Victory for divisive politics in Assam

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma visits the Gauhati Medical College Hospital to take stock of the arrangements for COVID-19 patients, in Guwahati on May 4. He appears to be a strong contender for the chief ministership. Photo: PTI

Akhil Gogoi. The jailed Raijor Dal founder won the Sibsagar seat by 11,875 votes, defeating his BJP rival Surabhi Rajkonwari. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal interacting with the media at the BJP office in Guwahati on May 2. Photo: DASARATH DEKA/PTI

Ranjeet Kumar Dass, Assam State BJP president. He won the Patacharkuchi seat by 62,853 votes. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Atul Bora, AGP president, along with newly elected AGP MLAs at the party headquarters in Guwahati on May 3. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The BJP succeeds in projecting the Congress-led alliance as protectors of Bangladeshi infiltrators and polarising voters on religious lines.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led ruling alliance retained power for a second consecutive term in Assam, winning 75 of the 126 Assembly seats for which elections were held in three phases on March 27, April 1 and April 6. This is the first time in the political history of the State that a non-Congress alliance has been re-elected. The BJP’s tally remained unchanged at 60 while its two regional allies, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), won nine and six seats respectively.

The Congress-led “Mahajot”, an alliance of 10 parties, failed to perform in most of the constituencies. However, the combined opposition strength in the new House has increased marginally to 51 seats from 39 in 2016. The Congress won 29 seats, three more than last time and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won 16 seats, also three more than last time. The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), a major constituent of the Mahajot, won only four of the 12 seats it contested in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). The BPF had won 12 seats as an ally of the BJP in 2016.

The BJP polled 33.2 per cent of the votes, the AGP 7.91 per cent, the Congress 29.6 per cent, the AIUDF 9.29 per cent and the BPF 3.39 per cent. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) won one seat.

The third force consisting of two new regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal, born out of the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, managed to win only one seat.

Akhil Gogoi, Raijor Dal founder and peasant leader, became the first politician in the State to win an election while under detention. Gogoi won the Sibsagar seat by 11,875 votes, defeating his BJP rival Surabhi Rajkonwari. Gogoi has been lodged in a temporary prison cell in Gauhati Medical College and Hospital ever since his arrest during the peak of anti-CAA movement in December 2019. The National Investigation Agency subsequently slapped charges on Gogoi under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
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Lurinjyoti Gogoi, the AJP’s founder-president and another key face of anti-CAA movement, lost in both the seats, Duliajan and Naharakaita, he contested. The AJP and the Raijor Dal forged an electoral alliance in response to popular demand but ended up fighting each other in at least 25 seats.

Prominent winners include Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, Health, Education and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, State BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass, Assembly Speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami, AGP president and Agriculture Minister Atul Bora, Leader of Opposition and senior Congress leader Debabrata Saikia, former Minister Rokybul Hussain and UPPL founder Urkhao Gwra Brahma.

Prominent losers include Ripun Bora, Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president, and Pramila Rani Brahma, Chandan Brahma and Rihon Daimary, the three BPF Ministers in the outgoing government. The BPF Ministers did not quit the government even after the Bodo party joined the Congress-led Mahajot when the BJP chose the UPPL as its new alliance partner in the BTR.

Since the BJP is four seats short of a simple majority on its own, it will have to depend on its regional allies for political stability in the State. The BJP won its maximum number of seats from the block of 47 seats that went to the polls in the first phase on March 27.

The party’s strong support base among tea garden workers, which brought it to power in 2016, remained intact despite the Congress’ promise of increasing the daily wages of tea garden workers to Rs.351 as one of its five guarantees. The Sonowal Cabinet was quick to approve a wage increase of Rs.50 from the existing rate of Rs.167 after the Congress campaign started gathering steam. The new government is likely to be under pressure to give effect to the hike in daily wages of tea garden workers.

The new Assembly will have only six women representatives. Only three women candidates of the BJP have been elected. Former Deputy Speaker Renupoma Rajkhowa, who won on the AGP ticket from the Teok constituency in Jorhat district, is the only other woman legislator among the 75 legislators of the ruling alliance. The UPPL did not field any woman candidate. The other two women won on the Congress ticket. Representation of women in the House has witnessed a sharp decline from 11 in 2011 to six in 2016.

BJP wins hill districts

Of the 15 seats in the Bengali-dominated Barak valley, the BJP won six, two fewer than in 2016. The opposition alliance won nine seats with the Congress winning five and the AIUDF four. In the three hill districts of Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, the BJP won all five seats. The BJP is in power in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council created under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Both the ruling and opposition alliances made the issue of creation of an autonomous State within Assam comprising the hill region, under Article 244 (A) of the Constitution, a major electoral plank.
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Polarised voting on religious lines helped the saffron party retain power in Dispur. The BJP succeeded in pushing the campaign that the Congress’ alliance with the AIUDF was “detrimental to the interests of the Assamese and other ethnic communities”. It projected both parties as protectors of “Bangladeshi infiltrators” and stoked the apprehension that if the AIUDF shared power in Dispur, the seat of government, it was tantamount to “Bangladeshi infiltrators” capturing political power and posing an existential threat to Assamese and other ethnic communities. The BJP did not focus on the CAA during electioneering in the first phase of polling held in seats dominated by Assamese and other ethnic communities and harped more on the “danger of Congress-AIUDF” alliance and the possibility of “AIUDF Chief Maulana Badruddin Ajmal becoming the Chief Minister with the support of the Congress”. It articulated the campaign that this election was a “clash of two civilisations”. In his first reaction to the verdict, the BJP’s star campaigner Himanta Biswa Sarma described the victory of the ruling alliance as “a mandate for protection of Assamese culture and civilisation”.

The campaign by the AJP and the Raijor Dal that the AIUDF is “a communal party like the BJP” bolstered the BJP’s campaign against the Mahajot.

The Congress’ five guarantees mentioned in its manifesto included a guarantee to prevent the implementation of the CAA in Assam. The results showed that the majority of the anti-CAA movement supporters were swayed by the BJP’s campaign that if the AIUDF shared power the threat to ethnic communities would be far greater than the implementation of the CAA, which stipulates granting of citizenship to Hindu and other non-Muslim “Bangladeshi refugees”. Statements by Abdur Rahim, AIUDF MLA and son of Maulana Ajmal, at an election rally that the government would be formed by “topi, beard and lungiwallah” complemented the BJP’s campaign and fanned religious polarisation.

The mandate showed that regional political forces seeking to champion the cause of the Assam Accord and Assamese identity had been marginalised in electoral politics in the State. The AGP, which had ruled the State twice in the past, emerged weaker in this election as its tally decreased from 14 in 2016 to nine. In 2006, the AGP contested alone and won 24 seats. In 2001, it had a seat-sharing agreement with the BJP and won 20 seats. The BJP won 10 seats in 2006 when it contested in 125 seats.
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The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiayatbadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) took the initiative to form the AJP hoping to replace the AGP by cashing in on the anti-CAA sentiment. The AJP, however, failed to win a single seat.

BJP influnce over AGP

The BJP’s influence over the AGP seemed to be complete when it refused to allot the Barhmapur seat to the AGP during seat-sharing talks. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, former Chief Minister and AGP founder-president, had been elected from this constituency for seven consecutive terms. He could not contest this election as the AGP gave away the seat to the BJP. Ironically, it was Mahanta who took the lead in the AGP, forging an alliance with the BJP in the 2001 Assembly election. Jitu Goswami of the BJP won the seat by 751 votes, defeating his Congress rival Suresh Bora. Dipika Saikia Keot of the AJP was in the third position with 1,922 votes. In all 1,291 votes were cast in NOTA category.

The sitting AGP MLA Pabindra Deka, who quit the party to join the AJP, finished a poor third, polling just 9,831 votes. Both Mahanta and Deka had to face the ire of the AGP leadership for opposing the regional party’s alliance with the BJP after the enactment of the CAA.
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The AGP losing its strongholds to the BJP is perhaps indicative of a tectonic shift in the affiliation of a vast majority of Assamese voters. The people who took pride in being strong supporters of linguistic subnationalism seem to have moved towards Hindutva-driven religious nationalism propagated by the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar. The Sangh Parivar could sense this gradual shift and aggressively pushed the “infiltrator versus refugee” narrative in the context of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” to sway the core supporters of Assamese subnationalism to view “infiltrators” (Muslim immigrants from erstwhile East Bengal, erstwhile East Pakistan and Bangladesh in the BJP’s lexicon) as a bigger threat than “refugees” (Hindu and non-Muslim migrants).

Bodo identity retained in BTR

The forces of the Bodo identity movement have retained their electoral influence in the BTR areas. Of the 12 Assembly constituencies in the region, the UPPL won six , the BPF four and the BJP two. The BPF had fielded candidates in all the 12 constituencies. The BPF had dominated this political space for the past 15 years, but the new Bodo Accord of February 2020 helped the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU)-backed UPPL to emerge as a major power player in the BTR. The BPF emerged as the single largest party but did not have a simple majority and was dethroned in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in the election held in December 2020. With that ended the dominance of Bodo political parties in the BTC as the UPPL, which also failed to get a majority, was compelled to share power with the BJP.

The BJP’s expanding organisational and electoral influence helped it win two of the four seats it contested in the BTC region. In three seats—Majbat, Kalaigaon and Bijni—the BJP was locked in a friendly contest with the UPPL besides fighting against its former ally the BPF. The BJP fielded Biswajit Daimary, the BPF’s founding member who joined the party in November 2020, in the Panery seat. Daimary polled 72,639, defeating his BPF rival Karuna Kanta Swargiary, who polled 36,787 votes. The BJP’s Ajoy Kumar Ray defeated the BFP candidate in Bijni by a slender margin.

The new Assembly will have the presence of the Left party after a gap of 10 years with the CPI(M) recapturing the Sarbhog seat in Barpeta district, which used to be its stronghold. Benefitting from the alliance led by the Congress, the CPI(M)’s Monoranjan Talukdar won the seat by defeating his nearest BJP rival Sankar Chandra Das by a margin of 10,262 votes. Ranjeet Kumar Dass had been elected from Sarbhog in 2016 and 2011, but he chose to contest from Patacharkuchi sensing that the poll arithmetic was not in his favour this time in view of the grand alliance of opposition parties. The Mahajot had allotted four seats to the Left parties—the CPI (M) two and the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation one each.
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The BJP parliamentary board will face a tough challenge in naming the new Chief Minister with two power centres within the party, one wielded by Chief Minister Sonowal and the other controlled by Himanta Biswa Sarma. Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is the convener of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance, appears to be a strong contender for the hot seat. Sonowal will find it tough to retain the seat if Himanta Biswa Sarma decides to throw his hat in the ring. Asked if he was a contender for the post, the Minister evaded a direct reply by saying that the decision was left to the BJP Parliamentary Board.

An immediate task cut out for the new government is to initiate urgent measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 infection in Assam. On May 2, the day of counting of votes, the test positivity rate in the State jumped to 10 per cent from 6.39 per cent on May 1, and the active caseload increased to 24,551.

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