AGP had no option but to patch up with BJP

Updated 3:01 PM, 24 March, 2019
The AGP chief said the former allies had joined hands again to defeat the Congress. PTI

Two months after withdrawing support to the ruling BJP in Assam over the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has returned to the alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “We have renewed our ties based on the request of the central BJP leadership. Seat-sharing details will be announced later,” AGP president Atul Bora said.

Soon after the announcement, cracks have surfaced within the AGP following last night’s development. As the day advanced, two senior party leaders, Lachit Bardoloi and Hemen Borah, tendered their resignations. It is believed a section of the AGP, led by former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, were opposed to the idea of allying with the BJP as it ”would compromise the party’s stand on the bill”. Rumour also has it that Mahanta relented after being offered the position of Mizoram governor. Mahanta, however, has rubbished the rumours. He later told the media that he was kept in the dark regarding all the discussions which took place between the AGP and BJP.

On 7 January, the AGP had walked out of alliance in protest against the Centre’s decision to go ahead with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to grant nationality to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan after six years of residence in India. Even though the bill was not tabled in the Rajya Sabha – mainly due to the Congress’s opposition and widespread protests across the northeast – the AGP till March 11 was maintaining that it has the ability to fight the elections alone. On Sunday, it declared a list of probable candidates in 13 of the state’s 14 parliamentary seats.

Then what made the AGP change its mind suddenly?

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Although no senior leader of the party was willing to come on record on the latest developments, AGP insiders close to party president Bora admitted the compulsion to put aside differences with the BJP.

Existential crisis

As opposition parties kept the heat on the BJP over the fallout of the Citizenship Bill, the AGP’s resistance was mainly seen as its last-ditch effort to stay electorally relevant in the state. The once-powerful regional outfit, which was born out of a strong anti-immigrant agitation in the 1980s, failed to cash in on the anti-BJP sentiments in the aftermath of the protests against Citizenship Bill. AGP insiders close to Bora claim that contesting the elections alone was anyway not an option for the AGP, which has already lost its main vote bank — caste Hindu Assamese — to the BJP. In 2014 and 2016, the BJP succeeded in rallying the Assamese Hindus behind it in Assam.

In 2014, the BJP won seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam on its own while the the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) got three each and one seat went to an independent. However, the AGP had failed to win a single seat. According to a Lokniti-CSDS post poll survey data, 73% Assamese Hindu voted for the BJP-AGP-BPF. Out of that, 63% voted for the BJP alone. Almost 58% of the overall Hindu electorate in the state had voted for BJP while the AGP had managed to get only 7%.

In 2016, the AGP had fought the Assembly elections in alliance with the BJP and regional outfit, Bodo People’s Front (BPF). While the BJP won won 60 of Assam’s 126 seats on its own, the AGP got 14 and the BPF 12 seats. In that elections too, 67% of Assamese Hindu voted for BJP-AGP-BPF while a major chunk of it — 43% — voted for the BJP alone. While the Citizenship Bill issue is likely to see an impact on BJP’s vote share, the sentiments of the Assamese Hindus don’t seem to have changed much in favour of the AGP.

Moreover, if the recent panchayat polls results are an indication, the BJP still seems to have an edge. The BJP managed to win around 42% of the seats despite AGP, which fought the panchayat polls alone, making the Citizenship Bill an election issue.

With the AGP going back to its ally and infighting within the party out in the open, the party now not only risks losing its remaining credibility but may end up upsetting its own cadre. As for the BJP, it still has a balancing act to pull off. An alliance with the AGP also runs the risk of losing its core constituency of Hindu Bengali voters.

But, as BJP detractors argue, the party perhaps could no longer afford to show more interest in the Hindu Bengali in an “Assam for Assamese”.

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