Does Assam need a new political party?

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By: Siba K. Gogoi

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, or C(A)A 2019, has continued to provoke debates and discussions on whether it is really needed for Assam, not to mention other Indian states, where organisations representing a cross section of the Assamese society have been waging a bitter decades-long battle against illegal immigrants. The countrywide protests, which had their genesis in Assam, against the new citizenship law have proved one of the sternest tests ever for a BJP-led government at Delhi, and equally so for the Assam government headed by someone who once stirred the public’s imagination as the poster boy for the anti-foreigner movement in the state.

Thanks to the C(A)A 2019 that grants Indian citizenship to immigrants from three neighbouring countries on the grounds of religious persecution, many people of Assam feel that they have been contemptibly let down by the BJP-led ruling coalition in the state on the count of the keeping of its electoral promise of safeguarding the ‘jaati’ (the community), ‘maati’ (homeland), and ‘bheti’ (hearth) of the Assamese people.

The BJP apart, the AGP and the BPF —two significant regional parties from the state —are major partners in the Sarbananda Sonowal government, while the Congress is the Opposition in the state assembly. With the BJP vigorously campaigning to justify the controversial C(A)A 2019, the AGP and the BPF have been apparently made to tacitly stand for the amended citizenship act. Why the AGP continues to stick with the ruling BJP is not difficult to understand because political compulsion means more to the state party than its avowed dream of a foreigner-free Assam. The BPF hardly looks beyond the BTADs, now Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), even when issues like the C(A)A 2019 or mega dam send tensions surging to breaking point in the state. The Hagrama Mohilary-led party always believes in marriage of convenience, as has been the case with the AGP in recent times, with any party that helms a government in the state; and the Congress, like other major parties, has also been flip-flopping on the foreigner issue of Assam.

In a scenario like this, there is nothing surprising about the calls from various quarters for the formation of a new political party in Assam. Even when the movement against the Lower Subansiri dam touched frenetic heights there were suggestions that peasant leader Akhil Gogoi should shoulder the responsibility of putting together a party that could take on both the BJP and the Congress on issues of crucial concern to the people of Assam.

With Akhil Gogoi serving time in jail for his role in anti-C(A)A protests, the latest news is that the AASU, the state’s premier students’ body, is going to launch a new regional party in an attempt to counterweigh the policies of the ruling parties that go against the interests of the Assamese people. A question that has been haunting informed circles for quite some time is: has regionalism really served the interests of the indigenous people of Assam? If not, why has it faltered in Assam? The answer is not far to seek; as has been stated above, our very own centre-right AGP is self-explanatory enough.

It is easy indeed to form a new political party on the back of raging protests over a contentious issue like the ones the C(A)A 2019 has generated. However, it takes some doing to build a strong support base for a new party as well as giving it a sense of direction. If you are an Arvind Kejriwal and have the benefit of a much-televised association with a mass leader like Anna Hazare, your initiation into electoral politics gets pretty easier. With due respect to what Kejriwal had done before joining politics in the later part of 2012, the India Against Corruption movement, led by Hazare, did a world of good to the image of the future politician in Kejriwal. The recipient of the Ramon Magsasay Award displayed exemplary political honesty three weeks before the recent Delhi assembly elections, which his own Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won with a resounding mandate, when he asked the people “to vote for his party only if they think it has worked during the last five years”.

If you are a sophisticated, foreign-educated Akhilesh Yadav and enjoy the privilege of being the son of a political patriarch such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, you can expect your state political journey to have a fairy-tale beginning, like the one Yadav Junior had when he guided the Samajwadi Party (SP) to a thumping victory in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly polls.

The dynamics of Assam politics are, however, different from those of what plays out in Delhi or UP. Factors such as caste and religion play a dominant role in deciding the electoral fortunes of a party in UP, while issue-based politics counts more in Delhi, if the last three assembly elections in the national capital are any indications.

Politics in Assam has always been driven by the key issues of foreigners, corruption, underdevelopment, and the more recent one of mega dam. What has been actually cancelling these issues out is the all-pervasive greed and selfishness that characterises politics, both state and national. It is noteworthy that despite all the hue and cry across Assam over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019, the state BJP managed to win 10 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, three more than its tally of seven in the 2014 general elections.

At least 12 regional parties, including the AGP, the BPF, and the AIUDF, are currently active in Assam. About 15 parties have already disappeared from the political map of the state; these include the Indian Congress (Socialist) which was formed under the leadership of Charat Chandra Singha, one of the very few fabled chief ministers Assam has ever seen. This goes to show that it has never been easy for any regional political party from the state to stand the test of time. The AGP, the BPF, and the AIUDF, not to speak of the other state parties, have still been struggling to find their feet as strong regional forces with a say in national political affairs.

Despite governing the state for two full terms, the AGP has been a huge disappointment to the people of Assam. Internal discord, leadership crisis, lack of political foresight, and growing disconnection between leaders and the grassroots are some of the reasons why the AGP is no longer the party of the Assamese people. One cannot disregard the fact that the AGP had its birth in the much-documented Assam movement (1979-1985) against illegal immigrants spearheaded by the AASU. With the AGP pitiably failing to handle the foreigner issue, will the people of Assam trust another party formed under an AASU initiative?  However, it would be premature to dismiss the AGP as an outfit of no-hopers, but one thing is clear: AGP’s weaknesses have opened up the space for a new political grouping in Assam.

Notably, an overarching power centre at Delhi that thrives on the federal structure of the Indian Union also means that regional politics across the country has taken on different dimensions during the last three decades.

A political party, old or new, has to be a party of vision. If a new political party is to be launched in Assam, the questions of who will lead the party and with what credentials need to be addressed. It can be a party that judiciously draws on the burgeoning youth population of the state. It is advisable for the promoters of the party to engage with all the stakeholders, including regional, subregional groups and communities, before mapping out their political agenda.

If the new party focuses on issues such as safeguarding of the Assamese national identity, regional disparity, local aspirations, economic equity, participatory democracy, and democratic socialism, then it should resonate with the people of the State.

Assam needs leaders —- not moral entrepreneurs —- who can work with the sagacity and conviction that, when they are retired or gone, they will be remembered for what they did for their own people and not for who they were.

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