Bodo tribals influence as many as 30 seats. No wonder, national parties are keen to forge alliances with Bodo groups, reports Bivekananda Biswas.
In the run-up to the 2016 Assam Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party has found its first ally in the Bodoland People's Front in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts -- BTAD comprising the Kokrajhar, Kajolgaon, Udalguri and Baksa districts.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew down to Kokrajhar, the capital of the Bodoland Territorial Council and one of the most backward districts in the state, on January 19. For decades, these districts have been racked with militancy and economic backwardness.
The BTAD was in the limelight for all the wrong reasons four years ago, when a bloody communal riot broke out between the Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims, in which more than 100 people were killed and at least 500,000 rendered homeless.
In December 2014, Bodo rebels gunned down more than 70 Adivasis.
For the BJP, the BTAD is important, as 16 of the 126 assembly seats in the state fall in these districts and the BPF had won 12 of the 16 seats in the last election.
The Bodos influence as many as 30 assembly seats in the state. More so, because in lower Assam the BJP does not have a strong organisational and mass base.
In the BTAD, national parties have traditionally made inroads through alliances with the BPF. In the last assembly election, the BPF was in alliance with the Congress.
This year, there is another player in the fray -- the newly-formed United Progressive Party backed by the All Bodo Student Union. The students body has a good hold over the people in the BTC areas. It is the first organisation that raised its voice for the Bodo cause and protection of their identity in the early 1980s.
Modi, during his speech, talked only of development; He avoided the issue of Bodoland statehood, a demand made by the Absu. However, the Absu and Hagrama Mohiliary, the chief executive member of the BTC, are not on the same page on this issue.
Considering Mohiliary's sour relations with the Absu, local BJP cadres were not in favour of an alliance with the BPF; instead, they wanted it with the Bodo People's Progressive Front. Mohiliary, however, managed to bring his one-time colleague, BPPF chief Rabiram Narzary, before the latter formed his own party in 2005, into the fold.
The BPPF chief announced his party's merger with the BPF on January 17. The BPF also recently floated a platform, the United People's Front, to unite the Bodos living outside the BTC. This, the BJP leadership believes, will help win the party tribal votes outside the Bodo areas.
The BPF fought the 2006 and 2011 elections in alliance with the Congress and contested all 16 assembly seats in the BTC areas. The BPF said it would not share seats with the BJP in the BTC areas; seat-sharing would apply only in the areas outside the BTC.
Although Modi, in his speech, laid stress on development of BTAD areas, he did not announce a financial package, which was Mohiliary's main demand. Modi said he had a three-point programme for the development of the backward BTAD region: 'Development, development and development.'
The prime minister's announcement granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Karbis living in the plains and the Bodo Kacharis of the hill areas of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao districts has led to resentment among the Koch Rajbongshis and other non-Bodos residing in these districts.
The cause: Bodos account for only 30 per cent of the total population of Assam, yet they want a separate state. Koch Rajbongshis, spread over lower Assam and north Bengal, have been seeking Scheduled Caste status for decades, but their demand is yet to be accepted.
The other major communities in these districts are the Bengalis, Muslims, Adivasis, Santhals and Nepalis. Attacks on Adivasis and Muslims have dented the BPF's image significantly.
In the BTC polls last year, the BPF won 20 seats out of 40 -- 13 less than its tally of 33 in the 2010 election. The All India United Democratic Front won four seats and the BJP managed to open its account. The Congress failed to win a single seat, down from the three it bagged in the 2010 polls.
In the last election, the AIUDF had tied up with the Congress. This time, the Congress, trashing the possibility of a Bihar-like Mahagatbandhan, has declared that it wants to go it alone, as it could not concede to the AIUDF's demand on seat-sharing.
The BJP has not only wooed the BPF, but it is also 'in talks' with the Asom Gana Parishad. The saffron party has taken over the political space vacated by the AGP. The young urban voters, who once voted for the AGP, voted for the BJP in 2014. Among urban voters, 45 per cent voted for the BJP and 18 per cent for the Congress.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won seven seats and a 36 per cent vote share; the Congress scored three seats with a 29.5 per cent vote share; and the AIUDF bagged three seats with 14.8 per cent votes.
The Kokrajhar seat was won by an independent candidate. The AGP won only 3.7 per cent of the votes and more importantly, no seat -- marginally higher than the 2.1 per cent vote share of the BPF.
In upper Assam, the BJP has a good support base, which is evident from the fact that it won all the seats in that part of the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In the 2011 assembly election, the BJP won only five seats, against the 78 bagged by the Congress and 18 by the AIUDF.
The BJP is trying hard to garner the support of some communities that have traditionally voted for the Congress in the absence of options. The party has already supported the proposal to include the Motok, Moran, Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Sootea and Tea tribes in the Scheduled Tribes category. At present, these tribes fall under Other Backward Classes.
The BJP also has the advantage of contesting against a divided Opposition. The Congress is facing anti-incumbency after being at the helm for 15 years. Its vote share declined by about 10 per cent between the 2011 assembly polls and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, says a study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
IMAGE: Preparations for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Guwahati last month.