Jan. 29: A backlash has begun in Assam against the decades-old practice of foisting carpetbaggers on states to facilitate their entry to Parliament without contesting popular elections.
The flashpoint has been the Congress’s decision to field Uttar Pradesh MP Sanjay Singh as a Rajya Sabha candidate from Assam.
Multiple organisations have demanded that the party withdraw the candidate who has no connection with the northeastern state, and the supporters of at least one group tried to enter the hotel room where Sanjay Singh was staying after he filed his nomination papers yesterday.
The groups — as diverse as a farmers’ organisation and a students’ union — are tapping into perceived latent disquiet building up over the years in Assam.
Assam has been repeatedly used by the Congress as a haven for indirect elections — sending none other than the Prime Minister to the upper House five times since 1991. One of the biggest blots on the otherwise enviable — and impeccable — resume of Manmohan Singh has been his reluctane to contest a Lok Sabha election after his first term as Prime Minister.
Unlike the Lok Sabha elections where the people directly elect their representatives, elected MLAs choose Rajya Sabha MPs on the directive of their parties.
The original high objective behind the upper House was to put in place a system free of popular pressure so that it will act as a restraining force on the lower House. However, over the years, the system has been used by most political parties to offer patronage or to ensure the selection of the “unelectable”.
The Congress’s decision to send Sanjay Singh to Assam is also shrouded in similar suggestions. Sanjay Singh now represents Sultanpur, one leg of the tripod on which the world’s most enduring dynasty has reaffirmed its democratic credentials.
Rae Bareli, Amethi and Sultanpur not only share boundaries in Uttar Pradesh, they are also associated with some of the most famous names in Indian politics. If Feroze Gandhi, his wife Indira Gandhi and their daughter-in-law went to the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareli, the late Sanjay Gandhi, his brother Rajiv Gandhi and Rajiv’s son Rahul won elections from Amethi.
But Sultanpur also came to be identified as part of the family fief because Amethi fell in Sultanpur district when Sanjay Gandhi represented the constituency. Periodic delimitation exercises have seen some regions of Amethi, Sultanpur and Rae Bareli becoming part of one or the other constituency, prompting the Nehru-Gandhis to view the three parliamentary seats as a cluster.
Another Sanjay, who was extremely loyal to his far more famous namesake, now represents Sultanpur but doubts have been expressed whether he would be able to retain the seat in the current anti-Congress atmosphere in the country. Adding to Sanjay Singh’s woes, Varun Gandhi, the son of the original Sanjay, is said to be planning to contest from Sultanpur in the coming general election.
The Congress does not want to take a chance because an upset Sanjay Singh can play some sort of spoilsport in Amethi, where the Aam Aadmi Party has vowed to leave no stone unturned to defeat Rahul.
Some BJP MLAs were spotted at Sanjay Singh’s birthday celebration in November, sowing seeds of apprehension in the Congress. The party then decided to offer him the Assam safe haven and is said to be in the process of persuading his wife Amita, a former badminton player, to contest against Varun.
This carefully laid out plan has been jolted by the protests in Assam.
Sanjay Singh appeared to defend his nomination and affirm his credentials by saying in Guwahati: “I have been here before.” But he did not elaborate.
The Congress declined to react on record but suggested that as a national party, it was expected to field candidates from all states.
Such an objective would have carried more weight had the Congress fielded Manmohan Singh or Sanjay Singh in a Lok Sabha seat from Assam.
The Congress is no stranger to such a tradition. Both Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have won landmark elections from southern India. V.K. Krishna Menon, the Nehru-era defence minister and a Malayali, had won elections from Bombay as well as undivided Midnapore. In the Bengal seat, Menon was supported by the Left as he had fallen out with the Congress by then.
Today, members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a farmers’ organisation that puts its membership at 11 lakh, attempted to enter Sanjay Singh’s room at Nakshatra Hotel in Guwahati. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has also declared an agitation against the nomination.
“Had we managed to get into Room 505 where Singh was staying, we would have thrown him out of Assam,” Akhil Gogoi, the president of the KMSS, later said. “We were, however, prevented by the hotel and the police.”
“It was this colonial attitude of the Congress that made Manmohan Singh a Rajya Sabha member from the state. If the Congress has to press forward with its decision on Sanjay Singh this time, it will make people disillusioned with mainstream politics,” Gogoi said.
AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjya said that chief minister Tarun Gogoi and Assam PCC chief Bhubaneswar Kalita had “totally surrendered before the Congress high command by fielding Sanjay Singh as a Rajya Sabha member”.
The student organisation, which had spearheaded the six-year-long Assam Agitation in the 1970s and 1980s, burnt effigies of Congress leaders. “Our agitation will only grow stronger if Sanjay Singh’s nomination is not withdrawn,” Bhattacharjya said.
Congress insiders said Sanjay Singh was persuaded to accept the Rajya Sabha ticket by Priyanka Gandhi, who considers him her “uncle” because of his past proximity to Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi.
Priyanka’s cousin Varun, currently the BJP MP of Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, has reportedly been instructed by Narendra Modi to contest from Sultanpur. The Congress feels Amita, Sanjay Singh’s wife, would give the BJP general secretary a tough time in Sultanpur.
Sanjay Singh, a perpetual “contender” for a Union cabinet berth and the Uttar Pradesh Congress unit chief’s post, had reportedly got disillusioned with the Congress last year. On November 12, 2013, he celebrated his 63rd birthday at Bhupati Bhavan in Amethi where a number of BJP MLAs were present.
Amita, who had played host, had sought to underplay the BJP leaders’ presence. “Leaders of different political parties attended the birthday celebrations, which need not be read with political overtones,” she said.
But both Sonia and Rahul received feedback from local Congress leaders that Sanjay was upset over being “sidelined” by Rahul.
In the past, Sanjay Singh had been associated with rebellion. In 1988, Sanjay Singh joined hands with V.P. Singh, the uncle of his first wife Garima. A decade later, Sanjay Singh joined the BJP and defeated the Nehru-Gandhi family aide Satish Sharma in Amethi. But in 1999, Sanjay Singh lost to Sonia by a margin of over 3 lakh votes.
Sanjay Singh eventually returned to the Congress and campaigned extensively for Rahul in Amethi.
Varun sounded dismissive about the possibility of Amita taking him on in Sultanpur. “The Congress is extremely weak in UP. I am not bothered about who is fielded from the Congress side. The BJP is going to do exceptionally well,” he said.