The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Focus on minority litmus test, not gun

Guwahati, April 1: As Assam goes into elections, the first time out of the shadow of the gun, the key question is: which way will the minorities vote'

With the Opposition in tatters and the Ulfa deciding not to boycott the polls, the ruling Congress should have been sitting pretty, but for the Assam United Democratic Front.

On April 3 last year, the influential Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind called for the ouster of the Tarun Gogoi government for “betraying Muslims”. Months later, the front was formed to “protect” the minorities.

On Monday, exactly a year after Jamiat leading light Asad Madani lashed out at the Congress from the banks of the Brahmaputra, the Islamic clergy’s call will be put to test. The contours of minority politics in Assam and possibly the result of the election will depend on the outcome.

Unlike previous years, anti-incumbency might not be a factor this time because the Opposition here, like in Bengal, has failed to come up with a credible alternative.

The death of its leader Bhrigu Phukan in the run-up to the polls has dealt a blow to the Asom Gana Parishad, already weakened by a vertical split when the expelled Prafulla Mahanta floated his own party. That the Opposition has failed to come together ' the BJP, which had tied up with the AGP in 2001, has not even made seat adjustments ' makes its job even tougher.

Fear of violence, which has hung over past elections, is much reduced because Ulfa, in peace talks with the Centre, has chosen not to call for a boycott and has instead appealed to voters to back the party that promises to protect the “sovereignty of Assam”. This is a first for the militant outfit, which has shunned every election since it was formed in Sivasagar in 1979.

Early reports of the tea tribes ' tribals engaged in the tea industry ' turning against the Congress are also appearing exaggerated.

But the minorities ' who make up about 31 per cent of the population, well above the national average of 13.4 per cent, and play a deciding role in at least 40 of the state’s 126 seats ' are keeping the election from turning into a non-event.

Success for the front, which also has national ambitions, would mean assertion of political muscle by the minorities who have so far been content to vote for the Congress religiously, along with the tea tribes, without asking for a share in power in return.

The front’s failure, on the other hand, will diminish the clout that heads of bodies such as the Jamiat wield in state politics.

Yearning for power among the minorities’ elite and poverty among the masses could help the front, political observers say, and that is worrying the Congress, for which Assam could be a test case. Following the nuclear deal with the US and the stand against Iran’s nuclear programme, the Congress has been wary of losing minority support at the national level.

“It (the front) may not be able to win many seats of its own, but any polarisation of minority votes in its favour could put the Congress in trouble,” said Rajya Sabha MP K. Rama Mohana Rao, who has been camping here for the past several days and has emerged as a key strategist of the AGP.

Not taking any chances, the Congress has roped in several influential Islamic organisations to campaign for it. “Through our network at mosques, we will be telling the people to strengthen the hand of secularism,” said Maulana Syed Athar Hussain Dehlavi, chairman of the Anjuman Minhaj-e-Rasool.

In this tug-of-war over minority votes, issues like unemployment and development have taken a back seat. Infiltration and the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act ' whose scrapping by the Supreme Court upset the minorities in the first place ' is the plank on which this election is expected to be fought and won.

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