Update at 11:11 am: Congress president Rahul Gandhi calls Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting at 10 am on Saturday with a decision likely to be taken on the party's stand on NRC
With the Congress party still unable to clarify its stand on the raging Citizenship debate triggered by the release of the draft NRC (National Register of Citizens) list for Assam, Republic TV has accessed information from 2006 that highlights yet another inconsistency, and levells damning allegations, regarding the party's historic flip-flops on the matter and the role of vote-bank politics in the matter.
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: On February 11 Congress Party Chairwoman Sonia Gandhi traveled to the Northeast Indian state of Assam to inaugurate her party's campaign for the May 2006 state assembly elections. Her presence reflected Congress' concern about retaining its hold on Assam, following recent setbacks in Bihar and Karnataka and the prospect of seat-losses in the West Bengal and Kerala May assembly elections. In Assam the main opposition parties, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are weak and fragmented, but Congress has also lost support from the critical Muslim community. In a brazen appeal to the Muslims, Gandhi offered to amend the Foreigners Act to prevent deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Her visit was marred by violence in the wake of the death of a suspected United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) member in Indian Army custody (REFTEL). However, Gandhi quickly condemned the death, forcing the Army to apologize. The Congress government in Assam has been pushing the military to institute a ceasefire in its operations against ULFA. While the political situation is still very fluid two months prior to the election, it appears that Congress will lose its current outright majority, but will likely cobble together a coalition government in Assam. End Summary.
2. (U) Elections for the 126-member Assam legislative assembly are scheduled in May. Assam, with a population of 26 million, borders Bangladesh and Bhutan. Its highly diverse population suffers several ethnic insurgencies and persistent violence. The largest ethnic insurgent group, ULFA, demands a separate homeland for the Assamese and is listed on the USG's Other Selected Terrorist Organization (OSTO) list. In addition, a continuous influx of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants has swelled the Muslim community to 28 per cent of the population.
3. (U) Congress dominates the present Assembly with 71 seats, while opposition parties the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has 20, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 8, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) 3, the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) 2, the All India Trinamul Congress (AITC) 1, the Samata Party 1, the Samajwadi Party 1 and Independents 19. Congress has remained relatively united. The main regional party, the AGP, on the other hand, is sharply divided. Brindabon Goswami leads the original party, while former Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta leads a breakaway AGP (Progressive) faction. The BJP is attempting to persuade the AGP to form an alliance, but so far has not been successful. Meanwhile Mahanta, despite some degree of popularity, is unable to build an effective organization with his (Progressive) party.
4. (SBU) The Muslim vote is likely to determine whether Congress can retain its majority. The Muslim community's importance has been magnified by a steady influx of Bangladeshi immigrants and Muslims presently hold 13 Congress seats in the assembly. Traditionally, Congress had been the party of choice for the Muslims as it protected illegal Bangladeshi migrants from deportation. Congress also supported the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunals Act (IMDT) of 1983, applicable only in Assam, which made identification, detection and deportation of foreigners in Assam incredibly complex and protected post-1971 illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
5. (SBU) Congress' relations with the Muslims suffered a setback in July 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled the IMDT unconstitutional. Assam, like the rest of India, is now subject to the Foreigners' Act of 1946, which requires the police to deport illegal residents. Muslims in Assam criticized the Congress for failing to support the IMDT in court and in November 2005, formed a Muslim political group the United Democratic Front (UDF). UDF Leader Hafiz Rashid Chowdhury (protect) said that the UDF is running on the slogan of "Anti-Congress, Anti-BJP."
6. (SBU) The Congress has tried to appease the Muslims by not enforcing the Foreigners Act and in her recent visit, Gandhi offered to amend the Act. According to Assam Congress Spokesman Abdul Khaleque (protect), the amendment would effectively bring the IMDT provisions under the Foreigners Act and again create special exceptions and a tribunal for Assam. Also on February 11, Gandhi visited Barpeta, which has a large concentration of Bangladeshi Muslims, and laid the foundation stone for a new medical college.
7. (SBU) Khaleque indicated that Congress' efforts have not been successful, as the UDF has established an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), may soon conclude similar agreements with CPM and CPI, and is also in discussions with the AGP. Khaleque conceded that Congress would not hold on to its current 71 seats this election but claimed it would not slip below 60. Other contacts believe that Congress could drop to as low as 40 to 50 seats.
8. (SBU) The other complicating factor in the electoral politics is ULFA's continuing insurgency. According to post contacts, the state Congress' goal is to persuade New Delhi to stop army operations against ULFA because no party can win elections without ULFA's tacit approval. (Former CM Mahanta lost power in 2001 when ULFA turned from friend to foe, after he failed to prevent army operations against the group.) On February 5, the Indian Army detained suspected ULFA supporter Ajit Mahanta, who subsequently died in custody. That, in turn, resulted in the February 10 police shooting of 8 persons protesting Mahanta's death. Gandhi was quick to condemn the violence and compelled the Army to apologize. Analysts feel that the state Congress and ULFA are probably negotiating an understanding. ULFA would not want a BJP-led government in Assam, since the BJP-led GOI supported attacks on ULFA camps in Bhutan in 2003.
9. (SBU) COMMENT: Facing mutinous Muslims and persistent insurgency, the Congress party is struggling to maintain its government in Assam. While Assam is not a major state in the normal calculus of Indian politics, its loss to Congress would be embarrassing following the recent failures in Bihar, Karnataka and anticipated seat losses in West Bengal and Kerala. However, Congress' opposition seems very fragmented, which gives the Party hope. Although too early to predict the results, the consensus appears to be that Congress will retain power in Assam but with a reduced majority that will force it to go to other parties to form a coalition government.
The cable highlights how the Congress, was, for votebank purposes, prepared to prevent the deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and also dealt a blow to the security forces and favoured ULFA, without whose tacit approval it was believed that Assam couldn't be won. Shockingly, all this took place just less than a year after then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to update the NRC at a meeting to review the implementation of the Assam Accord, which had, in fact, been signed by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in 1985.
Likely on account of the reasons listed above, the Congress has refrained from stating, unlike the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC and the BJP, which side of the NRC divide they're on, apart from the fact that they are politically against the government's 'tardy' implementation.
Here is Rahul Gandhi's most substantive statement on the matter, which he posted on Facebook:
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was initiated by the UPA under Manmohan Singh Ji to fulfil the commitment made in the Assam Accord of 1985. However, the manner in which this exercise has been undertaken by the BJP Governments at the centre and in the State of Assam leaves much to be desired.
There are reports pouring in from all corners of Assam of Indian citizens finding their names missing in the draft NRC, creating massive insecurity in the state. Clearly, after spending close to 1,200 Cr, the execution of this critical and highly sensitive exercise has been tardy. The Government must move swiftly to resolve this crisis.
I appeal to all members of the Congress party to help maintain peace and help all those against whom an injustice has been done in the draft NRC, no matter what their religion, caste, gender, linguistic group or political affiliation.
Meanwhile, the Congress party has gone toe-to-toe with the BJP, particularly over the latter party's president Amit Shah's attempts to address the matter in the Rajya Sabha, in which he had invoked Rajiv Gandhi before being obstructed. Ahmed Patel, Rajya Sabha MP and Sonia Gandhi aide, had summed up the Congress' various counters against the BJP as follows: