Assam Assembly Elections 2021: Its all about CAA, tea community and a triangular contest

With elections just weeks away, several top campaigners from all the political parties have started campaigning in the state. While BJP and Congress are at loggerheads over the issue of Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 CAA, both the parties are leaving no stone unturned to woo the voters from the tea community. However, another political development to look forward is the emergence of the regional parties Asom Jatiya Parishad AJP and Raijor Dal. Whether the regional parties will be able to give a tough fight to both the major parties will be a crucial political phase in the state.

The BJP, which has been expanding its base in the North-Eastern region ever since coming to power at the centre in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, now is looking at expanding its footprint in all the states where it doesn’t have a government yet.

“Assam being the most populous state with the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats- 14, among all the eight states in the region, is crucial as it exerts an impact on the election outcome in the other states. For this reason, winning the Assam election is very crucial for us,” said a BJP secretary who is overseeing the upcoming elections in Assam.

The BJP Secretary expressed confidence that his party will be able to form government in Assam, as the BJP led Assam government has been able to perform and deliver in the last five years.

“We have been able to deliver on our promises- and create important infrastructure in the state- even in remote areas in the state, and this should ensure that people vote for us,” said the secretary.

 The BJP which was only a minor player in Assam’s political scenario- expanded its voter base significantly in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and was able to maintain and expand that base in all the subsequent elections in the state and was simultaneously able to win Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and formed a government in alliance in Meghalaya and Nagaland. The BJP has also been able to expand to Mizoram and Sikkim, where it is not part of the government.   

A triangular contest awaits

While BJP has allied with AGP and UPPL, the Congress has forged a ‘grand-alliance’ or ‘Mahajoot’ with the AIUDF and left groups- making it a six-party alliance. It is, however, confident of defeating the BJP led government on the issue of governance and the CAA.

“This government brought the CAA which is against the wishes of the people of Assam and has failed to provide good governance in the state. People are disappointed with the performance of this government, and common people are also aware that only the Congress has the capability and experience to govern a diverse state like Assam,” said an All India Congress Committee AICC functionary who is overseeing the election process in Assam for the Congress.

The upcoming 2021 election in Assam is also likely to be a triangular fight in most constituencies in the state with the regional party alliance of Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal (RD) gearing up to make their electoral debut in the state. Born out of the anti-CAA revolution both the regional parties intent to uproot the BJP and its divisive politics from the state. However, it was not in the favour of joining the ‘grand-alliance’, citing differences in their political ideologies.

“With a three-cornered fight, the results of the election could swing anyway, and all the political parties know this. The BJP was hoping that the Congress-led alliance with AIUDF will ensure a BJP sweep in upper Assam and will improve its tally in Barak valley and lower Assam districts. However, with the alliance having formed- a block of 40 odd seats will go with the alliance, and for this, the BJP is putting every effort to ensure it can maximize its seats in its strongholds,” said Sabita Devi, a researcher and analyst associated with the Guwahati based Centre for Environment, Social and Policy Research.

The BJP is also playing a major gamble by allying with the UPPL and dumping its earlier alliance partner- the BPF.

The BJP has promoted the UPPL and now it is in alliance with the UPPL in the BTR council, and it is likely to contest the assembly election in alliance with the UPPL within the BTR region.

“The BJP has been eager to expand its presence in the BTR region and the BPF leadership was not willing to give space to the saffron party in the region and for this, the BJP leadership decided to break that alliance,” pointed out Devi.

Parties preferring Tea

With just few weeks remaining in the run-up to the state election, all the political parties have stepped up their campaign and announcement to garner votes.

The Assam government in its Interim budget ahead of the state election has announced a slew of bonanzas targeting various groups in the state which could fetch votes- ranging from marginalized communities to small-scale entrepreneurs.

Assam Finance and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that the minimum wage of the tea plantation workers will be hiked soon. Tea garden associations have been demanding a hike in the minimum wage of tea plantation workers.

According to a published paper, titled “Electoral Participation of the Tea Tribe Community in Assam: Special Reference to Lok Sabha Election of 2019” by Pranami Laskar, a Phd scholar of the Assam University, the votes of the tea tribe community plays a major role in deciding the result of the various elections of Assam.

“Of all the tribal and ethnic groups of the state, the electoral roll of the tea tribe community has become the most crucial. They comprise of 35 lakh voters which is enough to play a decisive role in any election,” quotes the published paper.

“In the 2016 BJP manifesto ahead of the Assam election, it was promised that the minimum wage of the plantation workers will be hiked to Rs. 351.33, but even today it is Rs. 167,” said Nabin Chandra Keot, vice president of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS).

 “From February 10 onwards, ACMS will start garden wise protest across Assam, and we will question the representatives and leaders of the political parties to make their stand clear regarding minimum wage,” Keot told media.

Since the issue of payment for the workers is by the garden authorities, the Assam finance minister said that the state government will hold a series of consultations with the stakeholders before taking a decision.

In his interim budget speech, the state finance minister mentioned, “The Assam Government will sit for consultations with all stakeholders and then issue an ordinance on the daily wages of the tea garden workers of the State by February 20.”

In the interim budget, the minister also announced welfare schemes for the marginalized communities, and this could help the ruling party garner a major portion of the voters from the marginalized communities.

Sarma claimed that the State Government has always laid stress on increasing the number of welfare schemes for tea tribes and Adivasi community in the State.

“Our Government, under the ‘Simon Sing Horo Scholarship Scheme’ has offered Rs.10,000 as a one-time support to all students from these communities who had passed HSLC and HSSLC examinations,” said the minister.

“To address the challenges and risks faced by our women in the tea tribes community during pregnancy and post-natal period and to ensure access to adequate ante natal and peri-natal care, our Government has introduced a one-time payment of Rs.12,000 to each pregnant woman in the garden areas so that she can better take care of herself without compromising her livelihood,” Sarma stated in his interim budget speech.

 “Through this direct route of reaching the beneficiaries, and with the support of banks, we have released Rs.382.41 crore in phase 1 and phase 2 to all eligible tea tribe community members, in two installments of Rs.2500 each,” Himanta Biswa Sarma further said.

Besides this, announcing a relief for the middle class section in the state, the finance minister reduced the price of both Petrol and Diesel by Rs 5 each.

Along with the price of fuel, the state government also slashed the tax on liquor by 25 percent. This 25 percent additional cess was levied to meet healthcare expenses during the course of the Covid pandemic.

“The interim budget speech and announcements are inclusive and caters to the needs of marginalized and the middle class segments of the society- and these announcements could swing a significant portion of the voters towards the BJP. Moreover, in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and in the Assam assembly election in 2016, the BJP had won most of the assembly seats having a sizeable population belonging to the tea tribe community. These announcements have strengthened the position of the ruling party,” added Devi.

Devi also added that since the BJP is focusing this time in the BTR region and also in the lower Assam districts- a thrust has been given for the welfare of the Adivasi community.

In a recent meeting at Dhekiajuli in the Sonitpur district in Assam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stirred a hornet’s nest in his speech, wherein an attempt was made to invoke ‘Tea’ as an emotional connection to the voters ahead of the Assam Assembly election. Modi claimed there is a conspiracy against the tea industry.

Assam is the highest tea producing state in the country and produces more than half of India’s tea production. Assam’s annual average tea production is about 630-700 million kg, and thus has an emotional connection with the people of the state.

The Prime Minister in an apparent attempt to woo the voters belonging to the Tea Tribe community invoked tea and claimed that an international conspiracy had been hatched to “defame” Indian tea.

In his speech at the meeting, the Prime Minister said, “Documents have emerged to show that a conspiracy has been hatched outside the country to defame Indian tea. I am sure the tea workers from Assam will give a befitting reply. No tea garden worker in Assam can tolerate this attack and I am sure they will win this fight against these conspirators as they are stronger than these forces with vested interest.” He further added, “I want to say to the conspirators from Assam that the country will never let their nefarious conspiracy succeed. These conspirators do not have enough strength to compete with the hard work of our tea garden workers.”

BJP leaders defended the Prime Minister’s remarks and said that PM Modi is right in his remark.

“There are several anti-National factors behind this threat to the Indian Tea and this has been ongoing since a long time, and many of these factors are from outside India. We have information regarding these,” said Rupam Goswami, spokesperson and Media Convener of Assam BJP.

Citing the ongoing farmers agitation, Goswami said that there has been the involvement of foreign elements in the agitation, and added that the government is aware of these.

Goswami also added that this present BJP government is doing a lot for the workers, and apart from monetary wage, has also ensured the development of infrastructure for the tea garden workers.

“Our government took the initiative to raise the daily wage by Rs. 30- something no government has done in the past,” he added.  

The opposition Congress, which is the largest opposition in the state has hit out against the Prime Minister and the BJP led government and has asked PM Modi to clarify on the threats and the conspiracy.

“Tea is our pride, and instead of trying to malign the industry the government should focus on their two demands- increasing their daily wage and granting them ST status,” said Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson, media department of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) and general secretary, APCC.

However, the AJP was very critical of the PM’s speech and termed it as an attempt to divert the failures of the state government, and also the failure to meet the crucial demands of the tea garden workers.

“The BJP government has been in power at the centre for the past 7 years and in Assam for the last 5 years. What were they doing all these years that they couldn’t stop those ‘foreign hands’ from creating problems here,” said Chandra Sharma, National Media Panelist of Asom Jatiya Parishad.

CAA: BJP’s weakness and Congress’ strength

Besides the prime minister, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also recently attended a massive Congress meeting at Sibsagar.

In the meeting which was attended by many senior Congressman including Assam Pradesh Congress Committee President Ripun Bora, Parliamentarians Gaurav Gogoi, Pradyut Bordoloi, Abdul Khaleque, Ranee Narah, and several senior Congress leaders, Rahul Gandhi lashed out at the BJP led government in Assam and the centre over the issue of governance and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and also promised that CAA will not be implemented in Assam if Congress is voted to power.

Apart from Prime Minister Modi and Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, AICC General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra recently visited the state who announced five major guarantees the party would implement if voted to power. This includes a law to nullify the implementation of the CAA, creating 5 lakh government jobs to the youths, a guarantee of Rs 365 daily wages to tea garden workers, 200 units monthly electricity to each household and a guarantee of Rs 2000 monthly income support to housewives.

BJP will be facing two contenders in the upcoming elections, while Congress is trying hard to regain its lost power, regionalism is in the wake, hence it would be crucial to observe what the people of Assam choose for their future ahead.

Elections to 126 constituencies will be held in three phases-March 27, April 1 and 6. The counting of the vote will take place in May 2.

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