NEW DELHI: Assam will flag off the five Assembly elections scheduled for 2016, with state ruling parties fighting now to retain their hold as the opposition in the respective states moves in with new alliances and hard determination to wrest power.

For the BJP Assam is crucial as its presence in the other states----Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, and West Bengal--- is minimal and while it is hoping to improve its performance, it is certainly not a competitor for government. An improved vote share will be seen as a victory in the other states, with the BJP, however, working to wrest a few seats in West Bengal and Kerala to mark its formal entry in these states where its units have been working very actively.

However, Assam is the focus for the BJP that will be its active testing ground for the nationalism versus anti-nationalism slogan it has emerged from the JNU controversy. This will be the new mantra as against the development slogan of the last elections, with the party seeking to push the Opposition parties, particularly the Congress against which it is directly pitted in Assam, in the so called anti-national camp.

The BJP has also stitched up critical alliances, starting with the Bodoland Peoples Front that was with the Congress earlier and following with the Asom Gana Parishad just recently to give a boost to its prospects. The last has upset a section of the BJP in the state, as the party has given 24 seats to the AGP, with some leaders forming a new party to contest some of these seats. However, sources in the state, believe that the dissent will fizzle out and the disgruntled leaders will see reason.

The central government is currently talking to the Anup Chetia faction of ULFA with a view to reaching an agreement. In an election where every vote is crucial, a peace accord at this stage will certainly help consolidate voters Chetia has influence over, in favour of the BJP. As reported by The Citizen, the ULFA leader is optimistic about a positive outcome and is currently in Delhi to help seal the pact.

Interestingly, the BJP has departed from past practice and announced a chief ministerial candidate in Sarbananda Sonowal for Assam. He is currently the Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs in the Union Cabinet. He was the president of the former All Assam Students Union in the 1990’s and continued as a member of the AGP. He later left this and joined the BJP. In other words, the BJP has decided not to go the Bihar way and keep the issue of Chief Ministership open.

The Congress, on the other hand, is now clearly finding the going tough relying almost entirely on the ageing Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. It is true that the anti-incumbency factor is not as sharp as was expected in Assam, but given the fact that Gogoi’s electoral graph has been slipping over the last elections, its voters were expecting the party to come up with if not a new leader, then new workable alliances on the ground. Sources said that Gogoi had under-estimated the BJP in the state, almost sure that it would not be able to forge an alliance with the AGP and consolidate forces as it were. It is now left with the All India United Democratic Front but is not keen for an alliance for fear that this will give the BJP a handle to polarise the vote on religious lines.

The Congress has lost former legislator Himanta Biswa Sarma with 13 legislators earlier, as he was upset with what he described the autocratic functioning of the party. He was welcomed with the BJP and is currently its chief campaign manager, with reports confirming that he is doing an aggressively good job.

In the 2011 Assembly elections, the Congress had won 78 seats, the AIUDF 12, BPF 12, AGP 9, BJP 5. The Lok Sabha polls had seen a major reversal for the ruling party with the BJP securing seven parliamentary seats, as 3 by the Congress and 3 AIUDF. The BPF and AGP had not won a single Lok Sabha seat.

There is little to show that the Congress has climbed up the electoral slope substantially since the parliamentary elections. Gogoi is relying more on local permutations and combinations, while the BJP strategy is on tying up loose ends by bringing in the main regional groups into its fold, cashing in on dissidence within the Congress and infusing the election with the “we are the nationalists, all others are anti-nationals” campaign. This is one of the main reasons why the Congress is being attacked by the top brass of the BJP with Rahul Gandhi being singled out as an “anti national” to cut into the growing disenchantment of the electorate with the BJP for not delivering on its mega-economic promises.

The Congress seems to be on a slide down, at least just before the elections in Assam are expected to be announced, with Gogoi’s performance as Chief Minister not drawing in new voters. To what extent he has lost the old support base will determine the results of this election.

(Picture: BJP chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal )

(Tomorrow: West Bengal and Kerala)