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Assam Election 2016: Why Bodoland could hold the key to BJP's chances

Bhargab Sarmah | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:01 IST

In 2003, the Indian government reached an agreement with Bodo rebel outfit Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF). BLTF, which had led an armed insurgent movement for the creation of a sovereign Bodo nation, agreed to lay down its arms.

In return, the government, during a tripartite meeting involving itself, the Assam state government and BLTF, formed the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous self-governing body within Assam.

BTC would have 40 elected representatives, with 30 seats reserved for tribals, five for non-tribals and the remaining five open for general contest. BLTF was renamed Bodoland Peoples' Front (BPF). Within a few years, BPF, under the leadership of Hagrama Mohilary became the most influential political group in the region.

The BTC arrangement

The 30 seats reserved for tribals in BTC is crucial because this guarantees control of the autonomous body to the Bodos, who constitute less than 28 per cent of the total population.

On the other hand, Adivasis, Koch Rajbongshis, and Bengali Muslims, among other communities, have been put into a disadvantageous position as a result.

Also read: Assam Election 2016: Illegal immigration, Bengali Muslims & the AIUDF factor

Some of these communities have been demanding ST status, something that would place them on an equal footing with the Bodos in local politics; the same is yet to materialise, despite assurances from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The political arrangement, which puts the Bodo leadership in a favourable position, has led to friction between the Bodos and the other communities of the area. Bodo militants have, over the years, often systematically targeted Bengali Muslims and Adivasis living in Bodoland, with two major communal clashes rendering thousands homeless since 2012.

The 2014 Lok Sabha election, in this regard, was highly crucial. The election saw Naba Kumar Sarania, a former ULFA rebel, win the Kokrajhar seat as an independent candidate.

Sarania's win was virtually guaranteed long before the polls after the Sanmilita Janagostiya Aikya Mancha (SJA), an umbrella organisation of 23 non-Bodo ethnic and linguistic communities of Bodoland, gave its backing to him.

The 2014 election culminated in Bodo militants killing 33 Bengali Muslims for allegedly voting against the BPF candidate.

The political equation in Bodoland

Hagrama Mohilary of BPF. Photo: Twitter

Hagrama Mohilary of BPF. Photo: Twitter

A total of 16 constituencies, four of them partially, fall under the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD). In 2011, BPF, then an ally of the Congress, clinched 12 of these 16 seats. However, BPF and Congress ended ties in 2014 after long-standing differences.

This time, the Hagrama Mohilary-led BPF has partnered with BJP, although it remains unlikely that the party will be able to replicate its 2011 performance this term.

In August 2015, the United People's Party (UPP), backed by the highly influential All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and headed by Rajya Sabha member U G Brahma, came into being. The party has now tied up with Congress in four constituencies and is likely to provide BPF close contests.

Also read: Assam Election 2016: Congress will have an absolute majority, says CM Tarun Gogoi

In the BTC election last year, BPF saw its seat share decline from 31 to 20. AIUDF, making its debut in BTC, surprisingly won four of the eight seats it contested in. On the other hand, Congress failed to win a single seat, while BJP won just one.

AIUDF's rising influence in Bodoland, the birth of UPP, combined with BPF's decline, is now threatening to bring to an end the latter's hegemony in the area.

Why Bodoland matters to the BJP

Out of the 90 seats BJP is contesting in (the rest being left for allies), AIUDF maintains a strong support base in nearly 30 of them. On the other hand, Congress continues to enjoy significant support in Upper Assam.

The once-powerful Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has faced a steep decline in the last decade, so much so that the party didn't win a single seat in the 2014 General Elections. After tying up with BJP, it remains to be seen if the party can improve on the nine seats it won in 2011.

This leaves Bodoland as one of the most key areas for BJP, as BPF's fortunes in the upcoming election could have a major bearing on BJP's hopes of forming a government in Dispur for the first time in history.

BJP has itself, in recent times, promised to look into the long-standing demands of the non-Bodo communities living in BTAD. In January, during his visit to Assam, PM Narendra Modi promised 'good news' to leaders of the Adivasi and Koch Rajbongshi communities on their demands for ST status.

Two months on, the Central government, however, has remained tight-lipped on the matter, which has not helped further BJP's cause in Bodoland. Speaking about the economically backwards BTAD region, PM Narendra Modi had said that he had a three-point programme to improve the state of affairs: 'development, development, and development'.

The vagueness of Modi's statement, as well as his failure to announce a financial package, as was demanded by BPF, did not go down well with the region's various stakeholders.

However, despite BPF's decline and BJP's failure to woo non-Bodo voters, the two partners will hope that BPF's popularity in the BTAD area will help keep other parties at bay.

As things stand, BJP is expected to record its best ever performance in the Assam Assembly election. However, hopes of forming the government will also be dependent on its allies' fortunes, and the results in Bodoland could have a major say on who comes to power in May.

- Edited by Aishwarya Yerra

First published: 22 March 2016, 9:44 IST
Bhargab Sarmah @BhargabSarmah

An avid fan of the beautiful game since his childhood, Bhargab has been writing about football in India for the last three years. He supports I-League club Shillong Lajong, as well as English giants Manchester United. Having recently graduated with a degree in commerce, he now writes about football and other sports at Catch.