Assam: New boundaries, new uncertainties

As demographic changes from delimitation blur traditional voting patterns, the BJP is prompted to reach out to “Miya” Muslims for the first time.

Published : May 11, 2024 15:43 IST - 12 MINS READ

Voters standing in a queue to cast their votes during the third phase of Lok Sabha elections 2024, in Kamrup on May 7.

Voters standing in a queue to cast their votes during the third phase of Lok Sabha elections 2024, in Kamrup on May 7. | Photo Credit: Kulendu Kalita/ANI

In its first election after the delimitation of Assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies last year, Assam witnessed a high voter turnout of over 83 per cent in the election to 14 Lok Sabha constituencies held in three phases. The redrawing of constituency boundaries meant that in many Assembly segments of Lok Sabha constituencies, comparison of data on voting pattern and so on with that of past elections was impossible for pollsters, parties, and candidates. Nevertheless, the BJP-led ruling alliance and the Congress and its allies in the INDIA bloc claimed to have performed better.

In 2019, the State recorded an overall turnout of 81.60 per cent, with the BJP winning 9, the Congress 3, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Gana Suraksha Party one each.

Until the run-up to the third phase on May 7, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed that the BJP and its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), would win 11 seats. Sarma, well known for his accuracy in predicting election outcomes, however, refrained from giving mediapersons any number during polling in four constituencies in the third and last phase for the State. Sarma claimed that the high turnout was indicative of the people’s enthusiasm around development in the State in the last one decade.

The INDIA bloc failed to field a common opposition candidate in half of the 14 constituencies, and this sent confusing signals to electors, while the BJP and its allies shared seats amicably, with the BJP contesting in 11, the AGP in 2, and the UPPL in 1.

The delimitation exercise pushed the Muslim voters of erstwhile East Bengal origin further to the margins; of the 126 Assembly seats in the State, the seats in which they could have a decisive say is now down to 21 from 29. For instance, delimitation resulted in Hindus becoming a majority in the Barpeta Lok Sabha constituency following the transfer of three Muslim majority Assembly segments to the Dhubri Lok Sabha seat that the AIUDF supremo Badruddin Ajmal won in 2019. In Barpeta, the Muslim electorate was reduced to about 35 per cent from about 60 per cent before delimitation.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi receiving an Assamese Japi during an election rally in Dhubri district in Assam on May 1.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi receiving an Assamese Japi during an election rally in Dhubri district in Assam on May 1. | Photo Credit: Anupam Nath/AP

In three Lok Sabha seats—Dhubri, Nagaon, and Karimganj—Muslims are in a majority after delimitation, and the BJP is hoping to benefit from a split in the Muslim vote between the Congress and the AIUDF in these seats. In the 2021 Assembly election, the AIUDF was a constituent of the Congress-led opposition alliance, but this time the Congress, hoping to regain support among Assamese voters, blocked its entry into the INDIA bloc. The Congress also roped in Priyanka Gandhi to campaign in Dhubri for the party candidate Rakibul Hussain, a former Minister, against Ajmal. The AIUDF and the Congress also have candidates in two other Muslim-majority constituencies after delimitation, Nagaon in central Assam and Karimganj in the Barak valley, but the Congress is hopeful of garnering most of the Muslim votes. In Nagaon, delimitation led to three Muslim majority Assembly segments—Samaguri, Ruphaihat, and Dhing of erstwhile Kaliabor Lok Sabha seat—being added to it, while three Hindu majority Assembly segments—Hojai, Lumding, and Barhampur—were transferred to the newly created Kaziranga constituency.

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It was perhaps the delimitation effect that led to Sarma doing a U-turn on his earlier position of not seeking “Miya” votes. The term Miya is a derogatory reference to Muslims of erstwhile East Bengal used by a section of majoritarian Assamese and different ethnic communities in an attempt to stereotype them as Bengali-speaking illegal immigrants or infiltrators from Bangladesh “encroaching” the char areas (sand bars) along the Brahmaputra. In recent years, a section of poets, writers, and thinkers among Muslims of East Bengal origin has used the term to assert the community’s identity as having a distinct linguistic and cultural ethos. The majority of Muslims of East Bengal origin in the Brahmaputra valley have mentioned their mother tongue as Assamese in earlier census operations and their schooling is in Assamese medium even though they speak a dialect of Bengali among themselves.

Leaving Miyas out

Sarma went on record in October last year saying the BJP did not want the votes of the “Miya” people of the char areas for the next 10 years. He said the “Miya” people could vote for his party “after they stop the practice of child marriage”, which, he said, would take at least 10 years. “At election time I will myself request them not to vote for us as long as they do not follow family planning, stop child marriage, and give up fundamentalism,” he told journalists. He also said that the “Miya” people can shout slogans in support of him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the BJP, but they need not vote for the party. The Sarma-led government arrested more than 5,000 people during a crackdown against child marriage last year. He also announced his government’s plan to reclaim char land from “encroachers” to protect the ecology of the Brahmaputra valley.

In a startling somersault in the second phase of polling, Sarma made fervent appeals to the community to vote for the BJP. “People of Laharighat in Nagaon Lok Sabha know their one vote can protect our minority sisters from the bane of polygamy and child marriage,” he tweeted after addressing a rally in the Laharighat Assembly segment of Nagaon in April. The Congress has won this Assembly segment, with 70 per cent Muslims, since 1967. In another tweet he stated: “Yesterday, I campaigned in Darrang-Udalguri and Nagaon Lok Sabhas. What caught my eye is that certain assembly segments which were historically presumed to be a no-go for the BJP are now ready to reject and eject Cong’s minority appeasement politics.” In all, Sarma addressed 117 rallies and held several road shows during 40 days of campaigning across all three phases.

This attempt to reach out to Muslims apparently has not gone down well with some of the senior leaders, the old guard if you will, in the BJP. Two of them raised the banner of revolt against Sarma, without taking his name, in the second and the third phase when voting was still in progress, leaving the party embarrassed and worried. It also triggered speculation of a rift within the party among old and new leaders and workers, most of them Congress defectors.

“At election time I will myself request them [Miya Muslims] not to vote for us as long as they do not follow family planning, stop child marriage, and give up fundamentalism.”Himanta Biswa SarmaAssam Chief Minister

Former Union Minister and former State BJP president Rajen Gohain was one of the senior leaders who suggested, during the second phase of polling on April 27, that “Muslim appeasement” instead of pursuing the party’s core ideological position would prove costly. He also triggered the old workers versus new workers debate. Sarma was quick to criticise Gohain for making an “anti-party comment” and also accused him of speaking against Modi on polling day. The Chief Minister urged State president Bhabesh Kalita to bring Gohain’s statement to the attention of party president J.P. Nadda and hoped that stern disciplinary action would be taken against Gohain.

In the last phase of polling, former BJP legislator Ashok Sarma indirectly targeted the Chief Minister. He echoed the opposition charge that the debt burden on the State was growing alarmingly with the government on a borrowing spree. He urged young voters to reflect on this and said that flyovers and roads alone did not signify development.

  • Assam witnessed a high voter turnout of over 83 per cent in the Lok Sabha election, the first after delimitation of constituencies, impacting Muslim voter dominance in some seats.
  • The BJP banked on PM Modi’s welfare schemes and CM Himanta Biswa Sarma made overtures to ‘Miya’ Muslim voters, a U-turn from his earlier stance, while facing dissent from old guards.
  • The Congress-led opposition targeted price rise, unemployment, and accused BJP of cronyism, while regionally strong parties like AJP and Raijor Dal made inroads in some seats.

Banking on Modi’s guarantees

In the campaign, the BJP and its allies banked heavily on Modi’s guarantees and on the beneficiaries of cash payout schemes, Orunodoi and Lakhpati Baideo, targeting 40 lakh members of women Self-Help Groups, issuing of 40 lakh new ration cards, and the promise of fresh government recruitment.

The BJP also distributed forms of the Orunodoi scheme door to door under the guise of carrying out a survey about the implementation of the scheme. The opposition parties lodged a complaint with the Election Commission against the survey and distribution of forms and accused the BJP of influencing voters in violation of the Model Code of Conduct.

The ECI issued a directive on May 2, five days before the third and last phase in the State, to all national and State parties to “desist from any activities that involve registering individuals for post-election beneficiary-oriented schemes through any advertisement/survey/app.”

The ECI, in its press note, stated that “such an act may create an impression of the requirement of a one-to-one transactional relationship between the elector and the proposed benefit and has the potential to generate quid-pro-quo for voting in a particular way, thereby leading to inducement”. The Congress said it was “too little, too late”. The BJP-led government pays Rs.1,200 every month to 19.10 lakh women beneficiaries of the Orunodoi scheme and announced its decision in October last year to add seven lakh new beneficiaries.

The Congress and INDIA bloc constituents focussed their campaign on price rise, unemployment, Citizenship (Amendment) Act, electoral bonds, Modi’s failure to keep promises, expansion of the ST list with the inclusion of six communities, raising daily wages of tea garden workers, the old pension scheme, and the growing threat to democracy and the Constitution.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma at an election campaign rally in Guwahati on May 3.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma at an election campaign rally in Guwahati on May 3. | Photo Credit: LAL SINGH/ANI

The constituencies where all of this attracted the highest attention were Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Barpeta, Dhubri, and Guwahati. In Dibrugarh, Sarbananda Sonowal, Union Minister for Ayush, Port, Shipping and Waterways, is locked in a tough contest with Lurinjyoti Gogoi, Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) president, who is backed by the Congress and other constituents of the INDIA bloc. The possibility of the Aam Aadmi Party candidate, Manoj Dhanowar, making a dent in this BJP stronghold in the tea gardens has made the triangular contest a keenly watched one. Both Sonowal and Gogoi were former presidents of the All Assam Students’ Union. Raijor Dal chief Akhil Gogoi, another key constituent of the INDIA bloc, also campaigned extensively in support of Lurinjyoti.

Both the AJP and the Raijor Dal targeted the former Chief Minister for the crackdown on the anti-CAB and anti-CAA movement, and held him responsible for the death of five martyrs of the movement during his tenure. Sonowal and the BJP expressed hope that core Assamese voters would reject the AJP for its tie-up with the Congress, which he said was responsible for death of 855 martyrs of the anti-foreigners’ movement in Assam. The Raijor Dal did not field any candidate. The two regional parties took birth in the anti-CAA movement and the Congress blamed them for splitting the anti-CAA votes during the 2021 Assembly election and helping the BJP retain power. The AJP and the Raijor Dal refused to join the Congress pre-poll alliance in 2021 to protest the AIUDF’s inclusion.

Jorhat in focus

Jorhat became the cynosure of election watchers because the Congress’ Gaurav Gogoi, Tarun Gogoi’s son, was pitted against the sitting BJP MP Topon Gogoi. Himanta Biswa Sarma’s defection from the Congress to the BJP is attributed to the rise of the junior Gogoi, dashing his hopes of becoming Chief Minister, and has generated a lot of interest among voters. The Congress projecting Gogoi as the face of the party for the 2026 Assembly election prompted Chief Minister Sarma and his Cabinet colleagues to go all out to stall his journey to Parliament for a third consecutive term. The high-voltage campaign is believed to have led to the 79.89 per cent turnout, the highest among the five constituencies in the first phase. The BJP hopes to sail through because of its strong organisational base and the defection of Congress leaders close to Gaurav Gogoi. The outcome will have significant political ramifications for Assam’s politics.

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Barpeta saw a triangular contest among veteran AGP leader and former Minister Phani Bhushan Choudhury, sitting and lone Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Manoranjan Talukdar, and Congress candidate Deep Bayan. The outcome will be crucial for the AGP, which has drawn a blank in the past two elections. Choudhury hopes to benefit from the split in opposition votes between candidates of the CPI(M) and the Congress. The 35 per cent Muslim voters, downsized from about 60 per cent, in the constituency are expected to play a crucial role in the outcome. The CPI(M)’s aggressive electioneering, focussing more on door-to-door and street corner meetings, has helped the party revive itself at the grassroots level.

Guwahati, too, witnessed a close battle between the Congress’ Mira Borthakur Goswami and the BJP’s Bijuli Kalita Medhi. Apart from the Congress and all constituents of the INDIA bloc, the civil society organisation Assam Nagarik Samaj campaigned extensively for Goswami, while Medhi had Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah doing road shows for her. Goswami has the advantage of being a known face as a political activist, vocal on different issues, and for being in the forefront of the anti-CAA movement. Medhi, a former Deputy Mayor of Guwahati Municipal Corporation, has the advantage of a stronger organisational base. Both candidates will keep their fingers crossed over how the 3 lakh odd voters living on the city’s hills, belonging to about 85,000 households, have voted. For now, the Congress and other constituents of the INDIA bloc are confident that “silent voting” against the CAA and a growing discontent against the Modi government will bring down the BJP’s tally in the State.

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