The fight for Guwahati is tight, between the BJP’s Queen Ojha and Congress’ ‘beauty queen’ Bobeeta Sarma.
While it will be a polarised election, with Muslims largely on the Congress side, the challenge for the BJP will be to motivate reluctant Assamese Hindus to come out and vote.
The most prestigious among the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam is state capital Guwahati, the ancient Pragjyotishpur which was the capital of the Kamrup kingdom. Guwahati’s electorate, however, has also been very fickle, and political pundits have often been flummoxed by their choices.
While Guwahati has never allowed one single party to gain political monopoly over it, the large constituency spread over both banks of the Brahmaputra has also rebuffed many stalwarts, including Assam’s favourite bard Bhupen Hazarika. The BJP had bagged the seat in the last two elections in 2009 and 2014, and it is fighting hard to score a hattrick.
But the saffron party, which replaced its veteran Bijoya Chakraborty this time to beat anti-incumbency, is facing a tough challenge from the Congress. With the contest being a two-cornered one this time, the Congress is hoping that Guwahati’s electorate, which has never allowed one party to score a hattrick, will stay true to its reputation. The BJP, on the other hand, wants to script political history by upsetting this tradition.
Bijoya Chakraborty, who won this seat for the BJP for the first time in 1999, served as junior water resources minister in the Vajpayee government. In 2004, the BJP decided to replace her with Assam’s popular icon Bhupen Hazarika. But Guwahati’s electorate stunned the BJP by rejecting Hazarika and electing the lesser-known and lesser-popular Kirip Chaliha.
In 2009, the BJP fielded Chakraborty again while the Congress decided to field Robin Bordoloi, the son of Assam’s first chief minister and political stalwart Gopinath Bordoloi. Chakraborty wrested the seat back for her party, albeit by a narrow margin of a little less than 12,000 votes. But in 2014, Chakraborty won by a huge margin of more than 3.15 lakh votes.
Guwahati Lok Sabha constituency comprises 10 Assembly constituencies - Dudhnai, Boko, Chaygaon, Palasbari, Jalukbari, Dispur, Guwahati East, Guwahati West, Hajo and Barkhetri. Save for Boko and Chaygaon - both Muslim-majority constituencies- which the Congress bagged in the 2016 Assembly polls, the rest of the Assembly seats are held by the BJP and one (Guwahati West) by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which is an ally of the BJP.
Jalukbari Assembly seat is the fief of BJP strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma who has been campaigning vigorously for Queen Ojha, his party’s candidate from this seat. Ojha and the BJP are banking quite a lot on Sarma, who is known for his formidable political skills.
Ojha was the Mayor of Guwahati and belongs to a renowned Assamese family of the city. Her husband’s family is also a renowned one. As Mayor, she is credited with having undertaken a lot of development works and worked hard to solve the city’s civic woes. Her Congress rival, Bobbeeta Sharma, though a political greenhorn, is a well-known TV personality and a former ‘beauty queen’. The battle here has been dubbed as one between Queen (Ojha) and ‘beauty queen’.
Of the 22 lakh-strong electorate of Guwahati, Assamese Hindus form the largest chunk of nearly 40 per cent, Muslims account for about 22 per cent, Bengali Hindus form about 14 per cent, tribals (Rabhas, Bodos, Garos and Misings) nearly 10 per cent, Hindi-speaking people about 5 per cent and others, including Gorkhas, form the rest.
Among the Muslims, those of Bangladeshi origin account for 60 per cent and the indigenous Muslims (known as khilonjias) account for 40 per cent. The Muslims of Bangladeshi origin are mostly anti-BJP and are expected to vote almost en masse for the Congress. All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) leader Badruddin Ajmal, who has a good following amongst this community, has appealed to Muslims to vote for the Congress.
Ajmal did not field candidates in 11 Lok Sabha constituencies in Assam in order to prevent a division in Muslim votes. But, say political analysts, about 30 per cent of the khilonjias can be expected to support the BJP. Almost all the Bengali Hindus are also expected to vote in favour of the BJP, as will the Gorkhas and the Hindi-speaking (Marwaris, Biharis et cetera) electorate.
It is the Assamese Hindu voter who will play a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the electoral battle in Guwahati. The Congress, unlike in most other parts of the country, has a committed support base across Assam.
“The Congress’ committed votes will be about 10 per cent of the total electorate. This will be evident from the fact that even in 2014, when Bijoya Chakraborty won by a huge margin, the number of votes polled by the Congress candidate did not change much from 2009. In 2009, Robin Bordoloi got about 4.84 lakh votes and in 2014, Manash Bora polled nearly 4.5 lakh votes,” points out Naren Borpujari, a political analyst.
The BJP, too, has a committed support base among Assamese Hindus, but this base is not as old as the Congress’. Also, one section of Assamese Hindus are unhappy with the BJP over the Citizenship Amendment Bill that drew widespread protests across the state and are not likely to vote for the BJP.
But, says Borpujari, a good percentage of Assamese Hindu voters do not go to the polling booths to cast their votes. The challenge for the BJP, says Borpujari, is to get the Assamese Hindu voters to the polling booth.
The BJP is banking on the development projects that have been initiated in the Guwahati metropolitan area and also the semi-urban and rural areas of the constituency.
“We have completed a lot of projects, like water supply, roads and bridges, over the past three years (since 2016, when the BJP-led alliance has been in power in Assam) and have initiated some mega projects like another bridge over the Brahmaputra to connect North and South Guwahati, development of North Guwahati, new flyovers and a lot more,” said state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
“The rural areas have benefited from the social welfare schemes we have initiated as well as central government schemes like the Ujjwala scheme (LPG cylinders for poor), the Prime Minister Awas Yojana, free houses and toilets, rural electrification and projects for farmers. A lot of unemployed men have benefited from the small loans (Mudra) scheme and set up micro enterprises. There has been a lot of development and so there is a lot of goodwill for the BJP,” he adds.
Sarma’s claims are endorsed by a large section of the electorate. But, say many, the issue is not just development. There is residual anger over the Citizenship Bill, and many Muslims of Bangladeshi origin are apprehensive of the ongoing NRC updation exercise that is in its final phase.
The Biswanath Chariali incident (where a Muslim man found selling beef was allegedly thrashed and force-fed pork) has also polarised the Muslims against the BJP. But this Muslim polarisation has also triggered a counter-polarisation of Hindus (Assamese, Bengalis, Gorkhas, Rabhas, Bodos and Misings) in favour of the BJP.
The khilonjias (indigenous Muslims of Assam) quite resent their co-religionists of Bangladeshi origin. “They (the Bangladeshi-origin Muslims) are generally very conservative and even religious radicals and give our community a bad name. Also, they are illegal migrants and we don’t support their presence in Assam,” said Rakibur Hussain, a businessman.
He was an active member of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) which led a six-year-long agitation demanding detection and deportation of foreigners from Assam. Hussain says that the illegal immigrants have caused social strife and adversely affected the state’s economy and, hence, should be dealt with firmly.
Like Hussain, most khilonjias are against the illegal migrants and since the Congress is looked upon as a party that has encouraged the illegal influx and sheltered and patronised the infiltrators, they tend to vote against the Congress.
Though many khilonjias had been supporting the AGP, an ally of the BJP now, it is, however, uncertain if they will transfer their votes in the BJP’s favour in large numbers. However, many among the khilonjias are active members and leaders of the BJP and it is felt that their efforts to mobilise the support of their community in favour of the BJP will succeed to some extent this time. Most of the tribals - Garos, Rabhas, Bodos and Misings - as well as the Gorkhas are expected to support the BJP.
While opinion is divided on how the electoral arithmetic will work out, and in whose favour, everyone agrees that the contest will ultimately be a close one. And a lot will depend on the polling percentage of Hindu voters. If this number dips below 60 per cent, Queen Ojha could be in trouble. Thus, it is imperative for the BJP to motivate Hindus to cast their votes in large numbers to counter and negate the Muslim polarisation behind the Congress.