In the fourth phase of the crucial general election on Saturday, where seven seats went to polls, one of the keenly contested seats is the prestigious Silchar seat in Assam’s isolated Barak valley region.
Barak Valley has two seats, Silchar and Karimganj, the latter of which is a scheduled caste reserved seat. Since 1977, the battle for Barak valley has always been bipolar or triangular, but this time as many as 17 candidates are in the fray for Silchar, currently held by veteran BJP leader and three times Silchar MP Kabindra Purkyastha. Challenging him is Silchar MLA and a young leader of the Congress in Assam, Sushmita Dev, daughter of former Union minister Santosh Mohan Dev.
Barak valley is mostly dominated by Bengali Hindus and Muslims. It had remained a Congress stronghold since Independence, with the BJP gaining ground only in pockets. The RSS has been very active in Barak Valley, but could not win over the Congress’s popular support. The Congress has won the seat seven times, of which six times it was won by Santosh Mohan Dev. BJP has won the seat thrice – and it has always been by Kabindra Purkyastha.
But with the coming of the minority dominated AIUDF, led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, the political scene of the Barak valley has changed. The Muslim votes were getting divided between the Congress and the AIUDF, and the BJP has been able to integrate a larger section of Bengali Hindu votes to its favour. In the 2009 general elections, Ajmal, who himself contested from Silchar, came second to Purkyastha.
Barak Valley has always cried neglect. The region is landlocked. It does not have broad gauge connectivity, roads are dismal. The BJP is trying to cash on the Modi wave and its hardliner Hindutva card. Modi’s rally here saw almost one lakh people gather ,but the fact remains that there is strong local anti-incumbency against the BJP in Silchar, like there is a strong anti incumbency against the ruling Congress in Barak valley.
The BJP tried to woo the Bengali Hindu vote bank in Silchar and the Barak Valley. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi then played the Hindutva card far better than the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and the party gained a lot from this. The result indicated that the Congress gained from it, winning 13 of the 15 seats of the Barak Valley in the Assembly polls. It was a huge blow to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda in Assam.
To gain ground, the BJP has racked up the land swap deal between India and Bangladesh, in which Assam will lose land, and the illegal influx of migrants from Bangladesh. Modi has gone on to promise the nation at his Silchar rally in March that any Hindu refugee will be considered for Indian citizenship. Similar promises have also been made by the Congress for past two years.
Thus, for Modi, regaining ground in the Barak valley was important for the BJP, but their tried and tested candidate Purkyastha might be a problem. Many in Silchar believe he has not done enough, and they want to give young Sushmita a chance.
The BJP is accusing the Congress using the D (Doubtful) voters tag on 1.43 lakh people, most of whom are Bengalis, as a tool of blackmailing them
Modi has already claimed that if voted to power, he will close down the detention camps where D-voters are housed. It was in 1997, during intensive revision of electoral rolls, that the Election Commission had ordered that the letter ‘D’ be written against names of those voters who failed to provide proof of their citizenship, and cases of all those were referred to the foreigners’ tribunals. Since then they cannot vote.
The Barak Valley, comprising the three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, has been the other face of Assam – of neglect and oppression. There has always been a social and linguistic disconnect between the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley and the Barak Valley, and the region did not see much development during any regime.
One-time Congress heavy weight Santosh Mohan Dev was the tallest leader from the region, but the biggest allegation against him is that he never gave time to the Barak valley and was busy in New Delhi. Sushmita will have to undo all these negative sentiments to win the polls.
Making the fight very challenging for Suhsmita and Purkyastha are the fifteen other candidates. In fact, how many votes they can swing will decide who has the last laugh in Silchar.