a clear goal of the Raijor Dal," Gyanashree said.

BJP squeezing AGP

Playing the role of junior partner in its alliance with the BJP, the once torchbearer of Assamese sub-nationalism — the AGP — is not even a spark of what it was three decades ago.

"The bigger issue is the BJP is trying to squeeze the AGP by giving them very limited seats. This has rendered the regional force literally redundant. (Party president) Atul Bora has the support of the entire party with him but still, the AGP leadership failed to get more seats for the party to contest. They should have tried to culture the Muslim areas. They made a mistake by not doing that. Moreover, AGP has the same old faces to represent them in the election and that is a problem," said Mahanta.

"For example, in Teok, Renupama Rajkhowa is contesting the polls. She is old and extremely unwell. This sends out a negative message that they are not promoting young faces. That has been the problem with the oldest regional party in Assam so far. My fear is that regionalism is collapsing in Assam, and because of that the two new parties — Raijor Dal and Assam Jatiya Parishad — are also doing badly. The BJP giving so few seats to the AGP to contest is a bad sign for regionalism in the state. The BJP is squeezing the AGP and the regional party never prepared themselves to develop some alternative seats," said Mahanta.

The AGP is yet to come out of the stagnation brought about by the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta era although steps are being gradually taken towards that direction.

"Atul Bora is trying to do something but the party fabric itself is weakened. Atul Bora is seeking to consolidate the party and prevent further fragmentation but the party, in general, should have encouraged some new faces this time. Prithviraj Rabha, who was given an AGP ticket instead of veteran leader Brindaban Goswami, is a good choice, but he should have been readied for the contest at least a year ago. But there is no preparation whatsoever. Anyway, Atul Bora has a good intention and he is trying to revive the party," the political analyst said.

"The failure of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta to create hope for the youngsters has increased the pressure on the present dispensation of the party. They must urgently take steps to attract young people to the party. There is a serious need for a strong regional force in Assam and people are worried about seeing its rapid decline. There will be a strong regional force provided they can build a favourable atmosphere for youngsters in the party," Mahanta added.

Time constraint for new regional parties

It takes years of effort for a political party to become a piece of well-oiled machinery. Unfortunately, right from their birth both Raijor Dal and the AJP faced pressing time constraints which only got worse with the COVID-19-induced lockdown robbing them of crucial time to make their respective units battle-ready.

"It takes six months to one year to build an organisational foundation. Had the coronavirus pandemic been not there, we would have definitely gotten a lot more time. In January 2020 itself, we had announced before the people of Assam that we will give them a political alternative which was not there then. But then suddenly COVID-19 appeared out of nowhere, and on 22 March everything got affected for up to six-seven months. This period was crucial for us which the COVID-19 pandemic snatched it away from us," said AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi, who is also pursuing his doctorate degree in Mathematics.

AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi addressing a campaign rally at Duliajan Assembly Constituency in Assam. Image courtesy Facebook page of Lurinjyoti Gogoi

The pandemic meant that the AJP chief who headed AASU earlier could not enter the political scene at a time he would have preferred.

"Since I was the AASU general secretary I had to hold a convention of the students union first before quitting the body. I could not have resigned suddenly and jumped into politics. Last year, in fact, we had planned to hold a state-level convention inviting people from all sections of the society before Rangali Bihu in April. But we could not hold it. If we could have done that then we could have held a political convention by July. Even the AASU general convention could have been held earlier. But due to adverse conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic, none of this could happen as planned," said Gogoi, who is contesting the election from the Legislative Assembly constituencies of Duliajan and Naharkatiya.

On the contrary, the BJP state government under the stewardship of Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma embarked on a massive programme to contain the pandemic in the state, which almost turned out to be soft electoral campaigning in disguise.

Disappearing anti-CAA spirit and regionalism

What was perhaps the biggest uniting factor in Assam for the regional forces ahead of this Assembly Election is fast fading and the regional parties are struggling to keep the anti-CAA spirit alive in a way they would have wanted. Only because of the Congress-led grand alliance, the BJP is somewhat keeping a note of this factor to not upset voters before the election.

"CAA is not an election issue in Assam. Had it been an election issue why would so many people attend BJP rallies in such large numbers across Assam be it Nalbari or Chabua? The AGP leadership has understood this fact and it is good that they have realised the political reality. By staying with the BJP, AGP can hope to get 15-20 seats but if they go alone it will be hard to get that either. The reason for that is people are more concerned about the immigrant Muslims particularly in Upper Assam," the political analyst said.

"The number of Bengali Hindus is less comparatively so people consider them to be a lesser threat than the Muslims of Bangladesh origin. This is the reality on the ground. Moreover, the concentration of Bengali Hindus is in the Barak Valley where the number of Assamese people is anyway very less. The Upper Assam, Central Assam and Northern Assam are fully affected by the immigration of the Muslims of Bangladesh origin. That is why the BJP is expanding under the religious card. The job of the AGP is to bring both the communities together as per the norms agreed upon in the Assam Accord and build their base. It is tough but very much possible," Mahanta said indicating a ray of hope for the regional forces.

Religion now plays an integral role in determining the course of politics in India as the country has witnessed at the national level. Even during the anti-CAA protests, which was largely linguistic and cultural in Assam, once it reached the streets of Delhi, it immediately took a religious colour. Thus, only to preserve the anti-CAA movement as an identity fight, the regional forces in Assam will need major work in that direction.

"We believe in coexistence, equality and equal development. There is no question of caste, language or colour. We do not accept anyone who comes after 24 March, 1971 as Indians, and we want constitutional safeguards for the indigenous people under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. These decisions are generally accepted by most people. It is natural for all parties to have opposite sides because everyone has their own way of thinking. So far, we have been working hard to eradicate communalism in the state and this is one of the prime reasons why we want to prevent BJP as they are highly communal. If we come to power or get involved in any way, we will definitely take a strong stand so that communal poisoning does not spread for any reason. We have always raised our voice against communal ideology and always will," said Gyanashree.

"We are a regionalist political party formed in the interest of the people of Assam to defeat the racist, fascist and communal BJP and give priority to the security of Assam. Therefore, our main objective is to take strong action against CAA and to oppose the BJP, who brought the CAA, in all way possible," she added.

The Raijor Dal spokesperson accepted that the opposition to CAA has its own challenges and will need a comprehensive approach.

"The limitations of a political party is different from the limitations of organisations. CAA is a political matter, so we understood that it must be dealt with politically. We still think that we will succeed in preventing CAA with the help and support of our people. We have been criticised and also accepted by a lot. We accept criticism and seek to move forward. Our plan is long term. I am very optimistic that we will succeed," Gyanashree informed.

Whether this optimism turns into electoral gains or not would become only clear only once the election results are declared on 2 May. What is clear though is: in the emotion of Assamese sub-nationalism thrives regionalism for Assam, and it is for the community — and neither AJP nor Raijor Dal or anyone else — to decide what future course it seeks for itself. Of rejuvenation or humiliation!



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