Since 2006, one political party, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), has been a part of every coalition government in Assam. Formed in 2005, it shared power with Congress between 2006 and 2016. Just before the assembly poll in 2016, it dumped its former ally and joined hands with the BJP. In February this year, the party took a U-turn to be part of the Congress-led ‘Mahajath’, a pre-poll alliance of eight parties. Though now with the Congress, the BPF’s unannounced policy to be part of the power structure at the Centre and in the state makes it the most unpredictable kingmaker in Assam’s politics. The party, which has been sweeping the election in the state’s Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) for the past three assembly polls, can switch sides, depending on what is up for a bargain.
Hence, the 12 seats in BTR will likely determine who has the last laugh on May 2, when the results of Assam’s 126 assembly seats will be declared. Seen through a demographic prism, the Mahajath seems invincible. The BPF has a strong support base among Bodos, who account for around 30 per cent of BTR’s population. The Muslims in the region make up another 15 per cent, by unofficial estimate, and have traditionally backed the Congress and AIUDF. This time, the Congress-led alliance has fielded only BPF candidates in these 12 seats, in a bid to consolidate the vote share of all the three parties.
In the previous two assembly polls, the BPF, on an average, got over 45 per cent of the votes polled in these seats. The combined vote share of the Congress, BPF and AIUDF in the BTR is around 70 per cent. While this looks like the perfect demographic electoral equation to provide the BPF a smooth run in the assembly poll, the party is facing its stiffest challenge ever, primarily because of a split in its core votebank—the Bodos. This split has been engineered by its former ally, the BJP, which was getting wary of the BPF’s dominance in the BTR.
The beginning of the rift between the two allies began in February last year when the BJP-led Union government signed the third Bodo Accord. Union home minister Amit Shah described it as “the final and comprehensive solution” to the Bodo problem. For more than half a century, the Bodos, the largest plains tribe in Assam accounting for nearly 6 per cent of the state’s population, have been demanding either a separate state or a separate country to protect their ethno-cultural identity. The first Bodo Accord was signed in 1993 between the Centre, the state and the leaders of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and Bodo People’s Action Committee.
However, this peace was short-lived as extremist groups, such as the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), did not accept the treaty. In 2003, the Union and the state governments signed the second Bodo Accord with the BLT. Four Bodo-dominated adjoining districts were demarcated as Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) to be governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous body formed under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution. After this, the BLT cadres gave up armed struggle, formed the BPF and joined mainstream politics.
The third accord signed in the presence of BPF leadership, the ABSU and the four factions of the NDFB, marked the end of insurgency in the region. While providing some additional powers to the BTC, the accord also renamed the BTAD as the BTR. The NDFB gave up its demand for a sovereign country and ABSU its demand for statehood.
Shortly after the signing, Pramod Boro, president of the ABSU, joined the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), a Bodo-dominated political party formed in 2015. Boro’s entry not only rejuvenated the UPPL but also challenged the cult-like following BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary enjoyed. The BJP saw this as an opportunity to strike at the BPF’s indispensability and expand its own network in the Bodo areas and, therefore, inched closer to the UPPL. Upset by this development, Mohilary went on record to say that the accord had achieved nothing apart from a change in the nomenclature. What made matters worse was Mohilary’s public announcement that he wanted Sarbananda Sonowal to continue as chief minister knowing very well that it would antagonise Himanta Biswa Sarma, finance minister and the BJP’s key strategist in the Northeast. It’s an open secret that Sarma has his eye on Sonowal’s post were the BJP to return to power. To keep the peace, the party has not announced a chief ministerial candidate for Assam yet.
In the run-up to the BTC election in December, the BJP officially ended its alliance with the BPF and joined hands with the UPPL. And though the BPF emerged as the single-largest party, winning 17 of the 40 council seats, the UPPL, which won 12 seats, and the BJP, which bagged nine, formed the executive body in the council, displacing the BPF from power for the first time since 2005. This will be the first assembly election that the BPF will contest without being in power in BTC or in an alliance with either the Centre or the state government. This will also be the first election where the militant avatar of the NDFB will not play a role since all its four groups have surrendered and joined mainstream politics. In fact, this would be the first-ever poll in the state without the shadow of militancy. “We are not involved in the political process and are trying to piece together our lives,” says Rosoraj Basumatary, former cadre of the Ranjan Daimary faction of the NDFB. The 34-year-old has taken up farming after receiving a rehabilitation package of Rs 4 lakh as fixed deposit from the government. “It’s our collective responsibility to rehabilitate the cadres so that they can meaningfully merge with society and create an environment for lasting peace in the region,” says Hiren Chandra Nath, IGP, special branch, Assam Police.
The BJP has been quick to claim credit for restoring peace in the region. In public rallies, Shah talked about the development package of Rs 5,000 crore for the BTR, of which Rs 750 crore has already been sanctioned for 65 schemes. For the voters in the region that has lost nearly 4,000 people, including civilians, militant and security personnel, over the past three decades, peace could be a major draw. “It’s good to have an election without an environment of fear, but people will wait to see how long the peace lasts as it has often eluded us in the past,” says Pushpadhar Das, an IIM alumnus-turned-farmer from the BTR’s Baksa district.
Despite reduced influence and emerging challenges, the BPF expects to capitalise on the demographic construct in the region. The combined might of the BJP and UPPL could make the BPF shed only three seats from its previous tally of 20. This happened because a large chunk of Muslim population, earlier opposed to the BPF, voted for the Bodo party instead of the Congress and AIUDF, because it was seen as best suited to prevent the BJP from coming to power. This has given Mohilary the confidence to repeatedly claim that the BPF will retain all 12 seats. It is an interesting development in the region which has seen several ethnic clashes between Bodos and Muslims of immigrant origin in the past two decades, with nearly 100 casualties in 2012. “The Muslims are unlikely to support the BJP or its allies. That makes the BPF their only option,” says Gayotri Dekadoloi, who teaches political science at the Bodoland University in Kokrajhar.
Sarma, however, dismisses this demographic arithmetic and asserts that the BJP-UPPL alliance will sweep the polls. What adds to the strength of this alliance is the addition of Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) led by Naba Sarania, who represents Kokrajhar, the only Lok Sabha constituency from the BTR. In the past two consecutive general elections, Sarania has defeated the BPF candidate, thanks mainly to the non-Bodo votes in the region. In this assembly poll, Sarania is contesting from Barama constituency. “The votes of the BJP, UPPL and GSP combined will ensure absolute majority for us in the Bodoland region,” says Boro.
Apart from the Bodos and Muslims, the other population groups in the BTR include Assamese, Bengalis, Koch Rajbongshis, Adivasis, Rabhas and Nepalis. While the Muslims may back the BPF, the other communities, who resent the Bodo supremacy in the region, may veer towards the BJP-UPPL alliance as they see the BJP as a party that can protect their interests. Besides, the Muslim population is concentrated in certain specific pockets, restricting their influence. “It will be a keen contest. The UPPL has a wider acceptance among the educated and progressive Bodo population. The other communities, except Muslims, may move towards the UPPL-BJP if they feel this alliance has winning potential,” says Dekadoloi. Irrespective of the results, the outcome will certainly play a role in deciding who grabs power in Dispur on May 2.
WHAT IS THE BTR?
The Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) is an autonomous region created under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution to provide self-rule to the Bodo people in four adjoining districts, Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, in western Assam. The 6th Schedule allows for political autonomy and decentralised governance in certain tribal areas of the Northeast. The Bodos, a plains-dwelling tribe, are the single-largest ST community in Assam, accounting for nearly 6 per cent of its population.
Several Bodo groups have led armed struggles, demanding either a separate state or country for Bodos. Three accords, in 1993, 2003 and 2020, have been signed among the Centre, state and the Bodo groups to bring an end to the insurgency in the region. Following the 2003 accord, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was created to administer the four districts then known as the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts, covering an area of over 2,7000 sq. km, or 35 per cent of Assam’s total area. In January 2020, all militant groups gave up their armed struggle and joined the mainstream. The BTAD was rechristened the BTR. A committee is examining the process to redraw the boundaries of the BTR as some non-Bodo areas have been included in the region while some Bodo-dominated villages were left out. Currently, Bodos account for 27 per cent of the BTR’s population. The other communities in the region include Assamese, Bengali, Koch-Rajbongshi, Rabha, Garo, Adivasi, Muslim and Nepali.