It’s a tough fight between old and new in Assam’s Bodoland | #students | #parents

Pramila Rani Brahma, 70, is not new to electoral battles. The legislator from Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) won from the Kokrajhar (East) assembly seat six consecutive times between 1991 to 2016 — as an independent candidate on first four occasions and later from the BPF.

But this time, the feisty leader known for voicing her opinions loud and clear, who also served as a minister both in the Congress cabinet of Tarun Gogoi and also in the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of Sarbananda Sonowal, is facing a different battle in her home turf.

Brahma’s main opponent in this election is Lawrence Islary of United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), the 44-year-old former general secretary of the influential All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) who joined UPPL last month and is contesting election for the first time. As a student leader, Islary has had a long and successful run and is a known face in Kokrajhar. Despite being a greenhorn to electoral politics, he is expected to give a tough fight to Brahma.

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While the rest of Assam is focused on a battle between the ruling BJP and opposition Congress, a tough fight between old and new seems to be the theme in Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), the four districts of Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Baksa and Chirang where majority of the Bodos, the largest tribe in Assam, are based; the region has 11 assembly seats.

“It’s difficult to predict what will happen this time. Both BPF and UPPL look strong. Unless things change in the last few days, it will be a tough contest between the two parties,” said Biman Sarkar, a jeweller in Kokrajhar.

The shift in power equations

Politics in BTR has been dominated in the past two decades by BPF, a party formed in 2005 by former militants belonging to Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) — a rebel outfit headed by Hagrama Mohilary, which was fighting for a separate Bodoland state before laying down arms in 2003.

In the past two assembly polls in 2011 and 2016, the party won 12 seats (11 in the region, and the 12th from Kalaigaon in Darrang district, which has a large population of indigenous people). It was part of the Congress government of Tarun Gogoi before joining hands with BJP in 2016. BPF had three ministers in the Sarbananda Sonowal cabinet as well. Mohilary, the president of BPF, was the chief executive member of BTC for 17 years and the face of the party.

But things soured between the BJP and BPF last year when the former decided to join hands with UPPL to contest the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) polls in December. BPF was in power in BTC since its formation in 2003. Despite winning 17 of the total 40 seats in the council, BPF lost out to UPPL, which, with 12 seats and BJP’s 10 seats, formed the executive council headed by Pramod Bodo, former ABSU president and present chief of UPPL.

“Don’t talk to me about UPPL or Pramod Boro. They are kids and rejected goods. We are retaining all our 12 seats and the Congress-led alliance will come to power this time,” Mohilary said this week.

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While UPPL became part of the ruling alliance of BJP and Asom Gana Parishad, Mohilary, last month, decided to join hands with Congress’s “grand alliance” (which includes All India United Democratic Front) for the assembly polls. BPF is again contesting 12 seats. On the other hand, UPPL is contesting 11 seats including “friendly contests” in three seats against BJP.

“Our alliance will win all seats in BTR. The votes of AGP, BJP, UPPL and Gana Sangram Parishad combined will ensure absolute majority for us in the Bodoland region,” Pramod Boro said on Thursday.

Guns and peace accords

Bodoland has been a volatile part of Assam. In the past three decades, nearly 4,000 people — civilians, militants and security personnel — have died due to an insurgency by Bodo rebel outfits, demanding a sovereign nation initially and later a separate state carved out of Assam.

In order to bring peace, three deals were inked in the past 27 years. The first one, signed with ABSU in 1993, led to creation of Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). Ten years later, the second deal was signed with Mohilary’s BLT and led to formation of BTC.

In January last year, four factions of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), ABSU and United Bodo Peoples’ Organisation (UBPO), gave up their demand for a separate state and signed the third peace accord. Pramod Boro, who signed the accord as president of ABSU, joined UPPL soon after and was made its president.

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In this election, the BJP and UPPL are trying to cash in on the accord to woo voters. “I am very happy to be among you today as the Bodo Accord is being implemented and under Pramod Boro’s leadership all problems of Bodoland will be sorted,” Union home minister Amit Shah said at a rally in Udalguri this week. In its poll manifesto, UPPL has also promised to implement the accord.

The poll equation

While its presence outside BTR is minimal, BPF has considerable influence among Bodo and non-Bodo voters in the four districts. In 2011, the party got 25% of vote share in the seats it contested, and, in 2016, the figure went up to 39%. This share combined with votes of Congress and AIUDF supporters could give an edge to Mohilary.

“As a voter I am still undecided. We have tried and tested Mohilary for many years and now we have UPPL, which is making fresh promises. It’s not easy to make a choice between the two,” said Nandu Tanti, a daily wage labourer at Balajan Tinali, where militants killed 14 people and injured 17 others in August 2016 in one of the worst attacks on civilians in the region.

Bodos comprise around 27% of the population in BTR while the rest include Koch-Rajbongshis, Adivasis, Rabhas, Bengali-speaking Muslims, among others. How the other communities vote this time would be important for both BPF and UPPL.

“It’s definitely a close fight this time between UPPL’s new faces and BPF tried and tested ones. Post the BTC elections last December, the mood of voters seem to be with UPPL and they have the advantage of getting votes of BJP supporters as well,” said Solomon Islary, assistant professor of political science at Kokrajhar-based Bodoland University.

“But BPF and Mohilary are still influential. Since BJP is seen as a polarising party, some voters, especially the minorities in areas such as Dhaligaon and Bijni, could shift to BPF as it happened during the BTC polls. The Bodo votes will get divided this time and it’s difficult to predict which party will win more seats,” he added.

Polling for the seats in BTR will take place in the third and final phase on April 6.

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