Assembly elections in Assam used to be a quiet affair and people outside the state would take little interest in the outcome.
This time, even in faraway Delhi, people are keeping tabs on political developments in Assam.
Bivekananda Biswas reports.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has billed the state's assembly polls as a fight between him and Narendra Modi.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's tie-up with a Bodoland party could be productive. But the All India United Democratic Front could spoil the plans of both the Congress and the BJP
In the past, assembly elections in Assam used to be a quiet affair and people outside the state would take little interest in their outcome. This time, the situation is different. Even in faraway Delhi, people are keeping tabs on political developments in Assam.
One reason for this piquing of interest could be the presence of a relatively new entrant in Assam politics, the BJP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is undeniably popular in the state -- that is why Tarun Gogoi has turned this year's assembly elections into a battle between himself and Modi.
The BJP has never done well in districts in lower Assam. This time it has forged an alliance with the Bodoland People's Front. In upper Assam, the party's prospects are better: In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, all the seats it got came from this region.
But the BJP's overall performance never crossed 10 assembly seats in a House of 126. Now, as the state heads for the first phase of assembly elections on April 4, with 65 seats voting on Monday, it is worthwhile to analyse around 50 per cent of the total assembly seats where voters will exercise their right.
Hailakandi, Karimganj and Cachar, the three districts in the valley that will vote in the first phase, have a sizeable Bengali Hindu population. In theory, this should be to the advantage of the BJP. But the party has left 24 seats to its electoral alliance partner, the Asom Gana Parishad because of which local BJP workers are sulking.
The BJP's import from the Congress, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the convenor of the BJP's crucial election management committee in Assam, conceded that giving tickets had caused heartburn. 'We had many challenges in finalising the list of candidates, but it includes candidates from all communities... There are also 20 candidates whose ages are below 40,' he said when nominees were first named.
It isn't just the BJP that is facing dissent. In the first phase of elections, at least two current Congress members of the assembly who were denied nomination have announced their intention to contest their respective seats as Independent candidates.
Sarat Saikia, who has represented Mahmora since 2001, and Duliajan MLA Amiya Gogoi were denied Congress tickets. Both are fighting as Independents. In the Lakhimpur constituency, when former National Students Union of India state president Jayaprakash Das was named the party candidate, a town bandh was called because a local hopeful, Ghana Borgohain, was denied the ticket.
Dissidence or not, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to ensure it has all bases covered. Gogoi, arguably one of Assam's tallest leaders and a bitter critic of the BJP, will face Jorhat Member of Parliament Kamakhya Prasad Tasa in Titabar, which goes to the polls on April 4.
The Titabar assembly segment falls in the Jorhat parliamentary constituency. The stakes are so high for the BJP that it is ready to sacrifice a current Lok Sabha member to ensure Gogoi's defeat.
The first phase will also see the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, contesting from Majuli that falls in the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency. Sonowal, who contested and won from Lakhimpur in the last Lok Sabha elections, got the highest number of votes from the Majuli assembly constituency -- also the epicentre of Assam's Vaishnavite movement and which could influence voting trends elsewhere in the state.
Sonowal has been focusing on the river (Brahmaputra) island's development since he became a Union minister.
The Congress and BJP manifestos will also be put to the test on Monday. Releasing the Congress manifesto, Gogoi said: 'If I come to power again, I will ensure job to one member of each family. Our target is to provide one million jobs in both government and private sectors in the next five years.'
The manifesto promised to classify families whose annual incomes are each less than Rs 2.5 lakh (Rs 250,000) as 'poor' and provide benefits accordingly. It said, if voted to power, the Congress would fill all vacant teaching posts in schools and create 200,000 more such posts in the next five years.
It would also regularise services of all employees. It promised the development of islands such as Majuli, a package for the revival of tea estates and overall development.
The BJP has responded with a 'vision document.' Party President Amit Shah said: 'A scientific plan was undertaken for controlling floods in Assam; plans are afoot for making railway lines double track; Rs 25,000 crore (Rs 250 billion) has been earmarked for the construction of 447 km of national highways; the gas cracker project that remained dormant for 21 years has started...
'Assam has never been safe under the Congress' 55-year reign. Its border has been opened as a road for lakhs of infiltrators from Bangladesh to snatch employment from Assam's youth.'
However, Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF might pour cold water on the plans of both the parties. 'We are contesting 60 seats. Contrary to popular belief that we only represent migrant Muslims, we have fielded non-Muslims too,' Ajmal said.
In the first phase of elections, the AIUDF is fielding 27 candidates, of whom 13 are non-Muslim. Several of these constituencies fall in areas where the Muslim population is insignificant.
The AIUDF won 10 assembly seats in 2006 within a year of its formation and went on to win three Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and 18 seats in the last assembly. This election will be a major test of strength for the party.
Not just the first phase, the entire election in Assam will be a test of Gogoi's agility -- and the BJP's determination.