Why the Bodo vote matters


Bodo women wait to cast their votes during the second Bodoland Territorial Council poll in 2010 in Assam's Baska district.
In 2006, the Bodos, the largest plains tribe in Assam, played kingmakers in Dispur. The Congress, which failed to secure the majority in a House of 126 members, formed a coalition government with the support of 11 Bodo legislators, who were elected as Independents supported by the erstwhile Bodoland People's Progressive Front (Hagrama), later renamed the Bodoland People's Front (BPF).
Although the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) — contesting as the Assam United Democratic Front in its debut electoral performance in 2006 — secured 10 seats, only one less than the BPF, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi chose not to depend on the party, which represents the Muslim population, for government formation. He believed that a hard line against the AIUDF would help the Congress strengthen its position among indigenous and tribal voters, who perceive the AIUDF as a party championing the cause of immigrant settlers.
After winning 11 out of 12 Assembly constituencies that fall within the Bodoland Territorial Council in 2006, the participation of the BPF in the government added to the hopes and aspirations of the Bodo people. This helped the BPF retain its support base and win the election to the BTC in 2010.
Apart from the 12 constituencies it contested in 2006, the BPF has fielded candidates in 17 other constituencies outside BTC areas. However, the power tussle within the Congress over choosing between the BPF and the AIUDF as a post-poll ally has put the BPF in a tight spot.
Mr. Gogoi is keen on continuing the alliance with the BPF. He has maintained that although the Congress has put up candidates against the Bodo party, the contest is “friendly” and his party would form the government with the BPF.
Mr. Gogoi started cultivating the BPF as a potential ally ever since the signing of the second Bodo Accord in 2003, which paved the way for the creation of the BTC. The accord brought the curtains down on a revived Statehood movement, and turned Hagrama Mahilary, chief of the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), into the head of the BPF and a key man in Assam's power politics.
However, Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) president Bhubaneswar Kalita, a strong contender for the post of Chief Minister, launched an aggressive campaign against the BPF in a bid to reduce the party's numbers and the Congress' dependence on it for government formation.
If the Congress manages to wrest a couple of seats from the BPF and the BPF's strength falls, Mr. Kalita's chances will brighten as the AIUDF, of which the Congress may seek support, could impose the condition that Mr. Gogoi is not made the Chief Minister.
Mr. Mahilary and other BPF leaders have campaigned for Congress candidates in upper Assam. They hoped the Congress would reciprocate by not indulging in serious campaigning in the seats held by the BPF, and have hit out at Mr. Kalita for running an aggressive Congress campaign in BTC areas. The BPF declared that it would not extend support to the Congress for government formation if Mr. Kalita becomes Chief Minister.
AIUDF President Badruddin Ajmal, however, has maintained that his party is open to joining a government of any combination, except with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Congress is counting on the AIUDF if its current alliance with the BPF falls short of the majority, but the BPF has mounted pressure by saying it is averse to joining a coalition with the AIUDF as a partner.
The BPF also faces a tough campaign from the Bodoland People's Progressive Front (BPPF), the Asom Gana Parishad, and the BJP — parties that are using the alleged corruption issue in BTC areas during BPF rule as a weapon to woo voters.
Bodo voters are still haunted by memories of the fratricidal clashes in 2008 and 2009 between former militants of the BLT and the insurgent National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
Mr. Mahilary, in a bid to prevent the BPPF from wooing Bodo voters, revived the Statehood demand and took the initiative of bringing all Bodo groups, including the NDFB, on a common platform.
Promode Boro, president of the All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU) — which is urging Bodo voters “not to sell their valuable votes to anyone” — says the electorate cannot be expected to vote in a free and fair manner in view of the gun culture prevailing in BTC areas. He predicts that the poll outcome may not be a true reflection of the ground situation.