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Nine months after poll loss, Assam Congress direction-less as Sarma moves in

🔴 Since May, party stalwarts like Sushmita Dev, Rupjyoti Kurmi and Susanta Borgohain have quit in quick succession.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: December 24, 2021 9:26:38 am
Apart from resource constraints and lack of organisation, the Congress has been hurt by the absence of leadership.

Earlier this week, Congress legislator Sashi Kanta Das “pledged political support” to the BJP government in Assam. Das’s likely exit (he has not resigned yet) would make him the third sitting legislator to quit the grand old party in Assam this year. There is speculation that more may follow.

Since its defeat in the April Assembly elections, the Congress’s prospects in the state have been on a slow decline. A change in leadership (the election loss led president Ripun Bora to resign, and be replaced by Bhupen Borah) has not done the trick either. Since May, party stalwarts like Sushmita Dev, Rupjyoti Kurmi and Susanta Borgohain have quit in quick succession. While Kurmi and Borgohain joined the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led government, Dev is now with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

These exits have already hurt the party electorally — in the by-polls in October end, both Kurmi and Borgohain won from their respective constituencies in Upper Assam, on BJP tickets. The Congress now is reduced to only 27 seats in the 126-member Assembly.

Apart from resource constraints and lack of organisation, the party has been hurt by the absence of leadership. “Weak leadership alongwith internal incoherence and organisational incompetence have contributed significantly towards the party’s dismal scenario,” says Sandhya Goswami, former professor of Political Science at Gauhati University.

Accusing the party of “emotional, knee-jerk reactions”, a senior Congress leader says, “We paired up with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) before the elections, but broke the alliance shortly after. These moves are not carefully considered, and reflect indecision… You cannot base your strategies on what you see in the media. You need to assess, plan.”

Among those known to have been unhappy with the AIUDF alliance was Sushmita Dev, who feared a fallout among her support base of Bengali-speaking Hindus in the Barak Valley. The AIUDF’s followers are largely Bengali-speaking Muslims, often derided as “illegal immigrants” in the state.

A Congress politician from the area earlier told The Indian Express that there were many in the party who did not want to ally with the AIUDF, but “the few who did were so insistent that the high command got influenced”.

However, others explain the recent developments as “less to do with the Congress, and more to do with the ambitious politics of Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma”. Says Akhil Ranjan Dutta, who heads the Political Science Department at Gauhati University: “There is a Himanta Biswa Sarma wave in Assam… For the first time, the state is seeing absolute leader-centric politics, completely driven by the CM. Unless you are close to him or with the ruling party, it has been made categorically clear that there are slim chances for growth — and [Opposition] politicians are well aware of that.”

Moreover, many current Congress leaders are close to Sarma, having known him from the time he was in the party. Sarma, incidentally, also left the Congress over the way the party was being run.

The senior Congress leader says, “When legislators realise they have no future in the party, they get frustrated and leave… They see the BJP as a rising party, while their own seems to be on the decline.” This is not driven by any ideological commitment, either to the Congress or the BJP, he points out.

Another source, privy to the functioning of the party, says the main reason for the Congress poll loss was the lack of a “counter-narrative” to the BJP – a problem that has not gone away. “The seats where the party won had everything to do with the candidate,” she says.

A former MLA says the morale is low following successive losses in 2016 and 2021, and even the party’s best efforts have failed to counter that.

Bhupen Borah, who took over as Congress president in July, admits the successive setbacks. However, he explains them as the usual “ups and downs” of politics. “The BJP government does not respect the public mandate… This buying and selling of MLAs is extremely undemocratic,” he says.

The Congress is toiling hard to turn its fortunes around, Borah adds. “We may not have as much visibility as the government, but we have been constantly working behind-the-scenes. Our membership drive is going strong, our training camps are on and we continue to hold protests and keep the pressure up — whether it is the alleged land grab scam the CM’s family is involved in, or issues like price rise.”

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