The upcoming by-elections in Assam are generating a lot of debates and speculation in all the five constituencies of Mariani, Thowra, Gossaigaon, Tamulpur and Bhabanipur. Out of these, elections had to be called in three seats because incumbent legislators resigned from their seats and joined the BJP. In the 2021 state assembly elections, the AIUDF clinched the Bhabanipur seat.

The Mariani and Thowra seats returned candidates of the Congress party. The first constituency is situated in Lower Assam, while the latter two are in upper Assam. This territorial situation of these constituencies is crucial to understanding the context in which the AIUDF and Congress candidates won the last election. The victory in Bhabanipur could be attributed to the overarching logic of religious polarisation that engulfed the assembly elections in Assam.

With an alliance between Congress and AIUDF, Phanidhar Talukdar was presented with quite a conductive terrain to emerge victorious in Muslim dominated Bhabanipur. What makes Thowra and Mariani interesting is that both of these candidates, defied the polarising logic of the BJP and drove to victories in Hindu dominated constituencies. We travelled to one of these constituencies – Thowra to find out the unfolding political situation there.

Located in the Sivasagar district, Thowra has a chequered political history. It has been a bastion of the Congress for long, with stalwarts like Durgeswar Saikia, Tankeswar Dihingiya, Devananda Konwar and Sushanta Borgohain winning successive elections, barring 1978, 1985 and the 2016 elections, that respectively went to the credits of the CPI, AGP and BJP.

The 1978 Thowra Elections were won by Jogen Gogoi of the CPI. A TET teacher recalled nostalgically about his association with the CPI and said, “I know that CPI will not win, but we continue to support the party. Thowra has had a traditional CPI base, with Nitaipukhuri being a stronghold.” In many GPs, it is still possible to find traces of support for the CPI. Several left leaders are campaigning for Krishna Gogoi. 

What are the voters of Thowra thinking ahead of the polls? 

Our survey attempts to provide a perspective to this question, covering 85 per cent of a total of 20 Gaon Panchayats, to analyse who is likely to have the last laugh when results would be out.

The elections of Thowra have garnered a lot of public gaze, the primary reason being that the MLA, Sushanta Borgohain, who won as a Congress candidate shifted over to the BJP right after he was elected.

While this generated shock waves across many Congress supporters, workers and habitual Congress voters, it has also raised the question of whether the voters who voted for Sushanta in the previous election would still vote for him as a BJP candidate or they voted for him only as a Congress candidate. The question becomes more prudent because while in most constituencies in Upper Assam, the BJP swept the polls, Thowra voted for the Congress, along with Mariani.

In our first phase of a survey undertaken in August, the people weighed their opinion in terms of the popularity of two people: Sushanta Borgohain and the former MLA Kushal Duori who was the BJP candidate in the 2021 Assembly elections and lost to Sushanta who was the then Congress candidate, by a thin margin. The people across the constituency seemed to be happy with both Duori and Borgohain, stating that they are both accessible and help the people in times of need. 

While in August, the contest seemed to be exclusively between the Congress and the BJP and also people hardly took notice of the Raijor Dal candidate, Dhoijyo Konwar. But Dhoijyo Konwar has somewhat managed to garner some amount of ground presence in the past two months, which is in fact enough to predict him as the possible runner-up in the elections.

The catapulting of Dhoijyo Konwar to a position of significance has in a great way further undermined the position of the Congress party, especially after it has pitted a candidate who is not liked by people at all. Therefore whatever votes the Congress manages to garner, it would be based on the habitual Congress voters. 

Sushanta is mild and accessible, Dhoijyo an inspiration for youth

While a section of the people, mostly Congress workers are not happy with Sushanta’s switch to the BJP, most others have told us that he is extremely popular among all age groups, while in contrast, Dhoijyo is mostly popular among the youth. Two first time voters we met in the vicinity of the Rajmai tea estate told us that they found Dhoijyo to be an inspiration and that Akhil Gogoi is leading the movement extremely well, and they are drawn to both of them.

In the Laibil Mising village of the Gohainpukhuri GP, we interacted with a group of men in a shop, where two of them were BJP supporters, one of them being a TMPK leader, and the other two were earlier Congress supporters but now would support Raijor Dal, complaining of price rise and the absence of doctors and nurses in the hospital in their village, clinching their faith on the promises made by Dhoijyo Konwar and Akhil.

Among the Misings, while the TMPK would be a factor in attracting a section of the votes for the BJP as they are extending their support to the ruling party, a sizeable youth vote would be cast in favour of Dhoijyo, but on the whole, it might be said that Sushanta Borgohain would still be at an advantageous position among the Misings, too, which is apparent from responses recorded in villages like Lasongaon. 

Among the Deoris too, Sushanta can be said to be quite popular, as can be seen from Jamira Gaon, Sumoni Gaon and Sarumotoria of the Rajabari Gaon Panchayat. A group of men and women sitting and chatting near an LP school told us that though price rise is a burning issue, they are hopeful of development. Some also said that since this is just a by-election, just Dhoijyo Konwar getting elected from Thowra would not make any major impact as the governments in the state and the centre would still be of BJP. 

The question of Defection:

While the issue of defection did not take so much of a toll then, as people had not entered the ‘mood’ of elections, this time when we travelled back to Thowra, few people complained about the issue of defection and the fact that Borgohain did not call meetings in the various GPs to seek the permission of the people to join the ruling party, as he owed that much to them.

One respondent even complained that their self-respect was gambled. While there were scattered responses of discontent, on the whole, the people still believe that Borgohain is accessible and down to earth and hence they do not have any serious grudge against him.

The Kushal Duori Factor:

Perched somewhere in a distant Gaon Panchayat, far away from the main town Demow, Kushal Duori lives in a beautiful abode, resembling the feudal Lords of medieval times – a messiah for many, while an ex-militant for some. He apparently has around 45,000 votes in his command. This can be easily testified by his presence in all the GPs of the constituency, including his own, Bakhor Bengena, named after an 800-year old tree that has a history of its own.

A predominantly Ahom GP, Bakhor Bengena however has equally positive opinions about both Duori and Sushanta Borgohain. When asked about the status of Kushal Duori in the upcoming elections the locals responded by saying that he will be supporting Sushanta. This is also apparent from the massive efforts the state leadership of the BJP is putting behind this election. Sushanta’s win will depend to an extent on the efforts of Duori’s supporters to act in favour of Sushanta.

Raijor Dal is likely to put up a decent fight; might finish a second

As is apparent from our recent travel, the Raijor Dal has gained massively in terms of ground presence compared to our last travel. The earlier near-anonymous Dhoijyo Konwar has now become a household name in the constituency and the youth across the Gaon Panchayats seem to have at least a tacit support for Konwar.

This is especially evident in villages like Barua Sangmai (Demow GP), Sessamukh (Gohainpukhuri GP) alongside having some presence in some tea garden areas too. In the Barua Sangmai village, which is incidentally the native place of Krishna Gogoi, the CPI candidate from Thowra, the opinion is equally divided between Sushanta and Dhoijyo with very few people siding with Krishna and the Congress.

It is seen that overall GPs and villages having a majority Ahom population is divided between the BJP and Raijor Dal with negligible support for the Congress, one reason being the not so popular image of the Congress candidate, Manoranjan Konwar. 

In places like Nitai Gaon, Naujan and Konwar Gaon under Nitai Pukhuri GP, the popular opinion is in favour of Sushanta, but many people have accepted that Dhoijyo Konwar is fit to give a fight, though his position would have been better if the opposition had been united and pitted just one candidate against Sushanta. 

Wagons for the BJP, as Raijor Dal moves around on a humble bicycle

In this fight of the elephant and the ant, in terms of numbers, while the BJP and BJYM workers and supporters were seen moving across in series of wagons, the Raijor Dal has chosen a unique way of campaigning, where young lads were seen distributing pamphlets from cycles, or just walking in small groups, or even gathering small groups in tea stalls and grocery stores. Theirs can easily qualify as guerilla warfare where they know that the opposite camp is way too powerful and outnumbers them in a big way. 

Who then would plant the flag of victory?

While Akhil Gogoi and Dhoijyo Konwar have percolated their presence through the furrows of the fields and the half kutcha Mising roads, as well as few tea garden lines, especially planting the seeds of change in the minds of the youth, the BJP has used the charm and mild personality of Sushanta Borgohain along with its men and numbers to contest in the upcoming by-polls.

While some have complained that Akhil should give up his ‘Jhola’ of compromise, others accused the BJP of providing free rice to the people while bludgeoning them with whips of sky-rocketing petrol, edible oil and LPG prices. On the whole, it can be discerned that Thowra is heading for a BJP victory, while Raijor Dal might finish a decent second. As far as the Congress is concerned, it can hope for the support of a section of habitual voters who would vote for the symbol of the hand, as they had always done, not considering the ‘wrong’ choice of candidate as most people complained. 

Abhinav Borbora and Swaswati Borkataki work as Assistant professors in the Assam Royal Global University and also work as independent researchers, conducting election surveys.

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