In the afternoon on March 29, a meeting of the Mahajot alliance, led by the Congress, at Chalantapara in Assam’s Bongaigaon assumed an emotional tone. It was raining heavily and there was a power cut, so the meeting began under candlelight. The chief guest at the 100-plus gathering of workers from the Congress and its ally, the All India United Democratic Front, was Abdul Khaleque, the grand old party’s Lok Sabha MP from Barpeta. Leaders of both parties from Bongaigaon and neighbouring areas were in attendance.
As the meeting proceeded, Surman Ali, AIUDF’s Bongaigaon district chief, made an emotional speech, the thrust of which was that his party had made a “sacrifice” in the “larger interest” and now the two allies needed to work together.
Ali’s party colleague Ananta Malo is the sitting MLA from Abhayapuri South, the assembly constituency where the meeting was held. He was expected to be fielded this time too, but the alliance saw the constituency go to the Congress which fielded Pradip Sarkar.
As the two largest constituents of the 10-party Mahajot, the Congress is contesting 92 of Assam’s 126 assembly seats, the AIUDF 19. On five of its 19 seats, however, the AIUDF is locked in “friendly contests” with its ally. In all, the AIUDF has given away three of its existing seats – Abhayapuri South, Naoboicha in Lakhimpur, Karimganj South in Karimganj – to the Congress, and received Badarpur in Karimganj and Mancachar in South Salmara in return.
The “larger interest” Surman was speaking about was defeating the incumbent BJP. In the previous assembly election, data shows the splitting of votes between the Congress and the AIUDF . Most of these seats fall in western and central Assam regions dominated by Bengal-origin Muslims, or Miyas as they are known locally.
So, it was poll arithmetic that brought the two parties together this time. But the process wasn’t smooth. Speaking with workers and leaders of the Congress and the AIUDF, we found that there are still rumblings within both parties.
The candlelit meeting at Chalantapara.
At the Chalantapara meeting itself, Ali accused the Congress of creating a “communication gap” ahead of ticket allotment. That hurt him, he said, as well as his party workers. “They could have made it clear to us much earlier with respect. We were left anticipating,” he said.
Khaleque acknowledged “the communication gap”, promised to fix it, and appealed the rank and file of the alliance to stand united against the BJP. “We all must give and take,” he said.
But outside, uneasiness was apparent among workers of both parties. Sahjamal Hussain, general secretary of the Bataimary block of the Congress in Abhayapuri South, said a massive protest had broken out against the AIUDF’s top leadership when the Congress declared its candidate in mid-March. “Hundreds of AIUDF workers hit the streets and shouted slogans like ‘Ajmal murdabad, Aminul Islam murdabad’,” Hussain said, referring to the party’s chief, Badruddin Ajmal, and its general secretary. “They accused the leaders of selling the seat to the Congress.”
Azizur Rahman was among those who protested. There wasn’t just a demonstration, he said, the entire district committee of the party threatened to resign too. But with a week left until polling day on April 6, he’d finally made peace with the situation. “BJP is trying to destroy the democratic and constitutional values of the country. It has polarised Hindus and Muslims which goes against the social fabric of Assam and India,” he explained.
“We may have differences between us,” he added, meaning the AIUDF and the Congress. “But now is the time to defeat the BJP at any cost.”
Apart from the BJP’s “divisive politics”, its privatisation of public assets was a key concern for him. “And as far as sacrifices go, the Congress has done so as well,” he said, before driving off to a campaign function with Shahanur Rahman, a Congress worker.
Azizur Rahman, left, with Congress worker Shahanur Rahman.
Really, though, the AIUDF lost out in the bargain, especially in Bongaigaon and Goalpara, said Abdul Matleb, the party’s vice president in Bongaigaon. The party managed to keep only one of the seven seats in the region – Jaleswar – and that too will see a “friendly contest”. They had a fair chance of winning at least three of these seats, he claimed.
About 40 km northeast of Abhayapuri South is the Jania constituency in Barpeta. In a contrary turn of events, the Congress workers became resentful when the Mahajot candidate was announced from the AIUDF a month ago.
In the 2016 assembly election, Khaleque had won the seat by nearly 30,000 votes. But three years later, after Khaleque was elected to the Lok Sabha, AIUDF’s Rafiqul Islam reversed the result against his new Congress rival.
Yet, Congress leaders were not ready to leave the seat to AIUDF this time. The party still had a strong organisation in Jania, they argued, so it shouldn’t give the seat away.
Khaleque had to intervene, a leader of the Rupshi Block Congress Committee said on the condition of anonymity. Sensing the anger among his party’s workers, the MP convened a meeting at night in Kalgachia, a small town in the constituency, gathering party workers from across the rungs at short notice. To instil a sense of unity, he called in AIUDF's Rafiqul Islam as well. And then urged everyone to stand shoulder to shoulder to win the election. Rafiqul, on his part, assured the Congress workers he would treat them with as much respect as his own party’s.
But the Congress workers weren’t entirely calmed, the party’s block leader said. “We’ll lose ground because of this election,” he explained. “We’ll have to make it up in the 2024 Lok Sabha election with Khaleque sir as the alliance’s candidate.”
Tensions within the Congress over its alliance with the AIUDF were felt most strongly in the Barak Valley. The Bengali-dominated region in southern Assam comprises three districts – Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj – and accounts for 15 assembly seats. In 2016, the BJP won eight of these seats, the AIUDF four, and the Congress three.
As the Congress was negotiating with the AIUDF last month, Sushmita Dev, All India Mahila Congress chief and the party’s face in the region, reportedly stormed out of a meeting in Guwahati and almost resigned over disagreements with the leadership. Dev’s frustration, , was that if crucial seats were handed over to the AIUDF, the Congress’s presence in the Barak Valley would be severely dented, which it could not afford as the majority of Bengali Hindus had already switched to the BJP.
Tempers were calmed, however, and in the final arrangement the AIUDF was allotted four seats in the Barak Valley, including the contentious Sonai, and the Congress ten. The deadlock was broken when the incumbent AIUDF gave up Karimganj South to pacify rebel Congress leader Siddeque Ahmed, a former minister. In Katlicherra in Hailakandi, the allies chose to be in a “friendly” contest.
However, it is the seats marked for “friendly contests” where the inherent contradictions of the alliance really come out. “Friendly is nothing but a bipad, a danger imposed on us by Ajmal sahab,” said Mukut Ali, a block level Congress functionary in Barpeta’s Sarukhetri constituency. Besides Sarukhetri, Barpeta has two more seats – Chenga and Baghbor – where the allies have locked horns. All three seats, and Dalgaon, which is also set for a friendly contest, currently have Congress legislators.
According to Ali, the Mahajot alliance was crafted out of a “compulsion” to defeat the BJP and “save Assam”. Yet, the AIUDF did not respect the alliance, he alleged, by fielding candidates on Congress seats. “When the Congress resisted such intra-alliance contests, AIUDF threatened to walk out of Mahajot, a move that would have only helped the BJP.”
The alliance, if it continues beyond this election, would weaken the Congress party in four-five constituencies in Barpeta alone, Ali claimed. And for him, a staunch Congress supporter of over three decades, the “Ajmal brand of politics” isn’t easy to digest, he said. The AIUDF chief wants to keep the Muslim minority as his “personal vote bank”, Ali alleged.
A night campaign event held by Ashraful Hussain.
The AIUDF has concerns of its own over the alliance. Several AIUDF members in the Chenga constituency told Newslaundry they were optimistic about it but cautiously.
The alliance is needed for two purposes, explained Ashraful Hussain, the young AIUDF candidate from Chenga. “First, to defeat the divisive Hindu-Muslim politics of the BJP. Second, to be a part of the government in Assam.” Both the objectives, he added, would be impossible to achieve without allying with the grand old party.
His party, Ashraful explained, wants to address the problems that particularly affect the Muslims in Lower Assam – , completion of NRC, erroneous detention of Indian citizens, floods and river erosion, joblessness. The Congress can’t be upfront about such problems because its “larger ideological commitments” impose “limitations” on it, he added.
Such commitments of the Congress might prove risky for the AIUDF, however, said Rezaul Karim, a party worker. “If the electoral wind changes tomorrow and Congress sees us a burden, they will not hesitate to dump us,” he said.
What does the Congress make of its ally’s apprehensions?
Speaking to Newslaundry, Khaleque said the “best possible effort” has been made to unite the Congress and the AIUDF from top to bottom. “Our mission is to defeat BJP,” he added. “So we have appealed every single member of both parties to bury the differences for now.”
Khaleque, however, admitted the “friendly contests” have sent out a confusing message to the party’s workers and voters alike. He believes it should have been avoided. “But in any case, the winner will be from either us or them,” he added. “So Mahajot has nothing to lose.”
About their ideological differences, the MP claimed their “common minimum programme” has united not only the Congress and the AIUDF but the remaining eight partners as well. “The message has trickled down to the ground by now. Hence, we are confident of vote transfer among the supporters of different parties in favour of the common Mahajot candidate,” he said.
That may well happen, as Newslaundry found travelling through several constituencies in Barpeta and Bongaigaon, but would that be enough to keep the two parties together? No, according to Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, working president of the AIUDF from 2005 until 2011. For any alliance to work smoothly, he said, a common minimum programme was a must.
“But for Mahajot, it’s only the ouster of the BJP for now,” he said. This, he continued, was only a “negative” gluing force, a reflection of what the parties didn’t want. They should also have collectively emphasised what they wanted on the work front, he added.
Choudhury, to buttress his point about the Mahajot’s inability to draft a shared agenda, pointed to the . What also exposed the alliance’s indiscipline, he said, was a that carried a communal appeal.
If the alliance continued in similar fashion, it was likely to collapse, predicted Choudhury. “Mahajot must get its act together at the earliest. A common agenda should be chalked out and lines drawn for everyone,” the former AIUDF leader said. In the interest of defeating the BJP and protecting Assam’s social fabric, he opined, “it was the need of the hour.”
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