Guwahati: Despite restrictions on outdoor gatherings and no date announced for the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) election, campaigning has been in full swing in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) in Assam.
In the past few weeks, several poll rallies have been organised by political parties in the western and northern Assam districts, with thousands of mask-less supporters and no social distancing norms.
The polls to the 40-seat tribal council were deferred in March this year by the Assam State Election Commission in view of the coronavirus pandemic. They were earlier scheduled to be held on 4 April.
However, this has not deterred political parties from their campaigning, with some like the UPPL even conducting door-to-door campaigns.
“There is a prescribed limit for public gatherings and directions issued under the Disaster Management Act — it is the responsibility of the state government to ensure that people adhere to it,” State Election Commissioner Alok Kumar told ThePrint.
“According to ECI guidelines, not more than 100 people are allowed at public campaigns and social distancing has to be followed. We have deferred the polls and will discuss with the state government before announcing a fresh polling date,” he added.
The BTC has jurisdiction over four districts of Assam — Kokrajhar, Baksa, Chirang and Udalguri — and they are collectively known as the BTAD. The districts have a sizeable Bodo population and the council is headquartered in the Kokrajhar town.
The BTAD was rechristened as BTR (Bodoland Territorial Region) after the signing of the third Bodo Accord on 27 January 2020. The central government and the Assam government signed the accord with the four factions of the insurgent group, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU).
UPPL’s agenda for journalists
Political analysts believe that the BTC election will be a direct fight between two regional parties — the Bodoland People’s Front (BDF) and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL).
The BPF, which is a coalition partner of the BJP-led state government in Assam, is going it alone in these elections and is primarily championing the cause of social development. Meanwhile, the BJP is sticking to its tried and tested formula of vikas (development) and parivartan (transformation).
The UPPL, another prominent party in the region, has gained in strength after former ABSU president Pramod Boro, who had spearheaded the Bodoland statehood movement, joined it in January this year, immediately after the Bodo Accord was signed. He is also the working president of the party that was previously headed by former Rajya Sabha MP Urkhao Gwra Brahma.
More particularly, ahead of the BTC polls, the party’s agenda for journalists in the region has been a cause for much discussion.
It promises an annual budget of Rs 10 crore for the Journalist Welfare Board, a group life insurance cover of Rs 1 crore for working journalists, allotment of land for a ‘Journalists’ Colony’, international media house tours for selected journalists, establishment of a Media Institute and Research Centre among others.
The journalists in the Bodo belt, however, have mixed reactions to the proposals.
According to Hantigiri Narzary, vice-president of the Kokrajhar Press Club, “The special care and respect shown for the media by UPPL is laudable in today’s juncture. This package highlights career building among budding journalists besides coverage of life insurance for media persons in BTAD.”
Pritam Brahma Choudhury, a journalist who has been working in the region for the past 20 years, said, “If they can do something for mediapersons, it will be a good step and everybody will welcome it.”
However, another journalist Naba Kumar Deka, who has been covering BTR for the past 30 years, expressed shock and disbelief at the UPPL’s agenda.
“These are mere poll gimmicks. I feel like laughing and it also makes me sad. The Assam government announced a budget of Rs 4 crore for welfare of journalists in last year’s budget; how can UPPL announce Rs 10 crore for BTAD? Suppose they come to power, and if they cannot implement these as promised, will the journalists spare them?” Deka told ThePrint.
UPPL president Pramod Boro, however, was confident about implementing the proposed agenda for journalists if they came to power.
“We are stressing on infrastructure development for the media and different schemes which we will implement once we form government. Other parties have always used media for their gain, but have done nothing for their welfare. Journalists are facing a hard time now – they cannot be daily wage earners. No one can fathom the problems faced by journalists in rural areas,” the party’s chief told ThePrint.
The BPF, on its part, said such schemes were incorporated in their poll manifesto as well.
“We had promised a Journalist’s Colony and a media research institute at Barama last year. We will implement all of this when we form government,” said Probin Bodo, Secretary, BPF.
Assam’s Social Welfare Minister Pramila Rani Brahma, who is also part of the BPF, questioned UPPL’s commitment — “How can they announce such welfare schemes? They said they would give jobs to each family, is this even possible?”
BTC polls in times of Covid
According to official state data, a total of 7,278 Covid-19 positive cases have been registered in the BTR from 24 June to 11 September.
During elections, the deputy commissioners and superintendents of police are responsible for upholding the Model Code of Conduct under the Election Commission of India (ECI).
BPF President Hagrama Mohilary had been the Chief Executive Member of the BTC since its creation in 2003 until its dissolution earlier this year.
The five-year term of the BTC expired on 27 April and Assam Governor Jagdish Mukhi has since then been leading the caretaker government.