The Telegraph
Wednesday , April 2 , 2014
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Old foes from North & South

The wheel has turned a full circle in the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency and 15 years later, two adversaries stand face-to-face again.

In 1999, Sarbananda Sonowal, then a greenhorn in politics despite four years as AASU president, attempted to ride the crest of the second AGP wave in the state on an elephant, but had to bite the dust.

The former captain of the state women’s cricket team, Ranee Narah, who had joined the Congress in 1995, retained the seat by polling 255,925 votes against Sonowal’s 201,402.

This time, a more mature Sonowal with a one-time win as an AGP MP under his belt from Dibrugarh is back, but wearing the colours of the BJP.

Ranee, on the other hand, has served two full terms as MP. She was defeated by AGP’s Arun Kumar Sarma in 2004. Appointed deputy chief whip of the Congress in 2009, she was inducted into the Union council of ministers as the minister of state for tribal affairs in 2012. She, however, now faces opposition from a section of her own partymen, apart from anti-incumbency.

The field is huge, spanning nine Assembly seats in five districts on either side of the Brahmaputra, making campaigning a tough job with vote-seekers zig-zagging across water and land, trying to woo the 14 lakh-odd electorate.

The main issue is underdevelopment. Dhemaji is considered to be the eighth poorest district in the country. Doomdooma and Sadiya in Tinsukia district are not far behind and Majuli in Jorhat district is an island riven by breached embankment and largescale erosion.

A quick run through the constituency reveals a vastly divided electorate with almost 3 lakh votes of the Mising community and about 2.5 lakh tea community votes playing key roles in deciding the winner.

What may skew the balance in favour of the BJP is a divided Mising vote, once considered a traditional vote bank of the Congress. The Mising Autonomous Council elections, held for the first time last year, saw almost 70 per cent of the votes favouring Ganashakti-backed candidates who went on to form the council. Of the 36 elected members, 34 are Ganashakti-backed while only two are from the Congress.

Ranoj Pegu, chief executive officer of the council, bluntly denies that Ranee had supported Ganashakti in autonomous council election in lieu of support during the Lok Sabha polls. “I have not decided on any party, they (party members) will vote according to their conscience,” he said.

Yet, Pegu’s attendance at a Mising literary convention in Jorhat recently in which sitting Congress MP from Kaliabor Dip Gogoi and Dergaon Congress MLA Arati Kachari were also present, may have sent a signal on which side he belongs.

Put your ear to the ground and one hears whispers that the BJP had promised Pegu a Assembly ticket if Sonowal was sent to Delhi and that is why he seems to be taking a “neutral” stand.

This is, however, nixed by Bharat Narah, former state minister and husband of Ranee.

“Ranoj Pegu was once a staunch CPI (M-L) cadre. He is not one to side with the BJP,” Narah said, adding that the Misings would vote for the Congress. Moreover, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s rally at Lakhimpur on March 30 has given Ranee’s campaign a huge boost.

What will adversely affect the prospects of the BJP is a poor base — the AGP is seen to have a far stronger one. Dhakuakhana and Lakhimpur are with the AGP and voters in the Lok Sabha constituency have been alternately voting for the AGP and the Congress since 1991. AGP candidate Hari Prasad Dihingia is also turning heads.

To know whether Ranee, who hails from Lakhimpur on the north bank, or Sonowal who hails from Chabua on the south bank, wins or the AGP’s Dihingia turns out to be the dark horse, stay tuned till May 16.