Updated: October 30, 2021 10:13:04 am
Five assembly constituencies of Assam — Gossaigaon, Bhabanipur, Tamulpur, Mariani and Thowra — are going to bypolls on October 30. While the results will not have an impact on the numbers in the House, Mariani (Jorhat district) and Thowra (Sivasagar district), both in Upper Assam, have emerged as the high-stakes seats, with two incumbent Congress MLAs jumping ship to the BJP, and now contesting on saffron tickets.
These seats are equally important for both the parties, with Congress desperate not to be diminished further and the BJP looking to expand its political space under Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. A regional force — Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal (RD) — has also joined the fray.
Counting will be held on November 2.
The five seats
While bypolls in Bodoland’s Gossaigaon and Tamulpur were necessitated due to death of the sitting MLAs (Majendra Nazary from BPF and Leho Ram Boro from UPPL), the legislators of Bhabanipur, Mariani and Thowra resigned from their seats to join the ruling BJP.
In Mariani, four-time Congress legislator and prominent tea tribe leader Rupjyoti Kurmi joined the BJP in June. In August, two-time Thowra MLA Sushanta Borgohain, associated with the Congress from his student days, followed suit. Both Congress stalwarts cited “internal differences” with the grand old party and an intent to serve the public better under the leadership of Sarma, as reasons for their resignation. In September, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) MLA from Bhabanipur, Phanidhar Talukdar resigned from the party, to join the BJP.
The contesting parties
Kurmi, Borgohain and Talukdar are now contesting in their respective constituencies (Mariani, Thowra and Bhabanipur) on BJP tickets. The BJP will not be contesting the other two seats (Gossaigaon and Tamulpur), and has left it for its Bodo ally UPPL.
On the other hand, after its split with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, the Congress is going solo, fielding its own candidates from all five seats. AIUDF will be contesting the Bhabanipur and Gossaigaon seats, Akhil Gogoi-led RD will be contesting in Thowra and Mariani seats, and Hagrama Mahilary-led Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) will be contesting from the Gossaigaon seat.
Battleground Thowra and Mariani
Political analysts say the main competition will likely be centred in Thowra and Mariani. With some tea tribe population, both seats fall under the larger Upper Assam belt, associated with sentiments of ethnic sub-nationalism in the state. Many of these seats are represented by the “indigenous” Assamese and caste-Hindu vote.
For the BJP, victory in both these seats will further consolidate Sarma’s position and reflect stability in his tenure as the chief minister. “This is the first election fought completely under the leadership of Himanta Biswa Sarma,” said Dr Akhil Ranjan Dutta, who heads the Political Science Department at Gauhati University. He added that Sarma’s main intention was to “ensure absolute majority among his loyalists”. Moreover, both the BJP candidates are turncoats, brought into the party’s fold by Sarma, and their victory or defeat will reflect whether his political strategy worked.
Vikas Tripathi, who also teaches Political Science in Gauhati University, said it was also about ensuring that the BJP has a “comfortable majority in the house”. In the 126-member Assam assembly, the BJP’s strength at present is 59, while its allies — the AGP and UPPL — have nine and five MLAs, respectively. “In every coalition, the larger party always wants to have an uncontested upper hand. If BJP wins all three seats, this will increase to 62, putting them in a comfortable position,” he said.
On the other hand, a loss for Congress would mean they are more or less obliterated from the Upper Assam belt. “This fight is to retain the last hold for them. Not in terms of numbers, but because Thowra and Mariani were their key constituencies (Ahom and tea tribes votes) represented by their stalwarts,” said political commentator Sushanta Talukdar.
Tripathi added that if Congress loses the seats, people will likely question its credentials to carry forward the ethno-linguistic agenda of the state, especially in Upper Assam, where BJP has been consolidating its position since 2014.
Additionally, the party’s performance would reflect the Congress’s electoral stability in terms of vote bank in the Upper Assam belt, considering both these constituencies have been theirs for several years.
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The other player
While initially, the regional parties were trying to band together with the Congress to field a common candidate to oust the BJP, it did not work out. This is because both Congress and RD were adamant to field a candidate from Thowra, which prevented them from reaching an understanding.
With Gogoi out of jail, the activist-turned-politician is on the ground running a strong, grassroots campaign in these constituencies parallel to the bigger parties.
Irrespective of whether they win or lose, these elections will say a lot about RD, said Dutta. “The party’s potential and future prospects as well as Gogoi’s leadership and a measure of his political capacity in the electoral battleground,” said Dutta.
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