|Maqbool Hassan at his residence in Sivasagar. Pictures by Nishit Dholabhai
Maqbool Hassan, a maulvi from a local mosque, says he will vote for Narendra Modi.
Asked about the Gujarat pogrom, he quotes an Assamese adage on the harmony of all religions and says he firmly believes there is no threat to communal amity in the northeastern state.
Unmoved by the grim picture the Congress has been painting about an India under Modi, many Assamese-speaking Muslims in Upper (eastern) Assam say they will support the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
What seem to attract them are the claims of development in Gujarat under Modi rule.
“First it was the bicycle, then the motorcycle, then came the car,” Hassan says, beginning with a metaphor before spreading his arms to make the larger point: “Poriborton, poriborton, poriborton lagibo (we need change).”
A large crowd had gathered to see and hear their symbol of “change” on Monday when Modi held a rally in the heart of a minority-dominated pocket in Sivasagar town, the erstwhile Ahom capital, which falls within the Jorhat Lok Sabha constituency.
Packed crowds greeted him also at Biswanath Chariali and Gogamukh, in the Upper Assam constituencies of Tezpur and Lakhimpur, respectively.
Sivasagar, where Tai prince Sukapha set up the Ahom kingdom in the thirteenth century and expanded it into parts of what is now Arunachal Pradesh, has long been a Congress bastion.
|Jiten Dutta, a resident of Kokila village near Neematighat in Jorhat and his daughter Jyotsna, a Class II student.
Its loyalty to the grand old party has helped former Union minister Bijoy Krishna Handique win the Jorhat parliamentary seat six times straight since 1991, stubbing out any threat of anti-incumbency again and again.
But apparently, Handique has failed to satisfy the thirst for development and things have changed for him and his party.
Even Congress insiders concede that the BJP, despite its failure to consolidate votes through an alliance with the AGP, may still retain its tally of four Lok Sabha seats from the state and possibly add a few.
A young 20-something shopkeeper in Sivasagar town, Mohammed Safiullah, said he would vote for Modi, echoing Hassan.
“Let him rule in Delhi, in any case the Assamese are not for rioting,” Safiullah said. Neighbour Butoli Begum smiled and nodded.
Upper Assam’s five seats — Jorhat, Kaliabor, Tezpur, Dibrugarh and Lakhimpur — vote on April 7. They have a sizeable population of Ahoms.
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav, an Ahom, is said to be the front-runner in Kaliabor. The US-educated Gaurav, seen as weak in the mother tongue but strong on legacy, is being billed as the Congress’s next great hope.
But Jorhat seems bent on overturning facile caste and community equations. If many Muslims are ready to back Modi, a large number of Ahoms believe that the Congress’s calculation of fielding Handique, an Ahom, against the BJP’s tea tribe candidate, Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, will not work this time.
“I am an Ahom and I will vote for the BJP candidate,” said small-time tea grower Hemanta Rajkhowa.
In Lakhimpur, Union minister Ranee Narah faces a tough challenge from the BJP as well as Congress dissidents.
In Dibrugarh, too, the BJP has fielded a candidate from the so-called tea tribes (who are not recognised Scheduled Tribes), hoping this will not handicap it in a seat dominated by the Ahoms.
Upper Assam is the land of tea, its 200-odd tea gardens and their workers virtually offering any party that can gain their allegiance the opportunity to create a borough for itself.
The Congress still enjoys the support of the Bengali-speaking Muslims in constituencies such as Nagaon and elsewhere in lower (western) Assam, but Upper Assam seems ready to jump on the Modi bandwagon.
Pinkumoni Bora, a second-semester BA student from Bahona College, 15km off Jorhat, giggled shyly when asked about her thoughts as a first-time voter. Her fellow student from Komargaon, Pranamika Neog, too struggled for an answer.
“Change tu lagibo (we need a change),” Bora eventually said.
Her seniors, BSc fourth-semester students Rakesh Keot and Madhurjyoti Das, brought up the “Gujarat model”.
“I haven’t been to Gujarat but we want something like that for Assam too — for our economy and education,” Das said.