Anti-BJP sentiments used to consolidate votes in Muslim-majority Dhubri in Assam
No Hindu candidate has ever won the seat though Dr Pannalal Oswal of the BJP put up a good fight in 1998, securing 24% votes.
On the ground, every party’s target is the BJP and its “communal agenda”. The strategy is understandable. An assault on the saffron party means polarising voters and trying to garner as many Muslim votes as possible.
In this Lok Sabha election, two-time MP Badruddin Ajmal of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is being challenged by the Congress’ Abu Taher Bepari, AGP’s Zabed Islam and Trinamool Congress’ Nurul Islam Choudhury. The voting will take place on April 23.
Dhubri is one of the 15 Lok Sabha seats with 50% or more Muslim population (See list). No Hindu candidate has ever won the seat though Dr Pannalal Oswal of the BJP put up a good fight in 1998, securing 24% votes. He was killed by the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in 1999.
“Inshallah,” said Ajmal, 69, as he addressed a 10,000-strong crowd at Bahati Salmara village, 150 km west of Guwahati, on Wednesday. The crowd chanted back: “Subhan Allah, Subhan Allah.”
Ajmal then asked the crowd: “BJP ke vote dibe neki (Will you vote for the BJP)?”
The reply came: “Na.”
“Say it louder,” he insisted.
“Na….” The word echoed all around.
Ajmal then began yet another chant: “Modi hatao (Remove PM Narendra Modi)", as the crowd chorused "Desh bachao (Save the nation)."
In a half-hour-long rousing speech, Ajmal referred to everything that could polarise voters.
He mentioned the communal violence in Nellie (1983) and Gujarat (2002), the rise of D-voters (doubtful voters) and the problems in the ongoing preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) before making provocative references to a recent incident in which one Shaukat Ali was assaulted and force-fed pork by a mob in Biswanath Chariali early this month, as the 68-year-old was allegedly selling beef.
Ajmal made zero reference to roads, drinking water, hospitals, electricity, or education.
A prominent businessman with interests in perfume and textiles, Ajmal founded the AIUDF in 2005 and became an MLA before winning the Dhubri Lok Sabha seat in 2009. His assets, declared in his election affidavit, are worth Rs 75 crore, with an annual income of Rs 4.29 crore in 2017-18.
"We were clear from Day 1 that our fight is against the BJP, not the Congress. We decided not to contest in 11 (out of 14) seats, but the Congress did not reciprocate. They should not have fielded a candidate at least in Dhubri where I am contesting," Ajmal told ET Magazine before clarifying that he would still support a Congress-led alliance at the Centre, despite the "betrayal".
The ordinary citizens of Dhubri, whom this writer interacted with in various parts of the constituency, say they always choose to live in peace and harmony. "When a Hindu family has a function, they invite us. We too invite them for our functions. For us, the real issue is to elect someone who can voice our concerns in Parliament," says Idrish Ali Mullah, 39, of Tukura Part-III village of Goalpara that falls in Dhubri constituency.
About 3 lakh Hindu Bengalis in the constituency have meanwhile deserted the Congress and back the BJP. Most of them support the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which, if passed, will facilitate Hindu Bangladeshis residing in the state to apply for Indian citizenship.
Out of about 17 lakh voters in Dhubri, approximately 6 lakh are Hindus, with a major chunk being Koch-Rajbongshis and Hindu Bengalis.
"Whatever may happen, we will vote for lotus (BJP's symbol)," says Ratan Saha, a rickshaw-puller in Goalpara town. "The BJP is not contesting, so we will vote for its ally," adds Saha, a Hindu Bengali. The AGP's game plan in fielding a Muslim candidate - Zabed Islam - is to garner the support from both the communities, as many Hindu supporters of BJP are expected to vote for Islam.
The Congress too has stepped up its campaign after fielding a strong candidate - two-time MLA, Abu Taher Bepari, who had briefly joined the BJP before returning in 2017. Last year, the Congress won 19 out of 24 district panchayat councils in Dhubri, signalling its growing sway over the minorities, apart from demonstrating Ajmal;s slide in his own bastion.
In Delhi, Union Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told ET Magazine that the Congress and the AIUDF are playing a noora kushti (match-fixing), adding that his party would gain the support of a section of Muslims in Assam and elsewhere. "The acceptability and popularity of Modiji among the Muslims has gone up in last five years. Across India, 30% minorities will vote for the BJP this time," he claims.
Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, too has listed various schemes, including the PMKISAN, a cash support scheme for farmers, which benefited a large number of Muslims. "Despite the Opposition trying to paint us as anti-Muslim, the BJP will get votes from the minority community," says Sonowal confidently.
But in Dhubri, at least, most Muslims continue to say "Na" to the BJP.