In a country where political parties form student wings to broaden their membership base and recruit young leaders to the party, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) has been able to establish two parties in a span of 35 years. Two movements, led primarily by the union, with the support of other organizations, led to the formation of each of these parties. While the Asom Gana Parishad was formed immediately after the Assam Accord was signed in 1985, the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) is now being formed to ride on the nationalist wave following the Anti-CAA protests in Assam. Whether the AJP will be able to replicate the electoral successes that followed the immediate formation of AGP is yet to be seen. The AJP formed by AASU and AJYP seeks to contest the 2021 elections in Assam.
Soon after the formation of AJP, people are calling upon the AASU and asking about its role in the current party. Many have called on AASU to remain ‘apolitical’. These calls, I believe, are problematic. It seeks to continue the age-old divisions of limiting students’ organizations to ‘Activism’, while parties playing the necessary to assume electoral power. While the former is ‘celebrated’ the latter is seen as ‘something dirty’, a game of negotiations, where ideology gives way in the quest for power, etc.
The call for AASU to remain non-electoral is probably also based on the experience, where it is often seen, in the relationship between the party and student organizations, the former plays the dominant role and the student organizations are often reduced to being the cheerleader of the party goals. It is perhaps the case with most of the parties. But there is a need for a change. Can AJP be that change? Rather than call for AASU to be apolitical or pay less interest in electoral politics, a better approach would be for AASU to be the watchdog of the party. Calls should be there for a relationship based on equality and where AASU and AJYP do not allow AJP into political negotiations’ in the power game, at the risk of compromising its ideology, which has been the experience with Assam Gana Parishad.
Assam has had a long history of regional parties in the state. Even before the AGP was formed there were parties like Purbanchaliya Lok Parishad, Asom Jatiyatabadi Dal, and Plains Tribal Council of Assam. Even now, there are other parties like the Liberal Democratic Party and the Peasants group Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) that have highlighted that they would soon float an electoral outfit within a week. This raises a few pertinent questions like how and what will be different in the AJP from the other regional parties? Even after repeated failures of the electoral model, why does forming a political party considered a natural progression or a logical end to social movements in Assam. Should AASU have instead focused on going beyond the limited mandate of capturing electoral power but developing a broad-based mass movement inclusive of all ethnic and linguistic minorities in the state?
Can the AJP make inroads into tribal communities?
The Party calls for strong regionalist sentiment and highlights ‘Assam First-Always and Ever’ as its ideology. While its slogan is ‘Ghore Ghore Aami’, which means ‘AJP in every household’. The party as per its ‘leaders’ will be opposed to communalism and will be inclusive in its approach by giving representation to each of the indigenous communities and tribes of the states. The tribes, however, have remained fairly indifferent to the formation of the new party. A student leader of TMPK, on anonymity, tells me, ‘AJP is the B team of BJP’. I insisted on a serious comment. He highlighted that most of the tribal groups have no opinion on the formation itself. Moreover, The Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organizations of Assam (CCTOA), a joint platform of various indigenous tribal communities of the state highlighted that while it offers its moral support to the newly formed party, no tribal leaders are shortly joining the party. This is no different from the attitude the tribes had towards the AGP.
This indifference probably comes from two reasons. 1) The tribes have never strongly related to the existing discourse of ‘Assamese nationalism’, which they consider to be narrow and non-inclusive, and 2) Many of the tribes, like the Bodos, Misings, etc. have their own parties. These parties are already in strong coalitions with the BJP. Making inroads into these existing coalitions would be extremely difficult for AJP. AJP in order to penetrate may have to take up steps that go beyond the mandate of the existing discourse of ‘Assamese Nationalism’. How it defines ‘Jatiyotabaad’ in its constitution will matter a lot.
Rather than vaguely drafted promises, concrete steps like support for sixth schedule status, land rights, support for language protections are steps that could be highlighted. Recognizing their distinct identity and supporting their attempts and initiatives towards the protection of their culture and belief systems should take precedence. The tribal middle class is no longer content with just representation for the sake of it here and there, but rather concrete inclusion by providing leadership positions, proper seat sharing as constitutional mechanism could meet the aspirations of the tribes and might enable the AJP to gather support.
Regional parties in Assam often have articulated the interest of the urban elites and have served as the launch vehicle for the political aspirations of the Assamese middle class. Rather the focus should have been to form a broad-based coalition of all organizations and develop an inclusive agenda, which could serve as a credible alternative for the people of Assam. The AJP has found itself embroiled in a controversy with the LDP over membership, and the KMSS highlights that the party did not respond to its appeal for collaboration within the stipulated time limit, forcing them to launch their own party. So in that sense, AJP looks like the same ‘Old wine in a new bottle’.
(This was published in the wire here. )