Will Narendra Modi’s BJP pull off a win in India’s Assam?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses an election rally at Majuli Island on March 26, 2016, ahead of state assembly elections in Assam.Image copyright
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the the BJP’s campaign in Assam

Of the four Indian states going to polls this summer, the north-eastern state of Assam is the only one where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party stands a chance of winning, but even here it is facing problems, writes Subir Bhaumik.

In eastern West Bengal and southern Tamil Nadu, regional parties are expected to dominate. In the southern state of Kerala, it will be a fight between left parties and the Congress.

That leaves the BJP pinning its hopes for a win on Assam, which will vote in two phases on 4 and 11 April.

Ethnically diverse and prone to conflicts, Assam has been ruled by the Congress since 2001. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi led the party to power in 2001, 2006 and 2011, making him a legend in the state.

But this time, he is facing the toughest challenge of his political career.

‘Desperate for win’

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Sarbananda Sonowal, left, is the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in Assam

The BJP is desperate for a win in Assam, after the humiliating defeats it suffered in the capital Delhi and the northern state of Bihar.

“We are keen to break the jinx and it is here in Assam that we will do it,” Kabindra Purkayastha, a former BJP federal minister who is leading the party in Assam’s Bengali dominated Barak valley told the BBC.

The Congress’ failure to form a pre-poll alliance with the Muslim-dominated All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal is one major factor working to the BJP’s advantage.

“A divided Muslim vote is the Congress’ worst case scenario and that will help the BJP,” says political analyst Nani Gopal Mahanta.

The BJP has also formed an alliance with the Bodoland’s Peoples Front, a key regional party representing the important Bodo tribe.

Its chief ministerial candidate is Sarbananda Sonowal, a former Assamese student leader and now a federal minister. His trump card is an electoral understanding with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which ruled Assam between 1985 and 1990 and then returned to power in 1996.

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Subhamoy Bhattacharjee

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Maulana Badruddin Ajmal is the founder of the AIUDF

He is considered a ‘jatiyo bir’ (national hero) among the ethnic Assamese people because he fought to get the controversial Illegal Migrants Determination Tribunal Act (IMDT) scrapped in 2005.

The law’s opponents said it sought to protect illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

But despite all these advantages, the BJP’s potential path to power is not without obstacles.

Mr Sonowal is facing challenges from some leaders in his own party and the party is also seeing serious dissidence among workers who say that there has been favouritism in handing out contestant tickets.

Congress comeback?

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Congress party’s Tarun Gogoi is a three-term chief minister

This potential implosion as well as infighting within the AIUDF has given the once flailing Congress party hope.

As many as five incumbent AIUDF legislators have been denied nominations amid allegations of “selling off” tickets.

“This may hit us hard. The Muslims, who are the core strength of our party, may go back to the Congress,” AIUDF leader Smita Mishra said.

The Muslims in Assam traditionally voted for the Congress party until the AIUDF was formed in 2006. The party’s electoral debut the same year was impressive.

“But now, the AIUDF has messed up and the dissidence will affect it badly,” says Hafiz Rashad Ahmed Chowdhury, a co-founder of the party who has since broken away.

“This will not go down well with the Muslims and other minorities, they may vote en masse for the Congress.”

If this happens, Mr Gogoi will be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author

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