Jorhat is at war. In Jorhat town, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party kiosks line the streets. Hoardings have gone up at major crossings, featuring the party pantheons: Narendra Modi-Sarbananda Sonowal-Kamakhya Prasad Tasa-Hiten Goswami for the BJP, Tarun Kumar Gogoi-Rana Goswami for the Congress.
On the last day of campaigning for the first phase of the polls, a BJP rally disappeared down one of the arterial roads, past ruminating cows and speculative shopkeepers. A few seconds later, another rally advanced from the opposite direction, the hand symbol blazoned on motorbikes and headgear. Rana Goswami, sitting MLA and Congress candidate for the Jorhat assembly constituency, waved at people from an open jeep.
Although other candidates are also standing for elections in the town, this is really a two-way contest.
Battle of Assam
Indeed, in many ways, the battle for Jorhat district lies at the heart of the battle for Assam. This is the district that is to give Assam its next chief minister: in Titabor, Congress incumbent Tarun Gogoi faces BJP MP Kamakhya Prasad Tasa; in the river island of Majuli, the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, will fight it out with the Congress's Rajib Lochan Pegu, who has held the seat for three terms.
This could also be a symbolic battle. Jorhat town, the last capital of the Ahom kings and the site of assertions against British rule, has played an important part in shaping Asomiya identity. The town is still called the "cultural capital" of Assam. So the major ideological battles of these elections, Congress versus BJP, Assamese "sub-nationalism" versus mainstream Hindu nationalism, could well have played out in Jorhat.
But in the end, both parties ran campaigns on more quotidian issues, questions of how people live, work, move around, rather than the larger battles of identity. Barring a few instances, Congress, the reigning champion, and BJP, the challenger, have sounded remarkably similar in Upper Assam.
The Congress bastion
After 19 kilometres of pitch dark road from Jorhat town, Titabor greets you in a blaze of street lights. Set amidst tea gardens, the main town has three colleges, a number of high schools, a railway station and an airport nearby. Quite evidently, this is the chief minister's home turf. Born on a tea estate in Titabor constituency, Tarun Gogoi has held the seat since 2001. So, a day before campaigning ended, this was where he was to be found.
The chief minister's son, Gaurav Gogoi, an MP from Kaliabor, zipped around the constituency for a few last minute meetings. Gogoi senior, however, was holding a durbar at the picturesque Thengal Manor, a heritage hotel. A small crowd of the party faithful had been invited. They waited in the portico, under a chandelier and gracious arched windows. Food packets were to be distributed after the meeting.
After a while, the chief minister emerged from the halls within, sat down behind a marble-topped table and murmured at the crowd, occasionally checking with a small notebook. A laundry list of problems were trotted out: unemployment, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, education. The Centre was duly upbraided for not giving enough to Assam and not starting welfare schemes of its own.
In Lower Assam, the All India United Democratic Front leader Badruddin Ajmal tells voters he will solve their problems, "insh'allah". In Upper Assam, Tarun Gogoi tells his voters that change will come, "lahe lahe", slowly slowly.
But the leader who started his political career with the Assamese language agitation of the 1950s, which would later feed into a strident cultural nationalism, has come a long way. Ask him about regional politics in Assam and he is careful to frame it in pragmatic terms. "Regional interest means the development of all people living in Assam," he said. "It means better employment and opportunities and we are going to provide that."
Ask him about anti-incumbency and the chief minister grows emphatic. "There is no question of anti-incumbency," he said. "It only arises when the government has failed to deliver. I got more votes in my third term than I did in my first term. There is no anti-incumbency."
Elsewhere, Congress workers do not share his confidence. In Jorhat town, Durlabh Das, a party worker, admits that the assembly elections of 2006 and 2011 were different. "The BJP has risen since then. This time, it's a bit tough," he concedes.
The BJP's long march
Certainly, the BJP has managed to lay claim to a space that was once a Congress bastion. The lotus is as common as the hand in these parts, and the BJP kiosks show more signs of life than those of the Congress. Palash Deb Dash, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, said the organisation had about 10,000 workers in Jorhat district. "Before 2014, we had a membership drive and after Narendra Modi came to power, we worked with even more zeal," he said.
In the general elections of 2014, the BJP posted a major victory in the region. Tasa, the party's tea tribe candidate, won the Jorhat Lok Sabha seat, even though the Congress retained a lead in Titabor. This time, too, the party clearly depends on him to draw the crucial tea tribe vote away from the Congress. On the last day of the campaign, he could be found driving through the tea gardens around Titabor town.
The 40-year-old's campaign style is very different from the regal Gogoi's. The student leader who rose to become a member of Parliament chooses to be "low key", the everyman to Gogoi's reigning patriarch. "I am not a leader, I am a worker," he said. "If you look at the Congress in Upper Assam, they have a lot of high-profile leaders, but they have done nothing for the region. I have got very small leaders, I live very simply and I have tried to dedicate myself to the people."
This poll season, he is taking on the Congress for corruption and poor governance. "You go to any agricultural office and you see how shamelessly they are blowing up money," he said. "No rural roads are constructed properly and there are no irrigation systems in Assam. The chief minister's speech is decided by the Congress high command. That is why I am standing this time, against the weightless political bhaashan of the CM."Cut through the token jousting, and he raises the same issues as the Congress: water, power, jobs, development. And in Jorhat town, the BJP's candidate, Hiten Goswami, talks to a genteel, middle-class audience about similar problems.
But in even in Upper Assam, the BJP cannot resist raising the contentious question of migration. "There are issues of identity," said Tasa. "It is not about Assamese and non-Assamese, but Indian and non-Indian. Bangladeshis are filling up Lower Assam so there is a fear psychosis that they will come to Upper Assam. Both the BJP and the AGP [the Asom Gana Parishad, an ally in this election] are against this."
Deep beneath the talk of economic issues and developmental problems, then, runs a fine vein of identity. Question is, if all other promises of governance fail, does it run deep enough to win the BJP an election in Upper Assam?