On March 10, the Assam unit of the Congress convened a meeting of the Opposition parties in the state. Part of it were ten parties including all the major anti-BJP regional forces such as the Raijor Dal, Asom Jatiya Parishad, in addition to the Left parties.

There was, however, a noticeable omission: the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front which caters largely to the state’s Muslims of Bengali origin.

“We are formulating a joint strategy to dislodge the BJP-led government,” Assam Congress chief Bhupen Kumar Borah told reporters after the meeting. “The meeting resolved to jointly fight against the anti-people, anti-Constitution, and communal BJP to protect democracy and restore rule of the law in the state.”

However, without the AIUDF, a joint Opposition may pose little challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam given the state’s demography, say observers. A split in the votes of the state’s large Bengali-origin Muslim community only stood to strengthen the BJP.

Yet, the Congress has steadfastly refused to join hands with the AIUDF despite the latter’s many overtures and a decent joint outing in the 2021 Assembly election. The Congress’ reluctance, political analysts say, is indicative of the party’s catch-22 situation in Assam since the rise of the BJP.

As a Congress leader quipped, “You can neither take AIUDF along with nor can you accept them.”

Old issue, new players

The Congress’ AIUDF conundrum stems from an enduring political lightning rod in the state: the alleged large-scale influx of “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh. An emotive subject, it has animated Assam’s politics for decades, though most of the so-called immigrants, particularly the Muslims, arrived much before India and Bangladesh (East Pakistan before 1971) were separate countries.

The AIUDF, which counts among its supporters mostly these Muslims, is often accused by the state’s so-called native population of promoting migration from Bangladesh.

The BJP has weaponised this narrative to make inroads in the state. The party often cites the AIUDF’s steady rise in Assam politics to showcase the alleged threat that the state’s native population faces from the people of migrant origin. The Congress, it insists, is in cahoots with the AIUDF – and, therefore, as antithetical to indigenous Assamese interests.

Although the AIUDF’s growth in Assam, centred largely around Bengali-Muslim areas in Lower Assam and Barak Valley, had actually happened at the expense of the Congress, the BJP’s rise dramatically changed the electoral landscape in the state.

The saffron party, to a large extent, successfully managed to recast the ethnic Assamese people’s anxieties over large scale migration in the Hindutva mould. The polarisation meant the Congress was now losing ground among all sections of the electorate. Ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the party’s fortunes have steadily declined in the districts of Upper Assam, inhabited largely by people considered native to the state.

A short-lived alliance

Bruised by two consecutive defeats, in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 Assembly elections, the Congress drew up a strategic alliance with the AIUDF in certain seats with significant Bengali-origin Muslim votes. It largely paid off, but did little to change the larger picture – the BJP emerged on top in the state, powered by its performance in areas dominated by the ethnic Assamese.

In the 2021 Assembly election, the two parties came together formally along with a bunch of other Opposition parties in a bid to thwart the BJP. The alliance meant a near-complete consolidation of Bengali Muslim votes in Lower Assam and Barak Valley resulting in a significant decline in the BJP’s fortunes in these areas.

However, the alliance tanked spectacularly in Upper and North Assam. The BJP and its alliance partner, the Asom Gana Parishad, swept the region.

Overall, the BJP alliance won a comfortable majority, winning 75 of the 126 seats.

In short, the electoral math in Assam is such that one has to win in the ethnic-majority constituencies to be in charge.

A conundrum

Many within the Congress said the blame for its dismal performance in Upper Assam lay with the AIUDF – allying with a party with a pro-immigrant image meant the ethnic Assamese shied away from voting for the grand old party.

To do well in Upper Assam, a Congress leader from the state said, “we have to break ties with the Ajmal”.

However, the leader who asked not to be named, admitted that it meant we “may face losses in Lower and South Assam as the Muslim votes will split”.

Observers admit it is a difficult choice for the Congress to make. Political scientist Dhruba Pratim Sharma, who teaches at Gauhati University, pointed out that “unless some agreement is worked out with AIUDF”, the Congress could end up losing even in seats it had won in 2019.

But HRA Choudhury, former AIUDF leader and senior advocate from the state said the Congress “does not have any option but to reject the AIUDF to reclaim the support of majority Hindu in Upper Assam belt. If it didn’t, Choudhury said, “Congress may be decimated further in Upper Assam.”

The AIUDF, for its part, said any Opposition alliance without it would be “designed to help” the BJP as it would eventually split the anti-BJP votes. “The Congress has fallen into the trap of Himanta,” said its spokesperson Aminul Islam, referring to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.