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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Strategy or course-correction: Why the Congress broke ties with its ally Badruddin Ajmal in Assam

How breaking with Ajmal will play out in seats with significant minority votes will depend on the narrative the party is able to build over the next two years, Congress leaders believe.

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi |
Updated: September 7, 2021 9:15:09 am
Congress in Assam, Congress AIUDF alliance, Badruddin Ajmal, Current affairs, Assam politics, Indian ExpressBadruddin Ajmal (far left) with (from left) Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Hardik Patel, Mallikarjun Kharge, and Shatrughan Sinha at a rally in Kolkata in 2019. (Archive)

Months after fighting — and losing — Assembly elections in Assam with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Congress has decided to sever ties with the regional outfit led by Badruddin Ajmal. The decision provoked surprise and several questions.

Apparent trigger

The immediate provocation apparently was some ‘pro-BJP’ statements from AIUDF leaders. Ajmal’s brother Sirajuddin recently called Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma “dynamic”, and the “number one” CM in the fight against drug cartels. Sarma was doing a “lot of development work”, and Assam would progress under his leadership, he said.

The Congress alleges the Ajmals are praising the CM to protect their vast personal and business interests. “The AIUDF leadership and senior members’ continuous and mysterious praise of the BJP and the Chief Minister has affected the public perception of the Congress,” the party said on Tuesday. Congress Assam in-charge Jitendra Singh told The Indian Express that it was unacceptable that “a mahajot partner” should have “secret ties with the BJP”.

But not many are willing to buy the Congress’s high-moral-ground explanation.

A tactical move

One view is the Congress made a strategic move ahead of upcoming byelections. “Bypolls are due for five seats, three of which are in Upper Assam. They are trying to reach out to Hindu voters saying ‘look we have cut ties with Ajmal’,” a former Congress leader said.

The Congress suffered heavy losses in Upper Assam in the Assembly elections, which party leaders attribute to the alliance with Ajmal. A senior Congress leader sought to present a nuanced take:

“We lost in some places, gained in others (due to the AIUDF alliance). In Upper Assam, it affected our performance because the BJP had completely polarised the election. But in the Barak Valley and at places in Lower Assam, it helped us. The idea was not to target Muslim votes per se. It was to bring all like-minded parties together.”

Byelections are due for the Upper Assam seats of Mariani, Majuli and Thowra, apart from Tamulpur and Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar. “All of them are hardcore Assamese seats. One (Thowra) is in Sivasagar (district), which served as the Ahom capital for about six centuries. Majuli was vacated by former Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Mariani is in Jorhat, from where former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi hailed,” a senior leader said.

Cutting its losses

Why did the Congress enter into an alliance with the AIUDF in the first place? Sources say Jitendra Singh was not enthusiastic, but went with the decision of the state party leadership. Almost all state Congress leaders — with the exception perhaps of Sushmita Dev who had to leave seats for the AIUDF in her Barak Valley home turf — were in favour of the tie-up.

“There is a realisation now that we made a mistake. After the alliance, the Congress was perceived as a ‘Muslim party’, and the BJP was able to polarise the election,” said a leader.

“We are now saying that the AIUDF is moving closer to the BJP. This serves two purposes — we can tell Muslims that we wanted secular unity but the AIUDF is warming up to the BJP, and in other areas, we can say we have cut ties with Ajmal,” the leader said.

In the calculation of the Congress, the break-up will not impact it electorally. “The minorities know that only the Congress can dislodge the BJP from power. A division in minority votes will help the BJP. We will have to work hard in minority areas, make them understand that AIUDF can win at best only about 30 seats. But to form the government you need 64 MLAs (in the House of 126), so who should they side with? And when we go with AIUDF we don’t get votes in Upper Assam… Hopefully, the minorities will understand. We will work hard,” a senior leader said.

The Congress is also working on an alliance with Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal. Mariani is Akhil’s home constituency. Sources say Akhil is not comfortable with joining an alliance of which AIUDF is part. The grand alliance won 50 seats in the Assembly elections, with the Congress winning 29 and the AIUDF 16, followed by the BPF (4) and CPM (1).

Costs and benefits

The Congress has a dilemma, a senior leader explained. “It cannot win with Badruddin in Upper Assam, and it cannot win without Barduddin in the Barak Valley and some Lower Assam seats. This (cutting ties) is a gamble. Let’s see if it pays off,” he said.

Constituencies in Lower Assam have a significant population of the Bengali-origin minority community, which forms the AIUDF’s base. In Upper Assam, ‘indigenous’ Assamese are influential, and the BJP has made powerful inroads there.

How breaking with Ajmal will play out in seats with significant minority votes will depend on the narrative the party is able to build over the next two years, Congress leaders believe. When it fought alone in 2016, the Congress won 26 seats; in alliance with the AIUDF, it got three more. The AIUDF likewise went from 13 seats in 2016 to 16 this time.

“There isn’t much difference in the number of seats we won, so a decision needs to be taken in the party’s long-term interest. The AIUDF wins where the demography is favourable. But we need to be present across the state and win everywhere,” a leader said.

The Congress’s vote share has remained constant over the last two elections — it won 30.96 per cent in 2016; 29.67 per cent in 2021.

Does the severing of ties with a ‘Muslim’ party signal a shift in the Congress’s strategy at the national level?

“This has nothing to do with national politics. In Kerala, the Muslim League is part of the UDF. To say we are averse to tie-ups with minority parties is simplistic… We have to be practical, and take decisions based on experience and with an eye on the future,” a leader said.

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