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6-min read

The Foot Soldiers’ Dilemma in Assam as AGP Leaders Fume Over BJP’s Citizenship Bill Stand

In Kaliabor, where the AGP's candidate for whom BJP top guns, including party chief Amit Shah, had campaigned recently, BJP workers are struggling to convince supporters to vote for the ally candidate.

Pranjal Baruah | News18

Updated:April 10, 2019, 5:00 PM IST
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The Foot Soldiers’ Dilemma in Assam as AGP Leaders Fume Over BJP’s Citizenship Bill Stand
The last few months have seen massive protests over the bill across the northeast with locals apprehending a mass exodus of Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh.
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Guwahati: A day ahead of the first phase election in Assam, a strange sight met the electorate of Jorhat district’s Teok town, located about 330km from the state capital.

Ashok Bora, one of the founding members of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), was seen campaigning for the Congress’ Jorhat candidate Sushanta Borgohain instead of his party’s ally candidate — Tapan Kumar Gogoi.

Enraged over the BJP’s manifesto that promised to implement the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill, Bora has decided to urge the AGP’s grassroots workers to help the Congress nominee defeat Gogoi.

“I’m still an AGP worker, but I can’t support a candidate who is a part of the party which is adamant on bringing the citizenship bill back overlooking resentments of people of the state. As the Congress has assured not to bring the bill back, I am urging all my party workers to vote for the Congress to secure the future of Assam,” said Bora.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah during their poll campaigns in the state had skipped any mention of the bill that seeks to ease out the process of granting Indian citizenship to migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who belong to six religious minorities — Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians.

Although the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, it couldn’t be tabled in the Rajya Sabha when it was adjourned sine die on February 13.

The last few months have seen massive protests over the bill across the northeast with locals apprehending a mass exodus of Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh.

Despite the BJP’s ‘Mission 20’ goal in the region, the party manifesto, titled ‘Sankalp Patra’, has left many in the region, including its ally AGP, fuming.

Borgohain said, “The Congress did not invite the AGP member to campaign for us. He came voluntarily. This is a result of the AGP leadership’s mistakes and disrespect towards the sentiments of its own party workers and indigenous people.”

The split in the BJP’s regional camp has been out in the open for some time now, especially since the AGP’s fallout with the party over the bill.

In January, the regional party walked out of the coalition government in protest against the bill, which it said would violate the Assam Accord of 1985 that aimed at detecting and deporting illegal immigrants.

However, in March, the AGP renewed its ties with the saffron party, even as AGP president Atul Bora said his party would continue to oppose the BJP over its stand on the bill.

As part of the seat-sharing arrangement, the AGP was offered to field its candidates from three Lok Sabha constituencies — Dhubri, Barpeta and Kaliabor — and one Rajya Sabha seat.

The parties are helping each other and their other ally, the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF), on the other seats.

However, the AGP-BJP negotiation did not go down well with former chief minister and AGP’s founding member Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. He has announced that he would not be campaigning during the Lok Sabha election.

“If the bill is passed, the Assam Accord would be violated and the sacrifices of 855 martyrs of the Assam Agitation would go in vain. That’s why I have decided to abstain from campaigning,” Mahanta said.

The former chief minister said the decision of reuniting with the BJP was not a collective one with only a handful of the party leaders going ahead with the alliance for the sake of power.

He added that there could not be any justification for the AGP to renew its alliance with the BJP, especially after the latter made it amply clear that it would table the bill in Parliament again if it retained power at the Centre.

However, it’s not only AGP members who are facing an ‘awkward’ situation. In the Kaliabor parliamentary seat, where the party has fielded Moni Madhab Mahanta for whom BJP top guns, including party chief Amit Shah, had campaigned recently, BJP workers are struggling to convince supporters to vote for its ally candidate.

“The problem is very critical and obvious. In December, when both the AGP and BJP had decided to contest the state’s panchayat election separately, BJP cadres worked hard to reach out to voters and convince them to vote for BJP and go against the AGP, Congress and others. But only after a few months, the same party workers are once again reaching out to the same voters and asking them to vote for the AGP. It not only affects one’s credibility at the grassroots level, but also confuses our supporters. The AGP candidate’s chances of winning completely depends on how our supporters back him,” said a BJP insider.

Since 1998, the Kaliabor seat has remained a Congress’s stronghold. Before the incumbent Congress MP, Gaurav Gogoi, the constituency was represented by his uncle Dip Gogoi in 2004, and before that, by his father and three-time Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi in 1991, 1998 and 1999 (the back-to-back elections were a result of frequent change in government at the Centre).

It was only in 1996 when the seat was won by AGP leader Keshab Mahanta, elder brother of AGP’s present candidate Moni Madhab Mahanta. Kaliabor also has a sizeable Muslim voter base, which can impact the poll outcome.

Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “BJP workers have to work harder than AGP cadres in Kaliabor… Voters in the constituency need to be united for the success of our candidate.”

The five Lok Sabha constituencies of Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Kaliabor, Lakhimpur and Tezpur will be going to the polls on Thursday.

A similar situation is likely to pan out in lower Assam’s Barpeta and Dhubri seats too where the BJP, which has been traditionally weak, is now supporting the AGP candidates.

“The AGP, believed to be a secular party, always has a support base in these minority-dominated seats. However, being a BJP ally may impact that base this time,” said an AGP insider in Barpeta.

Both Barpeta and Dhubri has been with Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

Though grassroots workers of both the AGP and BJP have been finding it difficult to garner votes for their ally partners, many BJP leaders believe that bill would not be a factor in this poll.

BJP spokesperson Rupam Bhuyan said, “There was a lot of misinformation that was spread regarding the bill earlier. But now the people of Assam have started to understand that the bill is not against them and it is not going to impact our performance in the election”

Party sources said the BJP leadership, which was slightly on a back foot ever since the unrest over the citizenship
bill, got a new lease of life recently when it managed to induct some of the anti-bill campaigners into the party.

Last week, the leader of Anushushit Jati Yuva Chhattra Parishad (Asom), Jadab Das, who had earlier participated in a naked protest against the bill in front of Parliament in Delhi, joined the saffron camp. Besides, several members of Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti have joined the BJP.

State BJP president Ranjit Kumar Das said, “Misinterpretation of the bill have led most of the people to mix up ‘foreigners’ and ‘refugees’. Now, most of the misunderstandings have been cleared as leaders of many parties and organisations opposing the bill have decided to join the BJP.”
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