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Congress Banking On Anti-CAA Sentiment To Counter BJP’s Development Narrative In Assam

The Congress has launched a plan to mobilize public support over the emotive CAA issue by urging the voters to write anti-law messages on traditional Assamese towels. 

The Congress-led grand alliance is trying to counter the ruling BJP-AGP’s development narrative in Assam by making the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act the core issue ahead of the assembly polls on March 27, April 1, and April 6.

Assam had been rocked by massive anti-CAA protests in 2019 and early 2020. As many as five persons had reportedly died in police firing during December 2019.

Unlike the rest of India, the anti-CAA protests in Assam reflected the anxiety among the indigenous communities that the citizenship law would give legal sanction to the illegal Bengali-speaking Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This, in turn, would reduce the indigenous people to minority status, the natives feared. The indigenous people were also concerned over the non-implementation of the National Register of Citizens, which would have identified the infiltrators, whose presence in large numbers continues to be a sore point among the native tribes in Assam.

 

All Assam Students Union AASU supporters stage a protest rally against the amended Citizenship Act in Dibrugarh in December 2019. (Credit: PTI)

 

Thankfully for the BJP-AGP government, the anti-CAA protests had subsided in 2020 due to the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 but an undercurrent against the contentious law remained.

The grand alliance comprising the Congress, All India United Democratic Front, Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India-Marxist, Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist and Anchalik Gana Morcha hopes to capitalize on the anti-CAA sentiment among the voters.

Two new parties, Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal, which were born out of the anti-CAA protests, have also joined hands to counter the BJP-AGP combine over the issue.

Indicating a disquiet in the NDA camp over CAA, BJP’s former ally, Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland People’s Front has quit the ruling combine and joined the Congress-led grand alliance. Even though Asom Gana Parishad is still with the BJP, several leaders of the regional party have left the organization over the citizenship law.

Hagrama Mohilary had been miffed with the BJP since polls for the Bodoland Territorial Council, a self-governing body in the Bodo-dominated areas, were held last year. The BJP had dropped the BPF and joined hands with the United People’s Party Liberal to gain majority in the BTC.

 

The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), led by Hagrama Mohilary, quit the NDA and decided to join the Congress-led alliance ahead of assembly polls.

 

This clearly spells trouble for the ruling combine which is finding it hard to explain the logic behind the CAA to the voters and is, therefore, focusing more on its promise of development, which the opposition alleges is still lacking.

Upping the ante, the Congress has launched a plan to mobilize public support over the emotive CAA issue by urging the voters to write anti-law messages on traditional Assamese towels, known as gamosa, and send them across to the party.

These gamosas will be displayed at the proposed memorial to be built in the capital Guwahati to honour those killed during the anti-CAA protests. The party has even sought designs from the public for the memorial.

Taking no chances, the opposition party is also sending workers across the state to collect around 50 lakh such gamosa messages from the 126 assembly constituencies.

Playing up on the strong symbolism of the gamosa for the ordinary Assamese, Rahul Gandhi, who kicked off the party’s campaign at a rally in Sivasagar on February 14, reportedly wore a traditional towel signed by the mother of Sam Stafford, the 17-year-old who died in police firing during the protests.

The opposition party has also launched the ‘Save Assam’ campaign simultaneously to remind the voters that the CAA has the potential to damage peace and harmony in the state which witnessed long years of strife over the foreigner issue before peace dawned during the 1980s.

The Congress is reminding the young voters that peace and harmony were ushered in the state when former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord in 1980 with the protesting student groups to protect its cultural identity.

 

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Home Minister S.B. Chavan with a delegation of Assam Gan Parishad leader headed by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Bhrigu Kumar Phuka. (Credit: The Indian Express)

 

The grand old party is highlighting how former three-term chief minister Tarun Gogoi built the state on the foundation laid by the Assam Accord and how the CAA could reverse that process.

The Congress campaign centers around an assurance that if the party is voted back to power, the controversial law will be put on hold and may even be taken to the Supreme Court.

In their speeches, both Rahul Gandhi and senior party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have made it clear that the Congress will pass a new state law to stop the implementation of CAA in Assam and take the Assam Accord forward.

Through the drive, key party leaders including state unit chief Ripun Bora, MPs Gaurav Gogoi and Pradyut Bordoloi, former MP Sushmita Dev and Congress Legislative Party leader Debabrata Saikia and Rockybul Hussain are getting a chance to project themselves in the vacuum created by the passing away of veteran Tarun Gogoi last year.

In a way, the campaign is a chance for Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav Gogoi to claim the legacy of his late father while for Sushmita, daughter of former union minister Santosh Mohan Dev, the polls are a chance to be counted as someone who could steer the state in future.

The Congress is also using its outreach programmes, which are taking party workers to the interiors of the north-eastern state, to obtain feedback for the election manifesto, which is expected to reflect the aspirations of the people.

The BJP too is talking about protecting the local culture and language but from the perceived threat of illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants and accuses both the Congress and perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF of being their protectors.

Indicating the pressure on the top BJP leadership to retain power in Assam, PM Modi has made three visits to the state over the past month launching several welfare schemes and infrastructure projects while union home minister Amit Shah has been there twice during the same period.

One of the key schemes includes transferring Rs 830 per month to the bank accounts of disadvantaged families and generous grants to Namghars, the traditional prayer houses in the state.

As in 2016, the man leading the BJP campaign on the ground is senior state minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who still hasn’t given up on his dream of heading the state, if given a chance.

While Sarma is often spotted riding bicycles to connect with the masses, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal is traveling across the state to convince the voters that his party wants to win the trust of all sections of society.

Himanta Biswa Sarma’s cycle rally in Nazira in January 2021. (Source: Twitter)

 

The claims being made by the two rival camps are close. The BJP says it will win 100 of the total 126 assembly seats while the Congress is confident of bagging 101.

The voters’ choice will be known on May 2.

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