Thanks to BJP’s CAB move, Upamanyu Hazarika is getting some traction among Gauhati’s educated elite, making BJP’s harshest critics and opponents hopeful.
Guwahati: Guwahati, or the Gauhati Lok Sabha constituency as it is called, is in a bit of a sulk. At a small shop on the bank of the Brahmaputra, a Bharatiya Janata Party voter, an indigenous Assamese, says that he will not cast his vote this time, upset as he is with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which promises citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs escaping persecution from neighbouring countries. “I will not vote for BJP. But I can never cast my vote for Congress, so I will stay at home,” he declares, even as his friends, all “Narendra Modi supporters”, one of them a Malayali voter, try to persuade him to change his mind. “Why are they talking about implementing Clause 6 of the Assam Accord now? What were they doing in the last five years? I will not vote.”
Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985 states: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
BJP’s CAB “blow” to the indigenous Assamese population has been softened with the “commitment to protect the linguistic, cultural and social identity of the people of Northeast” and the promise to “clarify the issues” to the people there. But not all are convinced in Gauhati at least, the “city of the educated voter”.
Gauhati is a huge constituency with around 21.7 lakh voters comprising 10 Assembly segments. Of these 10, BJP controls eight and the Congress two. BJP veteran Bijoya Chakravarty won this seat twice, in 2009 and in 2014. Five years ago, she comfortably defeated Congress’ Manas Borah, with a margin of 3.15 lakh votes. Bijoya Chakravarty is almost 80 years old and has opted out of the electoral race. In her place the BJP has fielded Queen Oja, a former mayor of Gauhati, who is also a businesswoman and belongs to an important business family. Oja, who is in her late 60s, is originally from Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).
Contesting against her is Bobbeeta Sharma, who is in her early 50s. A celebrity, she was a film and TV personality, a writer, as well as the chairperson of the Assam State Film Finance and Development Corporation for ten years during the tenure of the earlier Congress government of Tarun Gogoi. She has been in Congress since 2001 and the main thrust of her campaign is the “promise broken by Narendra Modi”, as well as the CAB, which she describes as the “core issue”. “He had made a big promise of making Assam foreigner free, illegal migrants free. People believed him. Despite that he did the opposite, by giving a red carpet welcome to Hindu Bangladeshis,” she tells this newspaper on Monday at her home in the state capital. “They are trying to divide the people of Assam into Hindus and Muslims. This divide was never there. They are also trying to bring in a divide between the Assamese community and the Bengali community.” But when pointed out that CAB did not have much resonance on the ground and was limited primarily among the educated classes, she says, “I have been to so many villages. CAB is definitely there. The totally downtrodden people who do not read newspapers or watch television, maybe they are not aware of it. But we are telling them about CAB and they respond to the issue. Generally the Assamese speaking people are conscious about it.” Joblessness is the other issue she promises to tackle through generating self-employment and coming out with out of the box solutions to generate employment and promote tourism. She also wants a delimitation of constituencies, some of which “are too big”. She had fought the 2016 Assembly elections from one of the Gauhati city constituencies, but lost, “because voters were looking for change at the time”. However, she believes that in 2019, since Gauhati has already been with BJP for 10 years, it is ready for change.
On Wednesday afternoon, when BJP candidate Queen Oja arrives for a street-corner campaign rally in the heart of the city, all she speaks about is development and the chance to make Narendra Modi Prime Minister again She does not utter one word about CAB. Amid cheers from a motley crowd, comprising both party workers and passersby, she ends her speech by singing “Akho ekbar Modi sarkar”, the peppy BJP “campaign anthem”, which urges voters to bring back the Modi government once more. “I am very much confident because everyone wants to see Modiji as Prime Minister,” she tells this newspaper. When pointed out that the buzz is that Gauhati may become a contest this time, she asserts: “There is no fight because our organisation is very strong. We control eight of the 10 Assembly seats here. And people of Assam want Modiji back because he has brought a lot of development here. Development is my main issue. I will also work for the empowerment of women. I have 10 constituencies and they have different levels of development, so I will have to sit with the MLAs and plan on how to go about it.” When prodded about CAB, she is categorical that “CAB is not an issue. In panchayat (in December 2018) we won the maximum number of seats and CAB did not have any effect on the vote.”
But there is a slight cloud on Oja’s horizon. She is in the middle of a controversy over a “mistake” in her affidavit regarding her educational qualification. She has corrected the “mistake”, but her rivals have all petitioned the Election Commission about it. Even if she wins the seat, there could be problem later over this, believe observers.
Amid what appears to be developing into a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress, a new entrant is generating some buzz. Upamanyu Hazarika, in his early 50s, is an independent candidate and a Supreme Court lawyer, who is contesting on the auto-rickshaw symbol. An activist, he is fighting on the platform of “Khilonjiya First”. Khilonjiyas are the indigenous people of Assam and Hazarika’s whole campaign is centred on protecting the rights of the indigenous people of Assam and driving out foreigners. He says that studies have shown that 2040 is when the indigenous Assamese will become a minority in their own land. “As it is we have the problem of illegal migrants and now the BJP is bringing the CAB into it and complicating the issue. They have created a new crisis. Congress is responsible for the existing migrants, but then the BJP and AGP—the latter is supposed to represent the indigenous people—revived the linguistic conflict (Assamese vs Bengali), which was long dead. BJP started playing one community against another. In the process they betrayed the indigenous people. So there is a whole vacuum today, there is no one to represent the indigenous people.”
Hazarika wants the year 1951 as the cut-off year for deciding illegal migrants. In contrast, the Assam Accord of 1985 has 1971 as the cut-off year. Hazarika also wants for the Assamese indigenous people “protective legislation as there exists in the rest of the Northeast”, ensuring that access to resources is blocked, which will “disincentivise” illegal immigration—in terms of access to land, jobs, etc.
Thanks to BJP’s CAB move, Hazarika is getting some traction among Gauhati’s educated elite, making BJP’s harshest critics and opponents hopeful that he will get at least one lakh votes and make the going tough for Queen Oja. However, as this newspaper found out, there is near zero awareness about Hazarika among the masses. In fact, if some Congress workers have to be believed, Hazarika will not get more than 20,000-30,000 votes. But the Khilonjiya issue he is raising is here to stay.