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Assam Pulse | Of an enfeebled Congress, upstarts & a CM towering above all

While parties such as AAP and TMC aim to fill the space left behind by a shrinking Congress, the Opposition has no answer to Himanta Biswa Sarma’s undiminishing popularity.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Gauhati |
June 3, 2022 8:50:11 pm
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (Photo: Himanta Biswa Sarma)

Every other morning in Assam brings along a new rumour about a Congress leader defecting.

On some days, it turns out to be true — like, in April, when the party’s former state president Ripun Bora jumped ship to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Last week, the local media in Assam was abuzz with news of the imminent resignation of Rakibul Hussain, the Congress’s Deputy Leader in the Assembly. However, Hussain — a former minister and old Congress hand who represents the Samaguri constituency — later clarified that he had no plans of leaving the party.

Such developments have cost the Congress’s image dearly. And the grand old party’s rapidly diminishing status in Assam has opened up a space for an alternative opposition.

Scramble for an Opposition

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It is not just defections that ail the Congress. Perhaps the wake-up call for the party was when it drew a blank in the Guwahati civic polls in April after having won the majority in the elections in 2013. Even the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the regional Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) won a seat each. Before that in March, the party lost its lone Rajya Sabha seat despite having the numbers.

This has led to a desperate scramble — from Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP to Mamata Banerjee’s TMC — to fill the void being left behind by a rapidly shrinking Congress. Parties that had no footprint in the biggest northeastern state are now hoping to find a foothold.

While the AAP and the TMC have a long climb ahead, sincere efforts are on to build their organisational base. While the AAP is going for a bottom-up approach, betting on municipal elections, the TMC is working from the top, getting big names (from Sushmita Dev to Ripun Bora) to join it.

Political analysts believe that the AAP’s governance track record in Delhi may, in the long run, endear it to some of the middle class, and the TMC may find some support among the state’s considerably large Bengali population. Last month, the party’s MP Abhishek Banerjee was in Guwahati to inaugurate Assam headquarters, and is also keeping a keen eye on the coming panchayat polls.

The Sarma factor

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While only time will tell whether these parties become a credible Opposition, the BJP juggernaut led by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma makes it an even harder task to dislodge the ruling party from power.

On May 10, the Sarma government completed one year — an anniversary celebrated with much fanfare, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah coming down to the state for two days to inaugurate a slew of projects.

In the past year, Sarma, whose approach to policing has been criticised, has gone from strength to strength and his clout continues to rise in the state. Analysts liken his popularity to that of Narendra Modi. “What we are seeing in Assam now is unprecedented. Politics revolves around not just a party, but the personality of one leader,” said an observer. “He has developed his own model of governance — which you cannot ignore.”

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Take the events of last week for example. An alleged custodial death led a mob to torch a police station in a Bengali-speaking Muslim area in Nagaon district. The Sarma-led administration responded swiftly — not only did bulldozers demolish the homes of those in the mob, the stringent UAPA was also invoked against the accused for alleged terror links. A few days later, the main accused was “run over” when he allegedly tried to “flee custody”.

The events seemed like a culmination of a year marked by stringent policing, a crackdown on crime, evictions of “illegal” settlers, and further marginalisation of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state. In the past two months alone — Sarma has pushed for a district-wise definition of minorities and separate identity cards for “indigenous” Assamese Muslims. Last week, his Cabinet said it would introduce a separate certificate for Muslims and five other religious minority groups, as per directions of the Centre.

Despite all this, the CM’s popularity continues to rise. “While his politics may have serious consequences on the society, the masses perceive him as a hardworking, efficient administrator, who has the capacity to mobilise,” said an Opposition politician, who did not wish to be named, adding that Sarma still “maintained relationships with his former colleagues at the Congress”.

Observers pointed to schemes such as Mission Sadbhavna (to dispose of pending files in the Secretariat) and Mission Basundhara (to dispose of land-related applications), the push for high schools in tea garden areas, and the introduction of a network of Cancer care hospitals, saying such markers of good governance are likely to strike a chord with common people.

Then there are the border talks. The resolution of part of it with Meghalaya and the efforts with other states such as Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh ensure that his clout among the other Northeast states remains intact.

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Sarma’s next test is the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council polls slated to be held on June 8.

Even as Opposition parties level allegations of malpractices by his wife Riniki Bhuyan Sarma’s company in connection with the supply of PPE kits during the pandemic, it is unlikely that it will affect him or his party’s prospects.

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First published on: 03-06-2022 at 08:50:11 pm

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