Guwahati: Poll winds are blowing again over Majuli, the seat of Vaishnavite culture, as the ruling BJP looks to retain the constituency vacated by former Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal while the Opposition puts up a ‘united’ face ahead of the by-poll.

BJP candidate Bhuban Gam with former Majuli MLA and Union minister Sarbananda-Sonowal

Only this time, Bhuban Gam, a social worker and businessman from the Mising community, will replace Sonowal as the saffron party’s nominee for the high-profile Scheduled Tribes (ST) reserved seat to lock horns with the Opposition’s ‘consensus’ candidate, Chittaranjan Basumatary from Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP).

Basumatary, much younger than Gam, it may be recalled, had lost to BJP’s Ranoj Pegu (now education minister) in Dhemaji in the Assembly election last year.

Sources inform that Gam, a greenhorn in electoral politics, will nevertheless make a presence among voters from the Mising community (a dominant population in Majuli), while Basumatary, a former All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) leader from Dhemaji, close to Majuli, will appeal to a section of the young voters.

Apparently, the mud-slinging among the rival parties started from the day of announcement of the Opposition candidate.

While Gam termed Basumatary “a sacrificial lamb”, the Opposition’s consensus nominee hit back at the BJP candidate, saying that “Gam is a businessman based in Guwahati and will, therefore, not be able to connect with the voters of Majuli”.

Oppositions consensus candidate for Majuli by election Chittarnajan Basumatary

There is also a third candidate in the fray, lesser-known Bhaity Richong from Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) but the contest, as it unfolds, will primarily be between Gam and Basumatary.

It may be recalled that the Congress had decided to leave the Majuli seat to the AJP this time because in the last by-election in October, the regional party did not field any candidate and had supported the Congress instead.

On the need to field a consensus candidate from the Opposition in the by-poll, AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi said the anti-BJP parties have been insisting on a united opposition against the BJP and its allies “as they are a threat to secularism and communal harmony”.

“As it is, large tracts of land mass of the river island have shrunk most alarmingly from 1,200 sq km to around 500 sq km, with past governments failing to find an answer to river erosion,” Gogoi said.

Expert view

Observes Dr Pranjit Hazarika, a former head of political science in Tezpur College, “The outcome or the acceptability of the candidate will obviously depend on which party, ruling or the Opposition, comes up with the right electoral strategy to create an impact on the electorate. Also, there is some noticeable anti-incumbency in the state, and by that count, the contest in the March 7 by-poll should be interesting.”

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“Generally, in a by-poll, it is the ruling party candidate which has the upper hand. And the ruling BJP certainly is not leaving any stone unturned, be it in the run up to polls or the schemes announced,” Dr Hazarika said.

“From laying the foundation of the much-awaited Majuli-Jorhat bridge by the chief minister, to crores of funds sanctioned for infrastructure such as polytechnic colleges, Ayush institutions and a cultural university (for which Rs 50 crore has been sanctioned), the ruling party is making its presence felt among the electorate. Then again, over the past few years (Sonowal’s tenure), the river island has seen improved roads unlike in the past,” he observed.

Also read: Crackdown on illegal water bottling units in Assam

“Another factor that could woo the voters to the saffron party could be the chief minister’s frequent visits to the river island. His humane approach of mingling with a group of children from the sattras/namghars of Majuli and having lunch together during a recent excursion is certainly a departure from the past, a strategy which is bound to create a strong connect with the voters,” the political analyst viewed.

The decorated welcome gate of the Asom Bhaona Samaroh currently underway at Shri Shri Auniati Satra in Majuli

He, however, expressed apprehension on how strong and united the Opposition is even as it has fielded a consensus candidate from the AJP.

“In the past, we have seen the Opposition (much like the Grand Alliance) put up a show of unity but crumble later. However, more than the eligibility and efficiency of the candidate, it will be the electoral strategy of the parties (ruling or Opposition) that will play a decisive role in shaping the outcome,” Dr Hazarika added. 

Voice of people

Speaking to EastMojo, Abhijit Borah, who owns a book-cum-stationery store near Auniati Satra in Majuli, said, “My earnest request to the candidate who eventually emerges victorious will be to address the issue of erosion before the river island loses more land. Erosion by the Brahmaputra River has eaten away vast tracts over the decades, so much so that that less than 400 sq km land area remains.”

Borah (40) further rued that despite getting adequate central funds, the Brahmaputra Board has done precious little, coming up with only cosmetic work in the name of protection against erosion from time to time.

Geotubes laid on the Brahmaputra bank in Majuli as an anti-erosion measure.

“Improvement of health infrastructure is another requirement as our patients from the district hospital at Garmur are invariably referred to either Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH) in Dibrugarh or Jorhat Medical College and Hospital (JMCH) in Jorhat for shortage of doctors and healthcare facilities,” he said.

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Echoing Borah, 28-year-old Abinash Bhuyan from Bongaon, who along with a few others formed a trust, Majuli Sapori Foundation, a couple of years back, says, “We have not seen any improvement in the erosion situation. The Brahmaputra Board has not done anything to come out with a solution against erosion.”

“Many people have lost their homes owing to erosion. Worse still, the livelihoods of potters in Salbari village have been affected after the authorities banned digging of kumar mati (soil for making earthen pots, etc) from the river in the name of curbing erosion,” said Bhuyan, who formed the trust to bring the youth together and work for sustainable development in the river island.

In regard to education infrastructure, too, there has hardly been any transformation over the decades.

“Nothing much has changed even as Majuli has a few schools and colleges. Students still have to cross the river by ferries every weekday to study in a better institution in Jorhat or elsewhere,” a government college teacher said, wishing anonymity.

“Another noticeable transformation is that there is a ‘saffronisation’ wave over the past five years in Majuli, with ‘sattra culture’ gradually making room for ‘Ram culture’,” he bluntly said.

An Assam type structure faces a threat of being wiped out by the Brahmaputra river

However, there are sections who are looking at things very positively.

“Over the past five years, the problem of river transport has considerably reduced. Things have been streamlined amid some existing issues, with Ro-pax vessels, marine-engine operated ferries, online ticketing and a system of regulated fares in place. Gone are the days of the lessees who would act on their whims and fancies. Now the inland water department has taken control of ferry operations, which augurs well, especially in the context of preventing mishaps such as the one last year at Nimatighat,” an established entrepreneur from Kamalabari told EastMojo.

“Besides, barring one or two kutcha roads in some places, all roads in Majuli are pucca and motorable now. So there has been a transformation in the river island from what it was a decade back,” he said.

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Also read: Centre, Assam to build Jorhat-Majuli bridge in 4 years: Sonowal

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