Assembly Elections: Assam

North-eastern foray

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Sarbananda Sonowal, along with other senior BJP leaders, arrive at the party's State headquarters in Guwahati after winning the election on May 19. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Tarun Gogoi. The three-time Chief Minister has been elected from Titabor. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Himanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP. He was elected from Jalukbari constituency. Photo: PTI

With its massive electoral victory in Assam, the BJP has made a big leap in the electoral politics of the north-eastern region.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition made electoral history in the north-eastern State of Assam by winning 86 of the 126 Assembly seats, inflicting a massive blow to the ruling Congress, which finished with 26 seats. The BJP won just five seats in the 2011 Assembly election. The 2016 victory will bolster the party’s plans to widen its national footprint, a mission that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to fulfil before the 2019 general election.

The election to the State Assembly was held in two phases, on April 4 and 11. The BJP tied up with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The Congress allied itself with the United Progressive Party (UPP). The BJP got 60 seats; the AGP won 14, four more than its 2011 tally; and the BPF managed to retain its previous tally of 12. The Congress, fighting the anti-incumbency factor, was hopeful of forming the government for a record fourth time. But it secured only 26 seats and 31 per cent of the votes against 78 seats in 2011. The UPP drew a blank. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won 13 seats against 18 in 2011.

The BJP-led alliance’s “Jati Mati Bheti” (nation, land and house) slogan helped it garner the crucial votes in the Brahmaputra valley and Barak valley and among the hill tribes of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.

Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, is set to become the first tribal Chief Minister of the State and will form “the government of the indigenous people” as promised during the campaign. The electoral outcome has certainly placed the saffron party in a commanding position in the largest State in the north-eastern region, a gateway through which it plans to move ahead and mark its presence in the region.

The winning strategy

Assam is a complex State if one looks at its demography. Hindus comprise 61.47 per cent of the State’s population and Muslims, 34.22 per cent. (The Muslim population of Assam is the second highest in an Indian State after Jammu and Kashmir.) The rest of the population is made up of an odd distribution of different ethnic groups. The distribution of the massive Muslim population, which is often disturbed by the term illegal immigrants, became the trump card the BJP used to make inroads into the State’s politics. The BJP fought the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Assam promising to end the illegal immigration into Assam from Bangladesh. The Lok Sabha results were mind-boggling. The BJP managed to win seven of the 14 seats, bagging three seats more than its 2009 tally. This was its best performance in a State where previously its politics was almost non-existent.

The BJP was forced to prepare a workable strategy for the election in Assam after the party was defeated roundly in the Delhi and Bihar Assembly elections in 2015. The BJP made a calculated move by unveiling its “Mission 84” target and setting up membership booth counters across the State. Two issues topped the party’s election agenda:

One, the anti-incumbency sentiment Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was facing after three consecutive terms in office.

Two, the issue of illegal immigrants and the promise to seal the border with Bangladesh, which fetched the party dividends in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

The issue of illegal immigrants finds a special place in the BJP’s vision document, which according to the party is the result of “participatory dialogue” between party think tanks and people.

The most crucial point to be made, and which ultimately formed the basis for the BJP’s victory, is the lesson that the party learnt from its defeat in Bihar.

The first and foremost strategy it devised was the projection of Sarbananda Sonowal, Union Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship and Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, as its chief ministerial candidate to avoid any concentration of power in the Centre as it wanted to give the local people a leader from their own midst.

Sonowal, who represents the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency, was given the task of reviving the party’s fortunes in the Assembly election. Sonowal was already the blue-eyed boy of the BJP leadership as he led the party to victory in four seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Further, Sonowal was already famous in the region as the “Jatiya Nayak” of the State after he had petitioned the Supreme Court against the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, or IMDT Act, which the court struck down in 2005. Sonowal contested from the Majuli Assembly constituency, a Congress stronghold guarded by three-time winner Rajib Lochan Pegu, and won by a margin of 18,923 votes.

Secondly, the BJP refrained from making any personal attacks against Congress leaders to avoid the criticism of indulging in personal politics. After the election dates were announced, the BJP carefully planned its rallies and the visit of its high-profile leaders, especially Prime Minister Modi. Although, the saffron party carried its characteristic Hindutva banner, it avoided making religious or communal references in its campaign.

Thirdly, by limiting the number of rallies by party leaders from outside the State, the leadership put the State party in the forefront of the battle. Fourthly, a coalition with regional parties was crucial to stem the surging aggression of the Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF, which had a hold over the migrant Muslim population. In the 2011 Assembly election, the AIUDF won 18 seats. Moreover, the AIUDF’s call for a “maha gath bandhan”, on the lines of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (Secular) in Bihar in 2015, prompted the BJP to act quickly.

The BJP’s masterstroke was the induction of Himanta Biswa Sarma, who defected from the Congress, in its rank and his elevation to the position of party convener Himanta was Tarun Gogoi’s right-hand man and had served the party for two decades, but he decided to part ways after Gogoi introduced his son, Gaurav Gogoi, into politics. Speaking to reporters after joining the BJP in August 2015, Himanta said that as long as the blue-blood culture remained, the Congress had no future in the State. Himanta added muscle to the BJP’s rising strength as he is a proven strategist. Himanta defeated Niren Deka of the Congress by a margin of 85,935 votes in Jalukbari constituency. This is his fourth election to the Assembly.

The AGP’s inability to implement the Assam Accord during its tenure had not gone down well with the people of the State in the past. The AGP was in power from 1985 to 1990 and from 1996 to 2001 under the leadership of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. Although averse to the BJP’s policy, the AGP entered into an electoral alliance with it in 2001 but won only 15 seats. The AGP’s dismal performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election cleared the way for the BJP to establish its strong presence in the State’s politics. A coalition with the saffron party became more of a compulsion rather than a choice for the AGP. Although the party severely criticised the National Democratic Alliance’s Indo-Bangla Land Boundary Agreement, it softened its stance when it understood that the BJP had already struck a chord among the electorate by promising to protect “indigenous Assamese”. Of the 24 seats it contested this time, the AGP won 14 and secured 8.1 per cent of the votes. In 2011, it won 10 of the 109 seats it contested.

The BPF won 12 of the 13 seats it contested. BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary’s dream of becoming a kingmaker and playing a pivotal role in government formation was shattered when the BJP got a good mandate of its own.

Crushing defeat

The Congress managed to get only 31 per cent of the votes. Gogoi defeated the BJP heavyweight Kamakhya Prasad Tasa in Titabor by a margin of 17,495 votes. Eleven of Gogoi’s Cabinet Ministers faced crushing defeat. The Congress won only three seats in the Barak valley, which was known to be its stronghold. Social Welfare Minister Gautam Roy, known as the “king” of the Barak valley, was defeated in Katlichera by Suzam Uddin Laskar of the AIUDF.

The Congress’ failure to lure the tea tribe communities worked against its chances. The two important seats that the Congress lost in the tea tribe belt are Moran and Margherita where Paban Singh Ghatowar and Pradyut Bordoloi lost by 16,231 and 22,744 votes respectively. The outcome in the Margherita constituency was surprising considering the pre-election exposure it received after the banned insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), threatened Sonowal of dire consequences for giving the BJP ticket to Bhaskar Sharma, a former ULFA member.

Of the 79 seats it contested, the AIUDF won only 13 and secured 13 per cent of the votes. Badruddin Ajmal, who contested from the South Salmara constituency, was defeated by 16,723 votes by Wazed Ali Choudhary of the Congress. The party won four seats in the Barak valley and nine in the Brahmaputra valley. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, a significant chunk of the AIUDF’s vote base consisted of migrant voters. This put fear into the ranks of the BJP. Added to this was the idea of a “maha gath bandhan”, which, had it worked, would have sealed the BJP’s fate in the region. An AIUDF-Congress coalition would have dealt a blow to the implementation of the Assam Accord. Although the AIUDF entered into an electoral alliance with the RJD and the JD(U), the latter two failed to secure any seat.

RSS’ role

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), it must be pointed out, played a significant role in the victory of the BJP. For the past several years its cadres have been working relentlessly in Assam. A highly placed RSS source said: “More than 22 organisations and more than one lakh karyakartas affiliated to the Sangh Parivar had been working for the overall development of the ‘indigenous people’, especially tea tribe workers, labourers and daily wagers for the past several years, providing them education [through Vidya Bharati schools], creating awareness camps [Seva Bharati], and providing medical facilities, apart from prohibiting illegal cattle trade. There is no hostility between the cadres and the people, definitely not on regional or communal lines. The BJP’s commitment towards safeguarding the indigenous peoples’ rights encouraged the indigenous people to vote massively in favour for the party…. The defeat of Badruddin Ajmal is a victory for the ‘khilonjiya Muslims’ [indigenous].”

The BJP’s impressive entry into Assam politics means a big task awaits the elected leaders as they will be expected to fulfil their election promises. The BJP will be expected to solve the issue of infiltration once and for all. The AGP will also be looking to strengthen its base in the next five years. The implementation of the Assam Accord will put the AGP back in the reckoning.

Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted on May 10 that raising the cut-off year from 1971 to 1951 is a must to safeguard the rights of the indigenous people while implementing clause VI of the accord.

The BPF, which successfully fought an anti-incumbency wave, will be looking to continue as the vital force in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) areas as Mohilary has returned as the Front’s chief.

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