On the ropes, Congress recalibrates Assam strategy; banks on new regional parties

With the Lok Sabha elections a year away, the Congress is attempting to stitch together another alliance in Assam to take on the BJP. But this time, it has adopted a different approach.

Ahead of the Assembly elections in 2021, the Congress formed an alliance of 10 anti-BJP parties. The others in the coalition were All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Bodoland People’s Front (BDF), CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Anchalik Gana Morcha, and community-based parties Jimochayan (Deori) People’s Party and Adivasi National Party.

This time around, the party, which has rapidly declined electorally over the past few years, has brought together nine other parties once again to dislodge the BJP and its allies from power. But the constituents of this nascent alliance are distinct from those of the 2021 “mahajot (grand alliance)”, most notably because of the absence of the Congress’s two biggest partners in the last Assembly election — the AIUDF whose primary support base is Muslims of Bengali origin and the BPF that represents Bodos, one of the largest tribal communities of the state.

While the BPF, a former ally of the BJP, stepped away from the alliance after the 2021 elections itself, the Congress continued having a strained on-again-off-again relationship with the AIUDF. The ties continued to deteriorate and culminated in All India Congress Committee general secretary Jairam Ramesh earlier this year denouncing AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal as a “mouthpiece of the BJP” and stating that Ajmal “has nothing whatsoever to do with the UPA (United Progressive Alliance)”.

Assam Congress chief Bhupen Borah is open about his animosity towards the AIUDF and Ajmal, telling The Indian Express that “we do not maintain any connection with the AIUDF”.

“The polarisation that the BJP does is a joint strategy with them. For the polarisation to be complete, you need two parties … They (AIUDF) make provocative statements which we believe they do at the behest of the BJP. So, it will not be possible to sit together at a table and form an alliance with a party which is hand-in-glove with the BJP,” he said.

In 2021, the Congress suffered major losses in Upper Assam, the heartland of Assamese nationalism, something that is widely believed to be because of its association with the AIUDF. On the other hand, going up against the AIUDF will make things difficult for the Congress, especially in the Lok Sabha constituencies of Barpeta and Nagaon that have a sizable population of Muslims of Bengali origin. These are two of the three Lok Sabha seats it currently holds.

Now, the Congress instead counts among its allies two regional parties that were formed during the agitation against Citizenship Amendment Act — peasant leader Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dol and the Asom Jatiya Parishad. Both these parties stayed away from the alliance in 2021 because of the presence of the AIUDF.

“Raijor Dol believes that all the Opposition forces in Assam should unite, excluding the AIUDF, to defeat the BJP,” Gogoi said after a meeting of all 10 anti-BJP parties last week.

While the AIUDF won 16 Assembly seats in 2021 and has one Lok Sabha seat, neither of these regional parties has contested national elections and the only state legislator they have among them is Gogoi.

Borah has said that the alliance will also welcome the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) if the Congress high command comes to an understanding with these parties’ national leaderships. But it will be a long road over the next year for the alliance as it tries to build strength to get into a position where it can effectively challenge both the BJP and its allies, and the AIUDF.

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