Assam minority messiah keeps all guessing

The son of poor Muslim migrants of East Bengali origin, Ajmal is the first leader from his community who decided to dump the Congress that has traditionally protected his people and eke an independent path.

The AIUDF was formed in 2006, capitalising on the fear among Assam’s Muslims after the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act 1983 that was seen as their legal safeguard against nativist political parties and local administration that treats them as illegal infiltrators.

From seven seats in 2006, it doubled its tally to 17 in 2011. In the recently concluded Assam polls (results to be declared on May 19 along with those of three other Indian states now witnessing polling in several phases), the AIUDF is seen as emerging as the ‘kingmaker’.

Pollsters who had originally anticipated a return of Muslim voters to the Congress to prevent the BJP-led alliance from winning now say Ajmal has queered the pitch effectively by his last minute appeals at a huge number of rallies he addressed.

“The Congress failed to defend our people when it could not stop the scrapping of the IMDT act. Now we can only save our people if AIUDF gets enough seats to play a decisive role in government making,” Ajmal told the 15-20 election rallies he addressed just before the last round of polling on Monday.

That seems to have gotten the Muslims to vote mostly for his party.

AIUDF spokesperson Smita Mishra says the party will win at least 20 to 25 seats.

If that happens, no party can form a government without AIUDF support.

Pollsters and political analysts in Assam feel the BJP-led alliance, designed to consolidate the Hindu vote across ethnic communities, may end as front runner with 50 to 55 seats and the Congress will not be too far behind with 40-42 seats.

“No one can form the next government in Assam without our support,” says Badruddin Ajmal.

But when confronted with the inevitable question who his party would support, Ajmal kept his cards close to his chest.

A few days ago, he had ruled out support to BJP but described Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi as a ‘failure,’ hinting that he would pressure the Congress high command into projecting an alternate chief minister.

“Whoever we support must be headed by a leader who is liberal and inclusive and mindful of minority interests,” Ajmal told bdnews24.com, hinting he will drive a hard bargain if the Congress turned to him for support.

Party insiders say Ajmal, who is likely to win from his seat in Dhubri, will push to accept him as deputy chief minister with charge of home portfolio, if the Congress can’t form a government without his support.

The BJP is unlikely to seek his support because its projected chief minister candidate Sarbananda Sonowal is known for fierce anti-migrant views and actually piloted the legal challenge in 2004-5 that led to the scrapping of the IMDT Act.

That earned Sonowal the adage of ‘jatiyo bir’ (national hero) among ethnic Assamese but explains the fears he generates among the state’s 36 percent Muslim electorate, most of whom are descendants of migrant settlers of East Bengali origin.

But Ajmal enjoys ‘an intimate relation of trust’ with Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congress minister and now the projected number two in a possible BJP government.

“Though Ajmal and Sarma have exchanged hot words in this poll campaign, that is for show. Ajmal may actually agree to support a BJP government if it is headed by Sarma on the explicit promise he is deputy chief minister with home and on the clear promise that Muslims would not harassed at random,” says Assam’s political analyst JP Saikia.

Saikia knows Ajmal from his days as district magistrate in Nagaon, where the Ajmals run their huge foundation that manages a big referral hospital and multiple educational institutions.

The family’s perfume also started from Hojai in Nagaon though it later moved to Dubai.

“He is a very shrewd man and very tactically flexible. He has strong trader instinct and can be a very bargaining. He knows his politics will survive if he can manage for his people protection by legislative manipulation, now that the legal protection of IMDT Sct is gone,” said Saikia.

Ajmal told bdnews24.com: “All depends on our numbers. Some say we will get nine, some say we will get 12 and some say we will get 20 seats. Why should I speculate now who I will support? It depends on the results.”

Which means he is keeping his options open.

If the BJP-led alliance stands within striking distance of a majority and the Congress is left far behind, Ajmal will have no choice but to ‘respect the verdict of the people’.

“But he will surely extract much in such a situation,” said analyst Saikia.

Assam Chief Minister Taron Gogoi.

Assam Chief Minister Taron Gogoi.

Much as Ajmal may pressure the Congress high command to drop Tarun Gogoi (famous for his ‘Ajmal kune’ or ‘ who is Ajmal’ remark before 2006 polls) as chief minister as his condition for support, he may pressure BJP to give up on Sarbananda Sonowal as chief minister and agree to supporting then BJP, if his friend Himanta Biswa Sarma is given the top job and he is given home portfolio.

Sarma is a tactical politician from the Congress stable and switched to BJP only recently.

“He did not join BJP to become number two. In allies like the AGP, Bodo Party, BPF and Ajmal, Sarma has friends who could help him achieve his life’s ambition,” says Assam political watcher Samir Das.