File image of Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal
As Assam gears up for the March-April assembly polls, there have been a couple of interesting developments in the opposition camp. The most significant one is the entry of the once-formidable Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) into the ‘grand alliance’ led by the Congress, a move that could pose a serious challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming electoral battle.
It’s basically a reunion of two old friends as the Hagrama Mohilary-led BPF had been a Congress ally when the party ruled the state between 2001 and 2016. Ahead of the 2016 state polls, the BPF switched sides and joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, which brought an end to the 15-year-old Congress rule.
Last week, the BPF formally snapped its ties with the saffron party. “To work for peace, unity, and development, the BPF has joined hands with the Mahajot (grand alliance) for the upcoming assembly polls. We will no longer maintain alliance with the BJP,” Mohilary said.
His colleague Khampa Borgoyari also asserted that this time, the BJP will lose 25-30 seats that it had won with the help of BPF in the last assembly polls.
The grand alliance comprises Congress, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, BPF, Left parties among others. While the AIUDF will be contesting in 24 seats, the BPF has been demanding 12 seats. The latter had been consistently winning 12 seats since 2011.
The Congress has not finalised the seat-sharing yet probably hoping that several disgruntled BJP candidates would be willing to join the grand old party.
The BJP on Friday evening announced a list of 70 candidates for the elections to the 126-member Assam assembly. As many as 15 sitting legislators from NDA have been denied tickets this time, triggering a rebellion among a section of party workers.
Former Union minister Rajen Gohain, whose name did not figure in the list, slammed the party decision. A BJP ticket seeker has reportedly switched sides to Congress in an upper Assam. Former chief minister and sitting MLA Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, whose party Asom Gana Parishad is a BJP ally, has been denied ticket from his Barhampur constituency.
The two-time CM Mahanta has represented the seat since 1991. Unconfirmed reports suggest he has been in touch with the Congress for a “possible arrangement”.
The Opposition Strategy
The embattled Congress has received a shot in the arm with BPF joining the opposition alliance. Until last month, the opposition failed to generate much interest giving an impression that it would not be able to make any impact in the forthcoming polls. The situation could now change drastically given that the BPF, despite its ‘defeat’ in the December 2020 Bodo council elections, still enjoys popular support in Bodo-inhabited areas.
The BPF had emerged as the single largest party winning 17 out of 40 BTC seats. However, it was ousted from power by the Pramod Boro-led United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), which fought the elections in alliance with BJP.
The new autonomous council -- a body under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution -- has been constituted by the UPPL, BJP and Gana Shakti Party, led by Kokrajhar MP Naba Kumar Sarania. While the UPPL bagged 12 seats, the BJP and GSP won 9 and 1 seats respectively.
Going by BTC poll results, it is safe to assume that BPF still enjoys a considerable amount of support from the different communities living in Bodoland Territorial Region. After all, it ruled the council for 17 years at a stretch.
The Bodos are the third-largest linguistic community in the state after the Assamese and the Bengalis. There are 14.16 lakh Bodo speakers out of the 3.1 crore population in Assam, according to the 2011 Census.
The BPF was founded by Mohilry and other former Bodo militants in 2005. It formally contested the assembly election in 2011 winning 12 out of 29 seats. The party secured the same number of seats in 2016 and became a part of the Sarbananda Sonowal government in the state.
How BJP & BPF Fell Apart
The BJP-BPF split had been a work in progress for almost a year. It all started when the central government signed what it called the ‘historic Bodo Accord’ on January 27 last year. It was perhaps an opportunity for the BJP to project then-All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) president Pramod Boro as the future leader from the ethnic community.
The central government had signed the peace accord with factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and the ABSU in the presence of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, then-Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) chief Mohilary, senior minister and BJP ‘master strategist’ Himanta Biswa Sarma among others.
The NDFB had led an armed separatist movement since the late 1980s, seeking to create a “sovereign Bodoland”, and the ABSU had been demanding a separate state comprising Bodo-dominated areas on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam.
Call it a BJP strategy, the episode brought student leader Pramod Boro into limelight, something that did not go down well with the BPF leadership. Weeks after the signing of the accord, Mohilary, a former militant of the now-defunct Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), had expressed his displeasure in so many words: “The new accord only changes the name of BTC to Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). As it gives us nothing, we won’t use BTR as a part of our vocabulary.”
Things started getting uglier after the BTC polls, scheduled originally for March 2020, had to be postponed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The BPF, which was ruling the Council, had demanded the tenure of the council be extended till the polls. That did not happen and the areas under the autonomous council were placed under Governor’s Rule.
In the following months, the rift between the BJP and BPF widened with reports of alleged corruption and irregularities in the Mohilary-led Bodoland council surfacing in the local media.