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From yatras to shivirs, Baghel replicates his Chhattisgarh model to take on BJP in Assam

For the first time in recent history, the party has tasked its chief ministers with election duties to turn the corner in other states — Chhattisgarh's Bhupesh Baghel in Assam and Rajasthan's Ashok Gehlot in Kerala.

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi |
Updated: March 5, 2021 12:01:03 pm
assam, assam congress, assam assembly elections, assam polls, Bhupesh Baghel Congress, Bhupesh Baghel assam elections, Assam news, Assam assembly elections 2021, north east news, indian expressChhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. (File)

IT IS an uphill battle and the opponent is formidable, but the Congress is more confident than it was three months ago and hopes to give incumbent BJP a tough fight in Assam. For the first time in recent history, the party has tasked its chief ministers with election duties to turn the corner in other states — Chhattisgarh’s Bhupesh Baghel in Assam and Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot in Kerala.

And Baghel, sources said, is replicating the Chhattisgarh model in Assam.

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His three key advisors — Vinod Verma, Ruchir Garg and Rajesh Tiwari — are stationed in Assam, and over two dozen teams comprising local Congress leaders from Chhattisgarh have been moved to Assam to oversee the election efforts. This is addition to the campaign already put in place by AICC incharge Jitendra Singh, who is considered close to Rahul Gandhi.

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Assam Congress leaders said factionalism in the state unit, which was rampant, has been controlled, but they are keeping their fingers crossed since ticket distribution has always been tricky. “He (Jitendra Singh) had taken all of us to a resort some two months ago and we sat together for several hours. His message was very clear. The party will not project anyone as the Chief Minister candidate. Every leader will get a post in election-related panels but how we conduct ourselves while delivering the task assigned to us will decide our fate,” a senior leader told The Indian Express.

It was decided that all senior leaders should undertake simultaneous bus yatras which were concluded last week. Singh nudged four senior Congress leaders – Gaurav Gogoi, Sushmita Dev, Debabrata Saikia and Pradyut Bordoloi – to undertake these yatras. While Bordoloi began from Bordua Satra, the birthplace of Srimanta Sankardev, in Nagaon district, Saikia kicked off the yatra from Sivasagar city, Gogoi from Guwahati, and Sushmita Dev from Silchar.

Apart from the Chhattisgarh team, Singh has deputed four AICC office bearers – AICC secretaries Anirudh Singh, Prithviraj Prabhakar Sathe and Vikas Upadhyay and joint secretary Aditya Sharma – who are stationed in various areas.

The teams from Chhattisgarh which reached Assam in January – Baghel was appointed senior observer for campaign management and coordination in the first week of January – had held “sankalp shivirs” for booth workers. Party leaders say barring a few Assembly constituencies in the Bodo region, such shivirs were held in all the seats. The idea, sources said, was to “charge up” the workers.

The cadre in Assam had been demoralised. The party’s electoral fortunes in Assam have not looked up since 2014. It could win only three Lok Sabha seats in 2014, a tally it maintained in 2019 as well. After the rout in Assembly elections in 2016, the party has not been able to regroup. The BJP recently made impressive gains in Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and the Tiwa Autonomous Council (TAC) elections – both in regions where it had performed poorly in the past. The passing away of former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi too has left a void as the Congress cannot boast of a leader who has a similar pan-Assam appeal, acceptability and stature.

But Baghel’s idea of shivirs — similar to that in Chhattisgarh when he was the PCC president — has enthused workers on the ground. “The same model was replicated in Assam. Booth-level workers were given training on various aspects including distribution of voters’ lists, identifying voters, segregating floating voters and targeting them… the issues to be raised and getting feedback,” a leader said.

The Congress has conducted multiple surveys, sources said. “To our surprise, we found much consternation among the people regarding the Citizenship Amendment Act barring, of course, in the Barack Valley. There was a high level of discontent among tea garden workers. Issues like unemployment and price rise were also there,” a leader said. The party, accordingly, decided to focus more on Upper Assam and take a position on the CAA.

“In most constituencies, there will be a team from Chhattisgarh overseeing the campaign, including aspects like wall graffiti, distribution of publicity material,” a leader said.

The alliance with the AIUDF, some of the Congress leaders, feared could backfire. But Congress strategists claim it may not and the “mahajath” was formed to create an impression that the opposition can provide a viable alternative. “There is discontent. But it can be reaped if the voters feel there is a credible alternative,” a strategist said. The inclusion of Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) in the Congress-led alliance, after it severed ties with the BJP, has come as a shot in the arm. The Congress hopes that BPF would help swing votes in favour of the alliance in the Bodoland Territorial Region which has around 15 Assembly seats.

In Upper Assam, the party is trying hard to regain lost ground. The party had suffered a setback when former minister and Golaghat MLA Ajanta Neog and Lakhipur MLA Rajdeep Gowala joined the BJP in December. “They may have left. But the workers have not gone with them. The Congress cadre is still there. So their exit will not impact us much,” claimed Upadhyay, who is stationed in Upper Assam.

Party leaders said the decision to bring Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to Upper Assam and North Bank regions was to repair the damage and show that the party is serious in its election efforts. Rahul Gandhi too had visited Upper Assam. “The tribals and the tea garden workers still relate to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Priyanka’s visit was to tap on that recall value,” a leader said.

“It is still a tough fight but we believe the situation has improved from what it was three-four months ago,” a senior Congress leader claimed. In 2016, the BJP had won 60 seats while allies BPF and AGP had bagged 12 and 14, respectively. The Congress was reduced to 26 while the AIUDF got 13. The BJP’s vote share stood at 29.5 per cent, AGP 8.1 per cent and BPF 3.9 per cent. The Congress got a vote share of 30.9 per cent, down from 39 per cent in the previous Assembly election. The AIUDF managed a vote share of 13.05 per cent.

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