Guwahati: Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)’s decision to deny ticket to Prafulla Mahanta, who headed AGP-led governments in Assam for 10 years, looks set to cause another split in the party that had its genesis in the Assam Movement against illegal immigrants.
Mahanta had become the CM for the first time in 1985 after the Assam Accord brought an end to the six-year-long agitation and its leaders formed the AGP.
As part of the seat-sharing deal with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Friday, the AGP gave away Mahanta’s Barhampur constituency, which he has represented six consecutive times in the assembly, to the BJP’s Jitu Goswami.
The latest move underlines the irony of Assam politics where the AGP, the regional party that was born out of a movement against illegal immigrants, has been compelled to play second fiddle to the BJP, which came to power in Assam for the first time in 2016 — that too led by former AGP leader Sarbananda Sonowal.
It’s the BJP that has hijacked the AGP’s original agenda of expelling ‘illegal immigrants’ out of Assam. Political analysts say the AGP, once Assam’s strongest, has been reduced to nothing but a “subsidiary or tail of the BJP”.
Prafulla Mahanta, part of a group of AGP leaders who have been opposed to the CAA, given the sensitivities of indigenous Assamese people, finds himself marginalised today.
The former CM who returned to Guwahati Friday evening is now preparing to revive his old outfit, AGP (Progressive), which he had floated in 2005 after getting expelled by the party for challenging Brindabon Goswami’s leadership. The AGP-P and other breakaway groups of the AGP had merged back with the party in 2008.
“The party (AGP) has sold itself to the BJP. Their standard has been lowered to the fact that Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma decide AGP tickets. Those who took a stand against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) have been denied tickets,” AGP-P spokesperson Pranab Goswami told ThePrint, adding that the party has renewed its registration.
The AGP-P faction is learnt to be holding talks with both anti-CAA forces — the Asom Jatiyatabadi Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal, and the Congress-led alliance, with strong chances of joining the latter. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which had led the Assam movement and was instrumental in the formation of the AGP in 1985, is behind the formation of the AJP.
“I am with anti-CAA forces,” Mahanta said upon landing in Guwahati Friday evening. He was discharged Friday from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in the national capital, where he was admitted since 18 February. He had suffered a stroke in January.
“We had left AGP long back and formed the Asom Andolan Sangrami Mancha and apolitically, we have been trying to unite the anti-CAA forces in Assam. We were two groups within AGP — one that supported CAA and another opposed to it. So, the ones against the Act have come together with the renewal of AGP-P,” Goswami said.
AGP becoming BJP’s tail
The seat-sharing formula between the two allies was worked out in New Delhi this week with BJP deciding to contest 92 of the 126 seats in the Assam assembly, and AGP getting 26.
From 67 seats in the assembly in 1985 and 59 in 1996 polls, the AGP’s strength in the assembly came down to 14 in 2016. The party has split thrice in a span of 20 years and still remains fragmented. AGP president Atul Bora (Jr), however, believes his party is “increasing in strength, day by day”.
“There might be new parties, but AGP is the pillar of regionalism in Assam and also a secular party. Present day politics is something different. There’s no question of compromising on ideology, but we want development and peace in the state, and implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. This government has been working hard for the progress of indigenous people of the state,” Bora told ThePrint.
The AGP had filed two separate writ petitions in the Supreme Court against the CAA in December 2019, with party leaders even considering breaking ties with the BJP over the contentious legislation. That did not happen.
AGP’s lone MP in the Rajya Sabha, Birendra Prasad Baishya did oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Parliament, but later voted in its favour.
“There’s no way out for AGP, and BJP is eating into its base — like this big fish eating the small fish. In the end, they will remain a subsidiary or tail of BJP,” said political observer Nani Gopal Mahanta.
“The very base of AGP as a party that could address all communities and groups is limited. Essentially a caste Hindu party, it’s also virtually non-existent in Barak Valley. With changes in demography, several constituencies in lower Assam that were once with AGP are now with Congress or AIUDF,” he added.
How AGP lost the plot
The AGP’s dependence on the BJP for its political survival has its genesis in the party’s failure to retain the trust of the people. The AGP government forced Assamese as the compulsory subject of studies in all schools, drawing adverse reactions from the Bodos and other tribals.
It faced criticism for its failure to implement the Assam Accord and to repeal the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) (IMDT) Act, 1983, which was brought by the Indira Gandhi government exclusively for Assam. Foreigners Act, 1946, was applicable in other states. Unlike the latter, which provided that the onus of proof lay with the suspected alien, the IMDT Act stipulated that it lay with the state.
Basanta Deka, educationist and AJP Convenor who had also played a pivotal role in the formation of AGP, believes the party has lost ground because of absence of commitment: “They fundamentally lacked commitments. From the beginning, the AGP leadership has shown lust for power, drifting away from responsibilities, which is now evident in Atul Bora and Keshav Mahanta’s (State minister) leadership.”
Political activist Shyamkanu Mahanta said, “Without administrative experience, a government cannot run. It was a mistake. They joined and they failed. There was no high command to guide them.”
In 1985, the new party inherited a collapsing administration from the Congress. From agitation politics, the leaders had to negotiate the task of governing a state with complex multicultural scenario and limited resources, with deficit in revenue earning. The Assam movement’s moral support base was the Assamese middle class. But misgovernance and the failure to address the issue of foreigners soon alienated the middle class.
Sarbananda Sonowal, while resigning from the AGP to join the BJP in 2011, had claimed that he was upset because the party was building close relation with All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and its chief Badruddin Ajmal while sidelining illegal immigrants’ issue. He had hit out at Mahanta, questioning his growing closeness with Ajmal and for extending tacit support to AIUDF’s communal agenda.
The AGP’s equation with the AASU was another issue that prompted Sonowal to part ways with his party. The AASU had started showing black flags to Prafulla Mahanta wherever he went and the AGP leadership wasn’t able to mend relations with the students’ outfit.
In the 1996 election, all political parties except the BJP avoided the core issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The AGP did not mention the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants even in its election manifesto. Instead, it made general promises to initiate the necessary action to implement the Assam Accord, a self-defeating strategy that has continued till now.
In 1996, the party won the assembly election in an alliance with four parties but the Mahanta-led government faced multiple challenges this time amid heightened United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and Bodo insurgency, factionalism, and corruption, among others.
People started noticing the lavish lifestyle of the new breed of political leaders and there were murmurs about some of them acquiring property beyond known sources of income. It was in this backdrop that the AASU fell out with the AGP.
Further, the charges of ‘secret killings’ between 1998 and 2001 made the government machinery unstable. ‘Secret killings’ were patterned assassination attempts targeting family members, relatives, friends and sympathisers of the members of the insurgent outfit ULFA. With the fall of AGP government in 2001, the secret killings stopped.
There were four factions in the AGP since its inception — led by Prafulla Mahanta, Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, Brindaban Goswami, and Atul Bora (senior).
The first split was in 1991 when the Natun Asom Gana Parishad was formed by Bhrigu Phukan, Brindaban Goswami and Pulakesh Baruah. The second split was in 2000 when the Trinamul Gana Parishad was formed by Atul Bora (senior) and Pulakesh Baruah. The third was in 2005 when Prafulla Mahanta and loyalists floated the AGP-P after being expelled for anti-party activities. They regrouped together in 2008.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, AGP failed to win any seat. Taking moral responsibility for this defeat, Mahanta passed the mantle of party president to Atul Bora (junior).
Deka said there were two leaders who were “the architects of AGP” — Mahanta and Phukan. Phukan passed away in 2006.
Mahanta is now staring at an uncertain political future, with the AGP virtually showing him the door. And the new AGP leadership finds it more convenient to cling on to the BJP to stay in power.