On February 28, with assembly elections less than a month away, the Congress-led alliance in Assam got a boost when the Bodo People’s Front joined it.

Until then, the “mohajut” – as the alliance is called – included the All India United Democratic Front that largely represents the interests of Assam’s Muslims of Bengali origin, three Left parties and a newly formed regional party in addition to the Congress.

Led by the mercurial Hagrama Mohilary, the Bodo People’s Front which represents one of the largest tribal communities in Assam, was an important ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party till recently. (In fact, three of its legislators continue to be ministers in the state government).

Both the parties fell out in the run-up to elections held in December for the Bodoland Territorial Council, the body that governs the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Region comprising four districts and twelve Assembly seats in western Assam.

The elections showed the Bodo People’s Front’s influence had declined: after 17 years, it lost control of the council to the BJP and its new ally in the region, the United People’s Party Liberal, another Bodo nativist party.

Yet, the party’s inclusion in the grand alliance, many believe, is significant because it gives the Congress what they desperately need this election: some “indigenous” cred. “Not only in Bodo areas, this has given the Congress enough leeway to change the narrative elsewhere too,” said sociologist Chandan Kumar Sharma who teaches in Tezpur University.

Congress sees an opening, courtesy CAA

The Congress, which enjoyed three successive terms in Assam from 2001, has seen its fortunes dramatically decline in the state since 2014 when the BJP came to power in the Centre. In the 2016, the party won just 26 of the 126 seats in the Assembly elections that year, finishing a distant second behind the BJP. Over the years, deaths and defections have meant that the number of seats has further reduced to 20.

But an opening seemed to emerge when the BJP forced through the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, which makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship.

Assam was the first state in the country to protest against the Act – as far back as the winter of 2018 when it was introduced as a bill in the Parliament. In December 2019, as the amendments were cleared by both the houses, the fury spread across the state leading to the death of at least five people.

In the rest of the country, critics see the amended citizenship law as an attempt to undermine India’s secular ethos. But in Assam, people fear that it would open the floodgates for migrants from Bangladesh, altering the demography and culture of the state – concerns that go back decades.

Between 1979-’85, an anti-foreigner movement emanating from these anxieties convulsed the state. It ended with the signing of the Assam Accord, which created a new definition for Indian citizens in Assam: anyone who arrived in the state before March 24, 1971 – the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War – and their descendants. The contentious National Register of Citizens that was published in the state in 2019 also flows from the Assam Accord.

Assamese nationalist groups believe that the amended citizenship law violates the Assam Accord and would naturalise the millions of Hindu Bengalis who could not make it to the NRC.

Election season arrives

In 2020, several outfits at the forefront of the protests floated political parties – with eyes on the imminent Assembly elections.

Meanwhile, as the Congress prepped for the elections hoping to take advantage of the anti-CAA sentiments in the state, it began by trying together to stitch together a grand anti-BJP alliance.

One of the first parties to join ranks with it was the All India Democratic Front. Electoral math-wise, it made sense, particularly in Lower Assam, home to most of the state’s Muslims of Bengali origin. In the 2016 Assembly elections, both the parties had contested separately. This, electoral data shows, helped the BJP in several constituencies in the area, courtesy a split in the votes.

But this union meant that the Congress failed to court the two most significant of the new regional parties. The Raijor Dol, led by jailed peasant leader Akhil Gogoi, and the Asom Jatiya Parishad, launched by the All Assam Students’ Union and the Asom Jatiyotabadi Chhatra Parishad – the two largest and most influential of nationalist student outfits in the state – are contesting the elections together.

Akhil Gogoi led many rallies against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which became a law in 2019.

The AIUDF problem

Both the parties cited the presence of the All India United Democratic as a red flag, among other reasons. The BJP and the All India United Democratic Front were, they argued, two sides of the same evil they were trying to fight: if the saffron party wanted to bring in Hindu migrants, the latter, they argued, had already helped naturalise many undocumented Muslims from Bangladesh. Such a union, they said, could hurt their prospects in the areas they otherwise stood to gain: for instance, the Assamese-majority areas of Upper and Middle Assam.

Add to that, given Congress’s own long-running reputation in the state of patronising Muslims of immigrant origin for electoral gains, it had started to appear that the alliance was not going to be able to cash in on the CAA-induced anti-BJP votes at all. It did not help that the BJP left no opportunity to point out this supposedly “unholy” alliance that ran against “indigenous” interests that the Congress claimed to be protecting by opposing the amended citizenship Act. The Congress-led alliance’s war cry this election is “Axom Bosaun Aahok” – Let’s save Assam.

An ‘indigenous’ party to the rescue?

This is where the entry of the Bodo People’s Front could tilt the scales back in Congress’s favour, say political observers. “This is an opportunity for the Congress to tell the voters, especially in the Assamese-speaking dominated Upper Assam, that they do indeed represent indigenous interests,” said Sharma of Tezpur University. “After all, if the Bodos are not indigenous to Assam, who else is? Besides, the BPF is a former ally of the BJP.”

BPF's Hagrama Mohilary with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In terms of electoral math, too, this is a shot in the arm, said Uddipan Dutta, scientific officer at the Gauhati University’s department of social science. “Not only the seats in the Bodo Territorial Council, Bodos play a significant role in several other seats outside along the North bank of the Brahmaputra,” said Dutta. “The alliance with definitely gain ground in those areas.”

Even a senior Bodo leader of the United People’s Party Liberal, the BJP’s new ally in lieu of the Bodo People’s Front, conceded the new union was “significant”. “It will definitely have some impact in certain areas,” said the veteran leader who did not want to be named.

A letter

But this supposed boost for the grand alliance has also been followed by a somewhat unsavoury development for the coalition. Earlier this week, Akhil Gogoi, who heads the Raijor Dol, one of the newly formed political outfits, wrote a letter to the opposition leaders urging strategic unity to keep the BJP at bay – but said the “communal” All India United Democratic Front should be kept out of such an arrangement.

The letter has not gone down well with the grand alliance. A suggestion to the effect at this stage when alliances have already been firmed up could be read by voters as a call to vote against the Congress-led coalition, its leaders fear.

“As a goodwill gesture, we offered to not put up candidates where they [the regional alliance] are contesting, but they did not reciprocate,” said Pradyut Bordoloi, a Congress Lok Sabha member from Assam and the party’s campaign chief this election. “So, we are increasingly starting to think they are working as the B-team of the BJP.”

Alliance matters

Is there some practical wisdom to the suggestion that the Congress should have avoided the All India Democratic Front given one of its main planks this election is the Citizenship Amendment Act?

Sharma, the Tezpur University professor, tended to believe so. “I think the Muslims of Lower Assam would have voted for the Congress anyway,” he said. “So, I don’t know how much this alliance actually helps the Congress, given its negative impact in Upper Assam.”

Dutta of Gauhati University disagreed. “AIUDF would have vindictively propped up candidates to ensure Congress’s defeat as it happened in 2016,” he said. “Besides, this AIUDF thing is a bit of a bogey. With or without AIUDF, the Congress has always carried this image of being pro-Muslims of immigrant origin, yet they have won election after election and got votes in Upper Assam.”

Still, won’t the Congress’s failure to secure an alliance with the regional parties hurt its prospects in Upper Assam? Dutta said people often voted more strategically than they were credited for. “I don’t think the anti-BJP vote will get split all that much,” he said.

Former chief minister and deceased Congress leader Tarun Gogoi and Badruddin Ajmal of AIUDF walk hand-in-hand outside the Assam Assembly after filing the nomination of their joint candidate for the 2020 Rajya Sabha elections. Photo: Twitter/@ripunbora

Congress on the charge

Bordoloi, for his part, conceded that votes getting split was a worry, but played down concerns of its alliance with the All India United Democratic Front ruining its prospects among the Assamese voters. “You can sense it in the air,” he said. “The tide is turning – the Bodos are with us, the Deoris have joined us too.”

The Deoris are an indigenous community concentrated largely in the state’s Lakhimpur district. On March 4, the Jimosaya Deori People’s Party which controls the Deori Autonomous Council, joined the grand alliance. They were previously aligned to the BJP.

Indeed, the Congress does seem to be in a better shape than it has in a long time now. But most insiders admit there is still a long way to go before they can be anywhere near confident. After all, one of their main pitches – the Citizenship Amendment Act – barely had any impact in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

As Debabrata Saikia, the party’s leader in the Assembly, said: “We are sincere in our intentions in 2019 too, I don’t know why people didn’t believe us. I hope they believe us this time.”