If the combative election campaign of the important North-Eastern state of Assam can be explained in just one word, it would be — Ajmal.
Badruddin Ajmal, 71, is a maverick Maulana (priest) and an astute leader of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) which represents the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam. Extremely influential in some constituencies in Southern Assam, Ajmal has a sway over his followers.
The perception in some quarters about the AIUDF — since it was founded in 2005 — has been that it backs illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. Interestingly, in early 2020, Assam witnessed massive protests against the BJP-government backed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which allows religious minority (Hindus) from Bangladesh into India.
The Assamese are very sensitive about the preservation of their ethnic culture and language. They opposed the CAA strongly because they saw it as an unfavourable law imposed by Delhi on the state.
For decades the Assamese have protested against the dominance of — both — the Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims in the border areas as they feel it will subsume Ahoms and other indigenous cultures. The protests against CAA in 2020 was significant for most natives including the Ahoms. Native Assamese speaking Muslims, though small in numbers, also oppose the Bengali speaking “foreigners”.
BJP on the back foot
The ruling BJP was completely on back foot after the successful anti-CAA agitation in Assam. Gauging Assamese anger against the CAA, neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor Home minister Amit Shah have referred to it in any of their visits to the state or during their virtual interactions. But, it all changed overnight.
The Congress party’s big decision to ally with the AIUDF and by doing so ending the political isolation of AIUDF has given the BJP, which is facing divisions within the party, the much-needed election plank to seek the second term.
Meanwhile Maulana Ajmal seems to be winning the battle before the all-important elections as his party has entered the mainsteam of Assam politics.
Thanks largely due to the alliance with Congress, he is sure to get the Congress’ loyal and traditional Hindu votes for the first time in some select constituencies. It will be historic in a state like Assam where ethnic and linguistic fault lies run very deep.
Historically in Assam, the Congress has fought against the Muslim League to preserve the Assamese identity but for the sake of minority votes this time, it has gone ahead and embraced a local Muslim party.
On paper, with Congress’ 30.9% vote share and 26 seats and AIUDF’s 13% vote share and 13 seats (in the 2016 assembly elections), the alliance looks formidable but on the ground it is faced with the BJP’s aggressive campaigning.
A new political alliance
The Congress, Left parties and AIUDF all have been against the CAA. They argue that the Act gives legal sanctity to illegal migrants. What may work for this combine is that a lot of people in Assam back this idea. So, Congress-AIUDF and Left’s Mahajot alliance has now made their anti-CAA stand as the centre-point of this election.
But, all elections are multilayered. The BJP thinks it is back in the game because Maulana Ajmal is on side of the Congress this time. Ajmal, for many native Assamese, epitomises everything they have been opposing since the 80s.
In reality, AIUDF has been backing National Register of Citizens and wants “foreigners” to be deported from Assam but in politics perception often clouds reality.
The catch here is that the ethnic Assamese never accorded political sanctity to AIUDF but now the Congress has given them the space in mainstream politics — mainly to avoid the division of minority votes. It’s a turning point for the state’s politics.
For the first time, an acknowledgement has been made of the presence of the Bengali-speaking Muslims and their issues in Assam politics.
Perception versus reality
This grey area between reality and perception that surrounds the AIUDF is being fully exploited by the BJP. If the CAA was being opposed because it would have legally allowed the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, then how come the party that’s the exclusive voice of the Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants seeks ethnic Assamese votes (who oppose them) by keeping the Congress in the front?
It goes without saying that the BJP government led by incumbent chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal is facing a tough election. In 2016, due to strong alliance with the regional parties of Bodos and the AGP, Sonowal became the CM even when his party got 1.4% less votes than the Congress.
The Congress went for the risk-fraught alliance with hope of consolidating the 35% Muslim votes of Assam. In 30 constituencies of Assam, Muslims are an important block of voters. But, with the strategists like Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the counter-mobilisation of all kinds of Hindus may not be a difficult job for the BJP.
Over the years, the RSS and the BJP have been able to bring in Assamese speaking Hindu voters and the Bengali speaking Hindu voters into the bigger bracket of the Hindus.
The party is also focusing sharply on Ajmal. Sarma, senior Assam minister and BJP’s face in North-East, while talking to Gulf News said, “What we are witnessing is not new. Since 1935, all Assam elections have been fought on the issue of identity. Gopinath Bordoloi fought against Syed Muhammad Saadullah of the Muslim League to preserve identity of Assam. We are doing the same. Ajmal, the individual isn’t important. It’s the issue of our identity that’s important. We will keep fighting to protect Assam’s identity."
Last month, a noted Delhi-based analyst who visited the Ahoms areas in Upper Assam to survey people’s mood remarked, “CAA is no longer an issue as it was exactly one year ago. Congress folks complain that people who were shouting “BJP Muradabad” (Down with BJP) one year back attended the Sivasagar rally of Modi.”
The Congress is now busy defending its political alliance partner AIUDF. In all public gatherings, Congress leaders note that AIUDF is secular.
Sarma concludes with a counter-question, “Did anyone see Ajmal during Bihu (Assam’s cultural festival)? This election is entirely against Ajmal.”