By Ashis Biswas
Opposition parties in Assam, showing a greater commitment to achieve an anti-BJP consolidation than the Congress, ignored the latter’s gamesmanship to begin their long-awaited seat-sharing talks for the Lok Sabha polls in 2024.
However, despite a broad agreement among the 14 parties coming together under the banner of a new Birodhi Oikyamancha (BM), to make ‘sacrifices’ for a united front against the ruling BJP led by the formidable but highly divisive Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, initial discussions indicated that the way ahead would not be easy.
Led by the Congress, opposition parties agreed to meet again next month.
As in most states, the run up to these talks was not smooth. Assam Congress leaders came under an angry attack from other opposition parties for unilaterally announcing a tentative first list of 80-odd potential candidates to contest all of the 13 Lok Sabha seats. This was an unmistakable signal from the Congress to the opposition, clarifying that as the biggest party opposing the BJP nationally, it was entitled to set its own terms for seat adjustments, if any. If there was no agreement among the opposition parties, it would contest the polls on its own.
In common with most other states in India, the disagreement between the Congress and other parties over the finalization of seat adjustments delayed even preliminary talks about the proposed nation-wide seat sharing arrangement in Assam, too. While some parties like the Trinamool Congress (TMC) felt that seat-sharing arrangements must be finalisedasap, the Congress objected.
They felt that such talks could be held more meaningfully only after the outcome of the Assembly elections in five States (including Mizoram in the Northeast) was known. The BJP had been defeated in Karnataka and fared poorly in most by-elections in recent times. But the Congress had carried out mass agitations and was gaining ground, unlike most regional parties.
With its better showing in these elections, it would be easier for the oldest party in India to handle demands for seat sharing from smaller groups including the TMC, the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) and various Assamiya regional parties, more firmly.
Nevertheless, 13 opposition parties including the Raisor Dal, Asam Jatiya Parishad, the CPI(M) and others, met state Congress leaders for the first round of talks. According to Guwahati-based media reports, both the AAP and the TMC indicated that they wanted to contest at least 5 seats each. The CPIM) wanted to contest from Barpeta, an area where it was strong.
Congress President Bhupen Bora and other leaders did not enter into substantive discussions about such matters at this point. They stressed that opposition parties must agree to press their demands in keeping with their quantum of support and past performance records, for the sake of putting up a credible alternate anti- BJP political front.
Meantime, Ripon Bora (TMC) was given the task of preparing a common minimum programme for the BM. Rajya Sabha member Ajit Bhuyan and former Congress leader Rakibul Hossain were assigned to draft a charge sheet listing the various failures and allegedly anti-people policies of the BJP.
The BJP responded in its own way, with state Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma emphatically repeating his earlier claim that the ruling party would sweep the LS polls, winning all but one or two seats. Senior BJP leaders were confident that not only would the combined opposition fail, it would not even stay united because of their own differences and quarrels, long before the polls dates were announced.
Opposition sources indicated that the BJP would face its own problems with allies like the Asam Gana Parishad, which was reportedly divided over what some of its leaders felt was a growing political marginalization because of the BJP’s aggressive functioning. For both parties, the main constituency of political support was the Assamiya speaking community. However, with its much bigger political outreach, power and wider appeal, the BJP was miles ahead of the basically regional party, the AGP. The electorate was fully aware of the BJP’s advantages vis-à-vis the AGP.
The BJP’s critics point out that the main reason for its confidence was the official re-constitution of various Assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies in Assam as effected through the recent officially delimitation measures. Party leaders including Sarma openly declared that as things stood now, native Assamiyas (Assamiya speaking people) should be elected from around 110 or so seats out of 126 in the Assembly. The centre and state had ensured that Assamiyas would never be reduced to a powerless minority within Assam.
Opposition parties like the Muslim-dominated AIUDF etc had sharply protested against the new delimitation process carried out, alleging that they were heavily biased against many local communities (especially Muslims) and groups. However, their desperate appeals made to the Election Commission and the Supreme Court, did not achieve very much. Most new delimitation orders were retained despite their objections. (IPA Service)