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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Explained: Congress’s seat-sharing woes in Assam’s Barak Valley

Sushmita Dev, who is considered the face of the Congress in Barak Valley, has been unhappy over seats such as Sonai, which falls under the Silchar Lok Sabha constituency, being given to the AIUDF.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Dibrugarh |
Updated: March 16, 2021 8:17:04 am
Sushmita Dev while campaigning in Assam's Silchar (Twitter/Sushmita Dev)

Of all the squabbles over seat-sharing in poll-bound Assam, perhaps the most high-profile is the one concerning former Congress MP Sushmita Dev. Last week, Dev is said to have walked out of a party meeting, unhappy over seat-sharing and selection of candidates by the Congress-led Mahajot alliance. With rumours of Dev resigning from the party spreading, Congress had to issue a clarification saying that that was not the case.

However, the former MP’s unhappiness over seat distribution in South Assam’s Barak Valley constituencies is an open secret. Dev represented Silchar seat in Barak till she was defeated by BJP’s Rajdeep Roy in the 2019 general elections.

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Assam elections: Barak Valley and its political landscape

Geographically, Assam is split into two distinct areas — Barak Valley and Brahmaputra Valley. Barak Valley comprises three districts — Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi — with a predominantly Bengali-speaking population, that is roughly almost equal Hindu and Muslim. It also has a small number of tea garden tribes, and a smattering of ethnic tribes. In contrast, Brahmaputra Valley is ethnically more diverse and home to Assamese speakers and a variety of other ethnic communities. Apart from that, a large part of lower Assam in Brahmaputra Valley is home to Bengali-speaking Muslims.

There are two Lok Sabha constituencies (Silchar and Karimganj) and 15 Assembly seats in Barak Valley — seven in Cachar, three in Hailakandi and five in Karimganj.

It is in Barak Valley that the BJP first made inroads in the early Nineties long before it reached other parts of Assam, owing to its large support base among the Hindu Bengali community. The other half of Barak’s electorate generally supports the AIUDF or the Congress.

Currently, both its Lok Sabha seats are held by the BJP. The BJP also won eight of the 15 Assembly seats in the 2016 elections, with the AIUDF winning four and the Congress three.

Sushmita Dev’s grouse

The Congress is fighting the 2021 elections as part of a grand umbrella alliance, or the Mahajot, which includes the Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Left parties CPM, CPI, CPI(ML), and a regional party, Anchalik Gana Morcha.

It is seat-sharing between the AIDUF and Congress that has run into problems — not just in Barak Valley but in lower Assam as well, where the AIUDF enjoys a large support base.

The daughter of seven-time parliamentarian Santosh Mohan Dev, Sushmita Dev is widely popular and considered the face of the Congress in Barak Valley. She has been unhappy over seats such as Sonai, which falls under the Silchar Lok Sabha constituency, being given to the AIUDF.

According to political commentators from the region, she has claimed that if more than half of the key seats are given to the AIUDF, the Congress would disappear in Barak. It is particularly true due to the faultlines running through Assam due to the NRC-CAA exercise. Apart from the Congress’s opposition to the CAA, its alliance with the AIUDF — which the BJP has dubbed the “enemy” — has already alienated Hindus from the party. Dev’s argument, as of other leaders from the region, is that should the AIUDF get a chunk of the seats, Muslims would also move away, leaving the Congress with nothing.

Finally, in the agreement that has been worked out, the AIUDF will contest from four seats in Barak, including Sonai, and the Congress in 10. In Katlicherra in Hailakandi district, the two will be in a “friendly” contest.

Last week, Dev played down the differences, telling reporters that while everyone has “the right to point out pluses and minuses of candidates in a democratic party… the high command’s decision will always be accepted”.

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