'The message has gone loud and clear (among the people of Assam) that the BJP is only interested in polarising (the country) and they are basically interested in (capturing votes in) the Hindi heartland and they don't bother much about the rest of India.'
The Indian National Congress seems to have got into a fighting mode with the appointment of a screening committee that will oversee candidate selection for the three-phase election in Assam with 126 seats but not before sewing up a ten-party, rainbow-like Grand Alliance with the All India United Democratic Front, the Bodo People's Front, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist, the Anchalik Gana Morcha, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and most recently with the Jimochayan (Deori) People's Party and the Adivasi National Party.
The Grand Old Party also seems to have ironed out its internal differences with the so-called Group of 23 -- a bunch of senior Congress leaders who had written to interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi for appointment of a full-time party president -- by appointing former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, whose name cropped up in the G23, as the chairman of the screening committee for Assam.
Chavan tells Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com why the Congress's poll prospects in Assam look brighter than what they were in 2016 -- the Congress won just 19 assembly seats in the assembly election five years ago -- and how the Congress is putting up a united front as the party prepares to fight polls in eight states across the country.
How are you looking at the Congress's poll prospects in Assam?
The CAA (Citizenship [Amendment] Act) law will have a huge impact on various sections of Assamese society like the indigenous Bodo people, the Bengali-speaking, the Assamese-speaking people and the Muslims.
Assam has about 34 per cent Muslim population.
This time, unlike the last election,the Congress has an alliance with Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front) and the BPF (Bodo People's Front).
The BPF certainly has a huge hold in certain pockets that make up about 11-12 assembly seats (the BPF won 11 seats in 2016 assembly election) and the AIUDF too has a huge influence as a regional party in the state (the AIUDF had won 14 assembly seats; the BJP won 60, the Congress 19, the Asom gana Parishad 13 and one was won by an Independent).
Wherever we are contesting seats in the Bodo areas, we will get the support of the BPF and we will support the BPF where we have our strength.
We have also struck an alliance with the Anchalik Gana Morcha. Along with these three parties, we also have an alliance with the CPI, CPI-M and CPI-ML. Then we have Tejashwi Yadav's RJD with us that will add some value to our campaign with the presence of Bihari migrants in the state.
Is the Congress banking on the CAA working against the BJP?
No. We have stitched a broad alliance with parties representing different sections of Assamese society.
The CAA, as I said earlier, will have a huge (electoral) impact on the state. The Bengali-speaking people are for it, most of the Assamese and Muslims are against it.
That is what is new (election development) in the state this time compared to the last time (the assembly election in 2016).
Last election, we did not have these two parties (the BPF and AIUDF) with us. We all fought separately. And there was no CAA.
Hence, this time the politics (in Assam) is quite polarised.
The message has gone loud and clear (among the people of Assam) that the BJP is only interested in polarising (the country) and they are basically interested in (capturing votes in) the Hindi heartland and they don't bother much about the rest of India.
Is the Congress banking upon only the CAA working against the BJP electorally?
No. We are not banking upon anything. It has just happened given the way the BJP plays its politics. The fact is that it has happened and the advantage will come to us.
The Congress has, of course, opposed the CAA tooth and nail in Assam. Some of the Bengali people are for the CAA, but then the BJP has not said openly that they will implement the CAA in Assam. But they are promising to implement the same CAA in the neighbouring state of West Bengal, which is also going to the polls.
They are as confused as can be and this brazen double-speak of the BJP is what will have an impact.
Of course, it will also depend upon how the Congress conducts its campaign in the state.
What will be the Congress's main poll plank in Assam?
The general secretary (Jitendra Singh) in-charge (of Assam) will take a call on that.
I am only the chairman of the screening committee, which is, in the Congress's system of things, the pradesh election committee, and all its leaders in the state, puts up a panel of names for each constituency, suggests alliances and seat-sharing among various alliance partners, after which the whole exercise is put before the screening committee.
The screening committee, which comprises of three people from outside the state, which includes myself and two other colleagues from Madhya Pradesh (Kamleshwar Patel) and Jharkhand (Dipika Pandey Singh), will then recommend the names of candidates to the central election committee headed by Sonia Gandhi.
This CEC will have the final authority to decide ticket distribution in the state.
The general secretary in charge of the state is the ex-officio member of the screening committee and so are the PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) president and state leaders. This six-member committee can co-opt anybody for any discussion.
Unfortunately, the screening committee was constituted very late; almost two days after the nominations were opened up.
We had to work very, very hard and long hours to catch up (with the process of candidate selection) the whole night.
What will be your role as the chairman of the screening committee?
I won't play any role in strategy. My role is limited only to being the chairman of the screening committee. The entire strategy role is with the general secretary in-charge of the state (Jitendra Singh) and state leadership.
Was it a surprise that you were appointed as the chairman of the screening committee despite your name appearing in the 'Group of 23' list?
The G23 is a media creation.
We wanted to bring some facts to the notice of the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi). Because of the COVID-19 situation it was not possible to meet face-to-face.
So, after waiting for a long time for an appointment (with the Congress president), which did not come through because of COVID-19, we wrote a confidential letter to her.
Unfortunately, that letter was leaked by somebody (to the media).
So, is the Congress a united house now on the cusp of eight assembly elections in various states?
The whole point of that letter was we should be fighting the BJP more aggressively, more unitedly.
We felt that there should be a full-time leadership of the Congress party (to take on the BJP) and we made that point and even today we stand by that point.
Then, after that letter (was leaked to the press), Mrs Gandhi gave us time, and the seven of us met her for a long time, and some of the issues that we raised in that face-to-face meeting were addressed (by her).
What were these issues that were addressed?
I can't discuss that.