The cracks within the Assam Congress seem to have widened following former chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s announcement that the party was ready for an alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal ahead of the 2021 assembly elections.
Interestingly, it was Gogoi himself who snubbed Ajmal in the run-up to the 2006 assembly elections with his famous one-liner, “Who is Badruddin Ajmal?” Since then, the grand old party has not made any formal pact with the AIUDF that is seen as a party sympathetic to the cause of illegal immigrants.
It is believed that Gogoi has the backing of state Congress president Ripun Bora and former minister and senior party leader Rockybul Hussain for the tie-up plan with AIUDF.
A section of senior Congress functionaries, however, viewed this development as something that could spell more trouble for the party. They have now decided to write a letter to the Congress high command, seeking the removal of the party’s state president.
They are of the firm view that the Hindu electorate across the state would vote against the party if the AIUDF is projected as a partner. In short, the proposed move by the Gogoi camp would end up benefiting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam.
A glimpse from the Assam Congress leaders’ meet.
Gogoi’s masterstroke in 2006
The Congress had won 53 out of 126 seats in the 2006 Assam assembly elections, and the AIUDF 10. However, it decided to join hands with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) led by Hagrama Mohilary that bagged 10 seats. By keeping Ajmal at bay, Gogoi wanted to change the popular perception about the Congress being a pro-minority party. He also wanted to send out a message that the grand old party would stand by Assam’s indigenous communities.
Gogoi had managed to convince the party high command that the AIUDF could remain a part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre, but he would prefer to go solo in the state elections. This strategy worked for the Congress, and Gogoi became chief minister for the third time in a row.
A shrewd politician as he is, Gogoi knew it too well that the Congress must shed its pro-minority image, especially in Assam where the issue of illegal Muslim immigrants could make or break the electoral prospects of any political party. The issue had triggered the six-year Assam Agitation, the culmination of which resulted in the signing of the historic Assam Accord in 1985. It highlighted the need for updating the National Register of Citizens to weed out illegal immigrants, provisions for constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect and preserve the language and culture of the people of Assam, land rights for indigenous people, among others.
By not aligning with Ajmal, Gogoi could position the Congress as a party sympathetic to regional sentiments, thereby blocking the growth of the BJP or reemergence of the Asom Gana Parishad which ruled the state twice prior to 2001.
Rift in the Congress
On Tuesday, Gogoi announced the possible alliance with the AIUDF and other non-BJP secular parties following a meeting of the party’s core committee in Guwahati. Soon after this, senior functionaries, including leader of the Opposition Debabrata Saikia, Pradyut Bordoloi, Bhupen Borah, Rana Goswami and Abdul Khaleque held a separate meeting in which they decided to send a formal request to the party high command, seeking change of leadership. A letter is expected to be submitted within this week.
Some of the functionaries who attended the second meeting told this writer that they are opposed to an alliance only with the AIUDF. Instead, they have made a case for a “broader coalition of secular and non-BJP forces” such as the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Bodoland People’s Front and Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS).
“Last January, the Congress high command had almost decided to change the president. Then, some heavyweights pitched in to scuttle the move,” said one of the party functionaries on the condition of anonymity.
Most of the Congress workers believe that there is large-scale revulsion against the ruling BJP in the wake of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and that the people are looking for an alternative. But much would depend upon whether the leadership would be able to sway the votes in favour of the party.
On Tuesday, the core committee of the APCC had met at Hotel Gateway Grandeur on GS Road, instead of the party headquarters Rajiv Bhawan located just 500 metres from the venue. The panel was formed around two years ago, following a suggestion from Harish Rawat, then Congress general secretary in-charge of Assam, to ensure better coordination among senior leaders who otherwise met only during executive committee meetings.
However, the core committee has not functioned in the way it was supposed to work “because Ripun Bora has a tendency of ‘going it alone’ or ‘doing it yourself’, instead of sharing ideas with other senior leaders and taking decisions collectively”, the party functionaries cited above said. As a result, over a period of time, meetings of both the executive committee and the core committee of the APCC have become rare, they added.
There were reports that Bora may be replaced as APCC president because ever since 2016, the Congress has fared very badly in all elections in Assam, be it the assembly bypolls, the panchayat elections or the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The party high command had wanted at least 50% of the seats in Assam – seven – in the Lok Sabha polls of 2019. However, the Congress won only three seats, all in the minority-dominated areas. Moreover, in two of these seats, the AIUDF preferred not to field any candidate, making it easier for the Congress to win.
It was only in the Barpeta constituency, that the Congress candidate had to contest against both the BJP as well as the AIUDF. Bora had then offered to resign taking moral responsibility for the party’s dismal performance in the polls.
Since then, there has been some speculation of either Pradyut Bordoloi or Bhupen Bora being given the leadership of the APCC ahead of the 2021 assembly elections. But the party high command has so far remained undecided on this due to “unknown reasons”, according to the Congress functionaries.
The section campaigning for change in the leadership is apprehensive that the decision to join hands with the AIUDF could be approved by the core committee. “But the core committee is not a legal entity. Such decisions must have the approval of the executive committee as well,” said another functionary. He warned that there are “long-term designs” behind the proposal to tie-up with the AIUDF, but refused to divulge further details.
(The author is a senior journalist and writer based in Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)
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