The first phase of the Assam Elections 2021 is over, and the second phase of voting is almost upon us. Amid all the election hullabaloo, political analyst Bishal Paul sat down with Congress MP from Nagaon and its Campaign Committee Chief, Pradyut Bordoloi, after a day of grilling campaigning. We asked some tough, thorough questions but true to his nature, Bordoloi didn’t hold back his punches.
Here are the excerpts:
1. You’ve been campaigning extensively across the state for the past many months. What has been that one key learning that surprised you in this period?
I was a little sceptical if our organisation can respond to the challenging situation at the grassroots level the way it has now. For the past few years, the party wasn’t working expansively at the grassroots level. When I was assigned as the Campaign Committee Chairman, I witnessed so much enthusiasm. I received a great response which surprised me. When you get to see your people, the Congress workers who have been probably put in the cold storage or who have been dormant in the last 3-4 years, all of a sudden you see everyone so enthusiastic, you feel good. We’re hence now doubly sure that nobody can beat us.
2. Even until three months back, everyone gave the BJP-led alliance a virtual walkover, stating that there’s no competition. But the ground reality has changed. What do you think has been the biggest game-changer?
We hit the right chord with people. Not only the Congress workers or sympathisers but every other voter. When we started the campaign, we gave the workers one message – “Axom Bachao Aahok”, which means “Lets Save Assam” from the clutches of BJP and the Nagpur-decadent culture (a reference to the RSS). Because see, the Axomiya-ta, or the Assamese culture, is something that we’re proud of and is different from the Hindutva that the BJP and the Nagpur loyalists are trying to impose on us.
Our Axomiya-ta is very inclusive and liberal, and the Assamese ethos is different from what the Hindutva bandwagon professes. So when we gave this war cry, “Axom Bachao Aahok”, that resonated with voters. They’re exasperated with the BJP antics and jumlas, their shortcuts, and they’ve not provided solutions for the fundamental problems that touch the lives of common people. They’re now resorting to shameless rhetoric of religious polarisation. It has not gone down well with several Assamese people as they do not want such a highly-polarised narrative.
Especially, for the first phase of elections in Upper Assam, BJP stooped to such a low level that never since Independence has the Assamese electorate been subjected to such lowly remarks and decadent slogans and narratives. Voters have now begun to resent their rhetoric of religious polarisation.
3. Despite a spat of anti-CAA protests, the BJP managed to douse the fires by bringing many ethnic leaders who led these protests—Morans, Rabhas, Misings, Tiwas, Mataks etc—to their fold. Where do you think the Congress party failed in bringing them under your fold and whether it’ll help the BJP, especially in Upper Assam?
The BJP’s dirty tricks department head, Amit Shah, is always operating in such a manner. Though the issues are alive, they’ve been selective at targeting several leaders from various organisations and have wooed and bribed them with many incentives. As you already know, they’ve always used the CBI, the IB and the Income Tax department and to top it all, the money power and also with the allurements of MLA-ship, Minister-ship or any kind of posts. That has worked wonders for certain leaders, but not all. You mentioned the All Moran’s Students Union. Yes, their leader Amarjyoti Moran joined the BJP, but only to either become the MLA or make some extra money or get some favours from the government of the day. But I’ll tell you one thing: the organisation is robust and their second-rung leaders are very perturbed and agitated with the behaviour and selling of their leaders. Maybe it is a momentary silence because when the top leader has crossed over to the BJP camp, they’re trying to put their act together. But this fire in them is going to reignite in a broader dimension. The issue is not dead. Common voters are not fools. BJP is only looking at short-term solutions by giving these allurements. But they’re pushing the state of Assam on the brink with these shortcuts.
4. It’s interesting you say this. Because as you must be aware that the leader of All Assam Matak Sammelan (AAMS), Kajal Gohain, who was appointed as the Chairman of the Tinsukia Development Board and many such ethnic leaders who are now with the BJP, also argued that one of the major reasons for them to move towards BJP is the lack of representation of their community in the INC in the past. Do you think Congress failed to give proper representation to these communities?
Not at all. It is a lame excuse. All along, the Congress party has given tickets to the Morans and Mataks. For example, Bolen Chetia, who was an MLA from Congress for three terms, is from the Moran community. Similarly, this time we’ve given a ticket to Sibanath Chetia from the Digboi constituency. He too belongs to the Moran community. We’ve given representation to many ethnic communities, whether the Mataks or Morans, etc in our ticket distribution. Some people cannot withhold their thirst for power and succumb to greed. So these are the ones who’ve crossed over to the BJP. But overall, many of these organisations and their members are with us, the Congress.
5. Off late, the rise of the Congress in fighting back the mighty BJP in the Assam elections has been attributed to the presence of Chattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel as a Senior Observer. Can you tell us a little bit more about his role in these elections?
The organisation in Assam, for the past few years, didn’t pay attention to micro-management at the booth level. We are, as an organisation, very strong and robust but somehow, we didn’t pay attention to strengthening it. So, Mr Baghel, who’s an experienced leader and a senior Congressmen, brought along a very sincere team from Chattisgarh. I’ve no hesitation in telling you that they’re working wonders. Because it’s a group of people, under Mr Baghel’s leadership, who’ve given a methodology to our booth level workers in Assam. So I don’;that we’re going to reap very rich dividends due to the very dedicated work that this team has been doing at the grassroots booth level in Assam.
6. It is also seen that unlike before, all the senior leaders of Congress have fought this election in a united fashion. How much do you think will this help the party?
At the state level, if you have a weak leadership at the top, it gives rise to dissent. In Assam too, such a thing happened in the past. See, multiple senior leaders have their following, but there has to be a sense of discipline and it needs to be imposed across the board. So maybe because of the weak leadership at the state level in the past, there were ramifications of discontent, disappointment which people from the outside perceived to be bickering amongst senior leaders. But that’s not true. The credit must go to Mr Jitendra Singh, who took over as the General Secretary of Assam and believe me, he has been working so hard. He very holistically guided the party and never indulged in groupism. So when you see cohesiveness, a sense of balance, it’s because of Mr Singh’s very selfless, impartial and rational leadership that has provided stability to us in fighting the battle unitedly in Assam. I wish he came earlier to Assam. And of course, his effort has been profusely amplified, sharpened and emboldened by the efforts put in by Mr Baghel. Both of them being very hard-working and down to earth, really helped us and as you can see, we all came together to fight this election as a team. This is a fight we can win because Congress has an inherent connection with Assam. So they’ve been together being able to channelise this collective energy.
7. After spending such a long time in politics, what is the one change which you witnessed both in the party and outside when it comes to fighting the elections differently?
I’ve been a 4-time MLA in the past and this time I’ve come to the Parliament. So I’ve acquired the kind of experience organisationally and administratively which I bring to the table. But when you see that you’ve been deliberately being sidelined and pushed to a point of no return, what do you do? Then you tend to withdraw yourself because you’re a die-hard loyalist of the party. But with the coming of Mr Jitendra Singh, when you get the kind of self-respect and attention, when you get encouragement, you feel motivated to work hard. That is what is different in Assam. So it led to the realisation that we need to stop BJP from coming to power in Assam at any cost. Because the BJP is very tyrannically killing the Assamese ethos and identity that we’re so proud about. In the name of Hindutva, they’re killing the real Assamese ethos. We cannot allow this to happen. Unlike before, it is a kind of a do-or-die battle for us. Not only us as a party but even outside, you’ll find a lot of Assamese people who supported BJP in 2014 and 2016. Today, they realise that the BJP is like a torpedo that can be unleashed on them.
8. While you talk about leadership, there has also been a sense that Congress hasn’t been able to manage the dissidents as compared to BJP. In the Nagaon constituency, Dr Durlav Chamua filed his nomination as an Independent and declared that he’ll join the BJP on being denied a ticket, but a few days later, his name was at the top in a committee set up by Mr Jitendra Singh. Don’t you think it reflects poorly on the party?
When you’re weak at the top, many leaders think they can get away with indiscipline. Discipline is not something that you can compromise. That sense was missing in the last 4 years in the Assam unit. As a result, many people who aspired to get tickets, and were denied, thought that they can leave the party and harm us while maybe thinking that they can get back to the party at their own will later. That shouldn’t happen.
Let me tell you about Nagaon. Dr Durlav Chamua was very resentful because he was denied a ticket. But I spoke to him and persuaded him. As a result, he withdrew his nomination as an Independent candidate. He’s very much in Congress now and I hope we’ll be able to accommodate him. I assure you that I’ve handled him with a lot of respect and attention and hence he stayed back at the party. Isn’t this a result of our crisis management? Of course, many others have left but that’s common during elections. If you don’t get a ticket, you jump to the other side. I think we should never allow these leaders to ever come back to the party.
9. Another X-factor in this election has been the emergence of the two indigenous parties: the Axom Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal. How do you see them performing in these elections? Which alliance do you think they’ll end up harming more?
We gave a clarion call to both organisations to come to a common ground. Both the regional parties have a common purpose like the anti-CAA and the anti-people policies of the BJP. But surprisingly, they decided to stay aloof from the grand alliance that we’ve formed. We expected them to side with us so that all anti-BJP forces can be together. Instead, in many areas, we saw that in many areas, they’re working as the B-team of BJP. So it is very confusing and we’re a little perplexed. But sadly, when it comes to the outcome of this election, I feel they might not score in many seats either in Upper Assam or Lower Assam. They may cut someone’s votes, but might not be able to register their mark.
10. Since you’re talking about results, don’t you think that the decision to not project a CM face is harming Congress? Do you think an average voter resonates with the idea of joint leadership especially when elections are becoming so Presidential?
No, I don’t think so. As you know, in the Congress party, nobody is projected as the Chief Ministerial face before elections. There may have been one or two aberrations in the past. But otherwise, no one has been nominated. Even in BJP, in the last election in 2016, Mr Sonowal was projected as their face two months before the elections. But this time, they’re mum and not saying anything. So I understand you’re concerned about Congress, but what BJP? Why are they mum? But in Congress, all of us are fighting together, and if we win, everyone will decide the CM together. But in BJP now, there are two distinct camps led by Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma. Since I know Mr Sarma very closely, he can go to any extent to become Chief Minister. His DNA is that of betrayal, and he can betray anyone to attain his desired goals. So much so, that I believe, he’s already building up his contingency plan, with his mountains of ill-gotten money in his coffers to buy off MLAs. If needed, he may even walk away from BJP and form a third front government. He’s already building up his war chest. BJP is going to burn its fingers if they trust Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma blindly. Unlike Sarbananda Sonowal who’s anytime saner than Sarma.
(The author is the Chief Executive Officer of Little Monk Communications, a digital marketing agency managing social media strategies of a host of Bollywood personalities, leading movie studios, films and brands.)