The first phase of polling in Assam took place on 4 April and most psephologists seem to have been extremely cautious in their predictions. The political landscape of Assam seems like a complex jigsaw puzzle comprising diverse issues, communities and regions.
After winning the Assembly polls for 3 consecutive terms, the Congress is once again banking heavily on the pockets inhabited by Bengali Muslims, tea tribes and Ahoms in eastern Assam. Together they make up more than 50 seats in the state where the magic number for forming the government is 64.
Besides its age old tactics of garnering votes, the Congress has been harping on "Assamese nationalism" and its uniqueness from the culture espoused by the BJP. Congress leaders have often referred to past instances to underscore how it has protected the interests of the state and its myriad communities.
To avoid getting identified only with the mainstream Assamese communities, the party has defined its brand of regionalism as one that encompasses all ethnic communities inhabiting the state.
The BJP on the other hand has drummed up the issue of identity and has committed once again to protect all indigenous communities from the "menace" of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. But it has focused only on Muslim migrants and Badruddin Ajmal, the supremo of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is being referred to as the real threat to the state.
The issue has undoubtedly struck a chord among sections of the indigenous communities, both tribal and non-tribal, and especially with Hindu Bengali immigrants who are to be found in many constituencies in Assam.
However, identity is only one among the many issues in the polls. There are many important local issues and age has also emerged as an important factor.
"There are many issues and identity is only one among them. For example, the youth comprise approximately 62% and they are more concerned about employment and livelihood. At the same time, it will be wrong to say that they are unconcerned about the possibility of being reduced to a minority in their own homelands," says Prof Nani Gopal Mahanta, head of political science department in Gauhati University.
Ask voters in the districts under the three autonomous councils - Karbi Anglong, Dima Hasao, and Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) - or the Bengali dominated Barak Valley and they are most likely to complain about misgovernance and lack of development.
In BTAD, which consists of 4 autonomous districts in western and central Assam, the BJP is contesting none of the 12 seats after its alliance with the ruling Bodoland People's Front (BPF). The Congress has fielded candidates in 8 seats and allotted the rest to its ally United People's Party (UPP) a party floated by Bodo leaders who are banking on the anti-incumbency sentiment against the BPF.
So in BTAD it is primarily a contest between the 2 Bodo parties with another party Sanmilita Janagosthiya Aikya Mancha (SJAM) floated by Lok Sabha MP Naba Kumar Sarania hoping to get the major chunk of non-Bodo votes. In addition, AIUDF also has influence in two constituencies where it hopes to garner the votes of Bengali Muslims.
Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao
The other two autonomous hill districts, inhabited by a plethora of tribal and non-tribal communities, appear to be less complex with the electorate yearning for change, better governance and new faces as representatives.
Corruption has become deep rooted and highly systematic in these districts with the result that only a small percentage reaches the intended beneficiaries. Dima Hasao was rocked some years ago by a thousand-crore scam involving bureaucrats and politicians which compelled the government to hand over the case to the NIA.
Scams are not an issue in Barak Valley in southern Assam, but voters are concerned about development. There are 15 seats in the fray with the Congress, the BJP and the AIUDF locked in a bitter contest.
Parimal Das, a school teacher in Karimganj, laments that there is a "big difference" in the condition of schools and health centres between Barak and Brahmaputra Valley. "The situation has improved but only a bit in the past few years although candidates from both the BJP and Congress have been elected from our constituencies."
No wonder, BJP's star campaigner Himanta Biswa Sarma and president Amit Shah have been touring the region, delivering fiery speeches and desperately wooing the voters.
Dhubri and Goalpara
The BJP's hope of communal polarisation could be a reality only in a couple of districts in western Assam like Dhubri and Goalpara which have a significant presence of immigrant Bangladeshi Muslims.
In most of the constituencies, voters are unlikely to be swayed only by religion and which explains why the AIUDF could find it extremely difficult to repeat its performance in the previous polls when it sprang a surprise by winning 18 seats.
Edited by Aditya Menon
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