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What Assam Is Thinking As 'Battle Of Saraighat' Draws To A Close

15/04/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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An Indian voter holds a child as she casts her ballot in the state assembly elections at a polling station in Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district some 215kms from Guwahati on April 4, 2016. Millions of Indians head to the polls April 4 in two key state elections, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists facing a tough battle against regional rivals to tighten their grip on power. / AFP / Biju BORO (Photo credit should read BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)

By Minakshi Bujarbaruah for Youth Ki Awaaz

The air is electric with politics in Assam. Your eyes can't miss it either. Driving around Guwahati and beyond, going past bus terminals, flyovers, and other hot-spots, new landmarks stand out in the form of hoardings (belonging to both the BJP and Congress) featuring cartoons and caricatures, a unique feature of these elections. College campuses like that of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Cotton College State University and Guwahati University, along with roadside tea stalls, adda joints and coffee shops are abuzz with political discussions and debates.

The big picture

Utpal Datta, a film critic, points out correctly that the use of print and audio-visual advertisements has been the most striking aspect of this year's elections in Assam. Dark humour and sarcasm have been harnessed by campaign planners to generate public opinion and reach out to the masses. Megha Kashyap, a student at TISS, Guwahati, notes, "For me the striking aspect of this election would have to be the big hoardings of the Congress and the BJP. It is amusing to watch this mud-slinging game in public!"

If the Congress beats the anti-incumbency, it will have to deliver. The same is with the BJP. Else the public will be unforgiving.

Angarag Bhuyan, a young social activist and educator at Morigaon College, has a more positive take and says the caricatures and digs are an effective way to connect with people. The popular line uttered often by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi-- 'baad diya hey' (Forget it ya!)--has been used in contrasting ways by the BJP and Congress. The BJP uses it to illustrate how careless he is, while the Congress uses it to show his confidence and courage. However, Bhuyan adds that entertaining as all this is, the people care only about results. "If the Congress beats the anti-incumbency, it will have to deliver. The same is with the BJP. Else the public will be unforgiving."

Dubious alliances

"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." -Groucho Marx

This quote by Groucho Marx holds true in the countdown to the final phase of the Assembly elections in Assam.

For some, the elections mean nothing other than an opportunity to disseminate propaganda in order to gain power and continue the exploitation of the poor and the marginalized. For another section, this election is crucial for the future of the people of Assam. Given recent developments, many believe that the political scenario in Assam is at a crossroads.

These political alliances are more a result of compulsion than ideological similarities.

The alliance of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a regional party known for voicing Assamese sub-nationalism, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a right-wing nationalist party, has come as a shocker for many. It has even led to a split in the regional party and the formation of a separate faction--AGP Ancholikotabadi Moncho/Regionalist Platform, headed by former AGP youth President Sunil Rajkonwar.

Social activist Angarag Bhuyan opines, "These political alliances are more a result of compulsion than ideological similarities. Regional parties like the AGP have allied with the BJP only to avoid the debacle they would have faced by had they fought alone."

Many people are seeing through and are appalled by the big talk, propaganda and partial truths that are being trotted out in the name of 'poribortan' or 'development' of Assam. The fact that most alliances are the result of political expediency hasn't missed most observers.

Poonam Kakoti Borah, assistant professor at the Department of Women's Studies, Guwahati University, who is also pursuing her PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says, "The politics of alliance building in Assam is both important and interesting. It shows a blurring of political arguments used previously by the parties. While the AGP might believe that this will lead to their resuscitation, the BJP knows that AGP will become almost non-existent by the next elections (with the AGP vote bank and candidates slowly shifting to BJP)."

The BJP factor

Bitopi Dutta from Dhakuakhana sub-division in Lakhimpur district in Assam, who is currently pursuing her PhD from Dublin City University, says, "Yesterday's apolitical people are becoming political today after BJP has come to power in the Centre and everyone suddenly seems to have an opinion. However, what's hardly questioned is how informed the opinion is. This campaign is more polarized than before and reflects wider political atmosphere that is all about a binary affiliation--of being a nationalist or an anti-nationalist."

The rhetoric of larger nationalism used by the BJP subsumes the sub-nationalist voice that Assam has personified for a long time.

In fact, concerned with the recent happenings across Indian universities on this issue, a joint public appeal/statement was issued by leading academicians, activists and other intellectuals of the state urging the people of Assam to prevent the divisive agenda of the BJP from taking root here. The message states in conclusion:

"In such a complicated moment, the following signatories humbly request the people of Assam to reject the divisive, communal, fascist and corporate agent BJP in ensuing Assembly Elections. Let every conscious voter of Assam vote against BJP and stand by the interest of the people of Assam."

But as Poonam K. Borah adds, with a strong anti-incumbency factor, this election may signify the advent of the BJP in Assam which doesn't bode too well for the state: "The rhetoric of larger nationalism used by the BJP subsumes the sub-nationalist voice that Assam has personified for a long time. If the BJP-led alliance forms the government, then there will be an obvious rise in corporate investment in the region. But through corporate instead of state investment, will come the concomitant danger of environmental degradation and ecological threat."

Each party is trying to milk electoral benefits by capitalizing on the sentiments of innocent people.

Childs rights activist and founder-chairman of Universal Team for Social Action and Help (UTSAH) Miguel Das Queah does not have high hopes of the elections and believes that the high expectations are misplaced. According to him, while the Congress's rhetoric is overly populist, the BJP's aggressive stance against illegal immigration lacks a concrete plan of action.

He says, "Each party is trying to milk electoral benefits by capitalizing on the sentiments of innocent people. This election means nothing other than the fulfillment of a mandated constitutional exercise. The parties lack empathy, vision and foresight and have no conviction about addressing the real issues. The politicians, each one more desperate than the next, are hardly concerned about the good of the common people. It's all about power and money. Where are the voices demanding human rights? Where are the votaries of child rights? Have we seen any of these in the manifestos? Even these manifestos are a marketing exercise to woo the voters."

assam elections

What it means for the youth of Assam

The elections have seen the massive participation of youth--as candidates as well as flag-bearers in campaigns. However, this section is becoming highly critical of developments that are taking shape.

When asked whether these elections could usher in better opportunities for education and employment, most youth are sceptical rather than hopeful.

These elections, with their inherent flaws and biases, can make a young mind lose hope in the future of our state and our country.

Monimoy Bujarbaruah, a student from Guwahati who is currently pursuing his undergrad studies at the IIT Bombay says that the youth should not get carried away by the flow of the elections and should try to look at the larger picture. "I think the youth should focus on the concept of politics, democracy, and social justice. These elections, with their inherent flaws and biases, can make a young mind lose hope in the future of our state and our country. But, one should always know that with a Constitution like ours, we all have equal opportunities to think, work and flourish. The youth should be aware of the state of our politics, should be willing to work for the improvement of everyone regardless of their faith and caste and should avoid conflating political chauvinism with love for the nation."

Navanil Baruah, a senior health professional, is highly cynical. "Young people are positive, restless and always on the lookout for change. This election has nothing to offer them."

Nonetheless, many youth are not so quick to dismiss the importance of these elections. Given the current political atmosphere, a new consciousness and the rise of student voices across the country, the youth in Assam are closely watching every small and big development in the course of these polls.

'Change' and 'development': hollow promises?

Amidst this political frenzy, some feel that the promises of 'change' and 'development'--the buzzwords of this year's election--ring hollow. Assam is contended with a multitude of issues at present, including ethnic unrest in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District, the National Registration of Citizens (NRC), resource management, dam construction and environmental degradation, rhino poaching and encroachment in Kaziranga National Park and Pobitora Wild Life Sanctuary, unemployment, education, rights of the indigenous and tea tribes.

The party that comes to power would need to focus on health, create employment avenues and entrepreneurship for its people by making use of existing resources...

Unfortunately, no party has spoken of ways to address these issues or thought of concrete solutions. Disability rights activist and executive director of Shishu Sarothi, Arman Ali, thinks that political parties must look beyond their own party interests, prioritizing the mandate of the people instead. "The first and foremost thing would be to tap the potential of the state and to look within. The party that comes to power would need to focus on health, create employment avenues and entrepreneurship for its people by making use of existing resources."

As the stage is set and the performance gets more measured, nuanced and calculated, it will be interesting to watch who Assam elects in this 'Last Battle of Saraighat'.

This is an edited version of an article originally published here in Youth Ki Awaaz.

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