The Lok Sabha elections in Assam, as the retelling of recent history shows, is more a battle of identity than agenda. While the idea of identity has multiple electoral narratives across the 14 constituencies of the state, the Gauhati constituency over the last 15 years has vetted, voted and steered towards a gendered battle for power.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and the Congress took centre stage in the state, fielding a woman candidate from the constituency and giving Gauhati its first ever all-woman showdown - one between a glamorous, informed candidate and a dedicated party worker.
The BJP has fielded former Gauhati mayor Queen Ojha, 67, replacing three-time MP and former Minister of State under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Bijoya Chakravarty. Ojha served the city of Gauhati as a member of the Assam Gana Parishad and also represented the regional party in the Rajya Sabha but later switched to the BJP.
Bobeeta Sharma, a known figure in Assamese film and television industry is the Congress candidate battling against the BJP and Ojha. In 2005, she was also appointed as the chairperson of the Assam Film (Finance and Development) Corporation.
News18 spoke to Queen Ojha to know if a woman contender in the Opposition bothers her or the BJP this time as this is the first time the BJP in Gauhati is facing another woman candidate from a major political party.
“I don’t think it’s a woman’s battle. I think it’s a battle about merit. The BJP has given me the ticket on the basis of my merit. Whether I am a woman or a man doesn’t really matter. With two women contenders, the electorate knows whose merit is what,” Ojha told News18.
When asked if the BJP has successfully benefitted by fielding Bijoya Chakravarty thrice, Ojha said it is not a woman, man thing but rather a matter of work done and alliances formed. “We are ahead of everyone,” said the leader who recently came under the scanner for providing false information in her affidavit.
On the other side, 52-year-old Sharma has played a host of roles: from being an Assamese actor, an English news reader for the Doordarshan, international author and the host of a popular show on the Assamese diaspora, and now a politician.
“It’s an encouraging sign that Gauhati has been represented by a woman parliamentarian before,” Sharma told News18. “This time the Congress party has also fielded a woman. It shows our party’s commitment towards woman empowerment and 33 percent reservation for them in parliament”.
“But, the people of Gauhati support me because I deliver results (as an actor). They don’t differentiate between man and woman; both are equal in terms of performance. I am here to deliver results. I can’t say this about the opposition,” she added.
This media personnel-turned politician was denied a Lok Sabha ticket in 2014, but was instead given an Assembly one. She lost the East Gauhati Assembly constituency to BJP’s Siddhartha Bhattacharjee in 2016. Besides, state Assembly elections do not reflect a similar political strategy or result that is inclined towards a woman candidate; they are dominated by men.
What makes the contest in Gauhati interesting is the Opposition’s fitting adaptation of the ruling party’s trump card in Lok Sabha elections – a woman candidate, to level the electoral ground. Besides Ojha and Sharma, another woman - Junmoni Devi Khaund - is in the poll fray. Khaund is contesting the elections as an Independent candidate.
Game of Polls: Lord or Lady
The Bharatiya Janata Party has successfully fielded a woman candidate, incumbent MP Bijoya Chakravarty, from Gauhati for three terms. Chakravarty won the seat in the 1999, 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha Elections.
The only time she wasn’t elected from the seat was in 2004 when the BJP had decided to field from Gauhati popular Assamese public figure and singer Bharat Ratna Dr Bhupen Hazarika in her place.
BJP’s record in the Gauhati constituency, or rather Bijoya Chakravarty’s, over last four Lok Sabha elections is noteworthy. Following the BJP’s 2004 defeat in Gauhati, Chakravarty regained the Gauhati seat with a margin of 28 percent in 2009. Before the BJP strangely decided to replace her in 2004, she had won the Lok Sabha in 1999 elections with over 45 percent votes.
In 2014, across the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, 146 male candidates and only 16 women candidates contested the elections. Chakravarty, along with Congress MP Sushmita Deb from Silchar, were among the only two women candidates who won the election. The incumbent Gauhati MP had won the election with a margin over 39 percent.
For the saffron party, fielding Bijoya Chakravarty, or a woman candidate, from Gauhati is a tried and tested strategy that has proven successful over the last two decades. In 2014, she was among the 45 women candidates in the country, including the likes of Sonia Gandhi (33 percent), Maneka Gandhi (32 percent), Hema Malini (34 percent), Sushma Swaraj (43 percent) and others, who won by a margin of over 30 percent.
Perhaps, the Congress party has finally realised the politics of Gauhati and the aspirations of its people this election season.
“Ideas change, visions change. I think the party has taken a good decision regarding fielding a woman candidate. The fight will be good if there are two woman candidates,” said Sharma.
When asked if the BJP’s political stronghold in the constituency will pose a challenge to the Congress, Sharma said, “The BJP’s track record in Gauhati is dismal. Over three terms, the incumbent MP Bijoya Chakravarty has done no work. For the Congress breaking through the BJP vote will be the easiest thing to do. People are fed up with them after 10-15 years. I say give me 5 years”.
What the Electorate Wants
The grand old party in Assam possibly has understood that it is what the electorate wants and not what the electors provide that holds significance in the battle for votes.
In 2014, the Congress party had run a pilot project of holding primary elections across 15 constituencies of India. A primary election is a process by which members of a political party, can elect a candidate among themselves to contest in an upcoming general election, thus narrowing the field of candidates. The Gauhati constituency was one of the 15 chosen for the process.
“Who will be the best candidate from the party? This question got Congress' Manash Borah nominated from Gauhati in the election of primaries in the 2014 Lok Sabha. I lost the ticket and he got it because of the pilot project,” claims Sharma, alleging that there is scope for manipulation by using money and influence in such cases of internal nomination.
“Hillary Clinton lost the same way in the US. She emerged victorious in the primaries and became the presidential nominee,” she added. “Something similar was attempted in India. But this concept is ahead of our times. People did not want this."
Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in Gauhati on April 23, both the Congress and the BJP candidates are running election campaigns in full swing. Sharma said her agenda is to tackle the drinking water issue in a constituency that is partially urban, while making Gauhati “a liveable city”. The state government hasn’t taken much initiative on it, she alleged.
On other hand, Ojha said “Development, development, development and only development” is her main agenda, before she excused herself to address a rally. I can’t keep a crowd of 10,000 waiting, she added.
With unclear agendas but personalities afloat, the battle for Gauhati - the gateway to Northeast India and now increasingly to that of South Asia - is surely one to look out for. Whether Congress’ awakening to the BJP’s old trick in the hat proves useful will only be known on May 23.