The communal narrative in the Assam Assembly election

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP leader and Assam Finance Minister, during an election rally at Golokganj in Dhubri district on April 2. Photo: PTI

Hagrama Mohilary, Bodoland People’s Front leader, during an election campaign at Dudhnoi in Goalpara district on April 1. Photo: PTI

Tribal voters during the second phase of Assembly election outside the Basapo polling station in Karbi Anglong district on April 1. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The BJP’s obstinate stand on the CAA, the resentment of those excluded from the NRC list and the unity of the opposition threaten to undermine its efforts to retain Assam.

A KEENLY contested electoral battle in the first phase of the Assembly election held on March 27 has made the outcome unpredictable in Assam. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and opposition alliances made all efforts to swing the vote in the second and third phases of election on April 1 and April 6. The BJP aggressively pushed its “infiltrator versus refugee” narrative in the second and the third phases in a bid to polarise the electorate on religious lines. The BJP refers to Muslim immigrants as “infiltrator” and Hindu and other non-Muslim immigrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh as “refugee”.

The State recorded a 79.93 per cent voter turnout in the first phase of polling for 47 seats, and 73.03 per cent in the second phase for 39 seats in the 126-member Assembly. Some constituencies recorded over 80 per cent polling in both phases. Stray incidents of violence were reported in some constituencies in Barak valley during the second phase. In the third phase, election will be held for 40 seats. The magic number needed to form the government is 64.

Election arithmetic

In 2016, the BJP won 33 of the 79 seats for which election was held in the second and third phases, the AGP six, the Congress 17, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) 11 and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) 12. With the Congress, the AIUDF, the BPF and the Left parties forging a pre-election alliance, the poll arithmetic has got muddled for the ruling alliance. In the previous Assembly election, these parties had fought against one another and the split in votes had helped the BJP and the AGP win at least 15 seats, which would otherwise have gone to a combined opposition. The entry of the BPF and Left parties into the Congress-led Mahajot has brightened the prospects of the opposition alliance. However, the outcome will depend on transfer of votes by the allies to common candidates. The presence of rebel candidates in some constituencies may affect the prospects of the ruling and opposition alliances. Moreover, the presence of a third force constituting the two new regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal, in the fray could cut into the votes of the two alliances in some constituencies. Like the Mahajot constituents, the AJP-Raijor Dal, has made scrapping of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) its major electoral plank.

Also read: BJP's failures vs. Congress' guarantees in Assam

Silent votes against CAA

The anti-CAA votes may upset the BJP-AGP chances in some key constituencies. Many of these voters had supported the BJP-led alliance in 2016, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha election they had voted for the AGP as it had opposed the CAA. The AGP quit the coalition government amid growing agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), but re-joined the Sarbananda Sonowal government after the CAB lapsed in Parliament. Although the BJP and the AGP reached a seat-sharing agreement, they stuck to their positions on the CAB. The BJP had promised to re-introduce the Bill if it retained power at the Centre while the AGP opposed the Bill. The AGP secured 14 lakh votes in the Lok Sabha election. But its lone member in the Rajya Sabha voted for the CAB when the BJP tabled the Bill after returning to power. The BJP government constituted a high-level committee on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord to recommend constitutional safeguards to Assamese and other indigenous communities for protection of their language, culture, and heritage in accordance with the provisions of the accord. The committee submitted its report to Chief Minister Sonowal in February 2020, but the Narendra Modi government is yet to accept the report. The BJP and the AGP highlighted the formation of the committee to create a perception that constitutional safeguards will be provided for protecting the rights of Assamese and indigenous tribal communities and so they need not be apprehensive of the CAA. With the failure of the Modi government in accepting the report, the belief that the formation of the committee on Clause 6 was a move to weaken the anti-CAA movement has got strengthened.

The silent votes against the CAA may come from some of the traditional supporters of the AGP, who feel betrayed. The BJP had sensed this silent anger and tactfully avoided making CAA an electoral plank. The AGP’s election manifesto did not mention CAA. The Congress’ five guarantees includes steps to scrap the CAA in Assam. Two days before campaign closed, BJP national president J.P. Nadda released the party’s 10-point Sankalp Patra, maintaining that its stand on the CAA remained unchanged. He said the CAA was a Central Act passed by Parliament and would be implemented in letter and spirit.

AGP president Atul Bora, who is seeking re-election from Bokakhat constituency, was confident that the ruling alliance had done well in the first phase.

Battle for BTR

A tough battle is on the cards in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) between the BPF and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL). The region accounts for 12 seats, for which election will be held on April 6. The Mahajot has backed BPF candidates in all the 12 seats. In 2016, the BPF won all the seats as a constituent of the BJP-led alliance. The BPF emerged as the single largest party in the December 2020 election to the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) winning 17 of the 40 seats. The UPPL fought against the BJP in the BTC election but the two parties have reached a seat-sharing agreement for the Assembly election. The UPPL has fielded its candidates in 11 constituencies and the BJP in four. The two coalition partners are engaged in a friendly contest in three seats, which appears to be a tactical move to prevent the UPPL support base from shifting to the BPF. The BPF hopes to gain from its alliances with the Congress, the AIUDF and the Left parties, which have a support base in areas with non-Bodo population.

The UPPL is in power in the BTC in coalition with the BJP and the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) and hopes to secure the majority of the Bodo votes and also win the support of non-Bodo communities because of its alliance with the BJP and the GSP. The GSP is headed by Naba Sarania, Kokrajhar Lok Sabha MP. The BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary was a star campaigner for the Mahajot outside the BTR areas in constituencies with a sizable Bodo population. In the 2016 election, Mohilary campaigned for the BJP-led alliance in these constituencies when he was the Chief Executive Member of the BTC. In this election, Pramod Boro, the incumbent BTC chief and UPPL president, is the star campaigner of the ruling alliance in these constituencies. The outcome in the 12 BTR seats may give rise to new political equations in the BTC. The BPF and the UPPL have fuelled the hope among the BTR voters of turning ‘kingmaker’.

Also read: NDA's seat-sharing troubles in Assam

Himanta Biswa Sarma, senior BJP leader and State Health, Education and Finance Minister threatened to get Mohilary arrested in connection with the formation of a new insurgent outfit by M.D. Batha. Batha, who had joined the mainstream after the disbanding of the National Democratic Front of Boroland, has returned to the jungles and formed the National Liberation Front of Boroland. The Congress lodged a complaint with the Election Commission against Sarma accusing him of “abusing power”. Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of a rally, Sarma said he would order a probe by the National Investigating Agency into the recovery of arms in Kokrajhar district and get Mohilary arrested if he was found to be instigating Batha to foment trouble in the BTR.

The Election Commission issued a notice to Sarma seeking an explanation. An official statement said the Commission was, prima facie, of the view that Sarma had violated the provisions of the Model Code of Conduct.

In a sudden turn of events, Rangja Khungur Basumatary, the BPF candidate for Tamulpur, resigned from the party and joined the BJP. His name and the BPF symbol remain in the balloting unit of the electronic voting machine. The UPPL has fielded Leho Ram Boro in the constituency as the common candidate of the ruling alliance. Mohilary said people would cast their vote for the party symbol only. A legal question is bound to emerge if the votes are in favour of the BPF symbol.

Muslim Votes

Muslim votes will be crucial in at least 30 seats in the State. In 23 of these seats, Muslims constitute more than 50 per cent of the electorate. In 2016, the Congress won 12 of these seats, the AIUDF eight, the BJP two and the AGP one. In this election, the Congress and the AIUDF are engaged in friendly contests in five seats. The BJP and the AGP intensified their campaign around the Congress-AIUDF alliance and the AIUDF chief Maulana Badruddin Ajmal in a desperate bid to polarise the votes on religious lines over the demography question. The ruling alliance has been trying to fuel the apprehension among Assamese and other ethnic communities that Ajmal will become the Chief Minister if the Mahajot is elected power and political power will go to the hands of “infiltrators”. The AIUDF issued a clarification that the Chief Minister would be from the Congress and that Ajmal was not in the race.

NRC as poll issue

In the Bengali-dominated Barak valley, which accounts for 15 seats, the BJP is pinning its hopes on the election promise of a corrected National Register of Citizens (NRC) besides the CAA, the “infiltrator-refugee” narrative and its campaign that the Congress’ alliance with the AIUDF was aimed at “encouraging infiltration from Bangladesh”. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, in election speech, said “Modi ji is synonymous with development while Maulana Badruddin Ajmal is synonymous with infiltration” and urged the voters to decide whether they should side with “development” or “infiltration”. He said that BJP would bring laws against ‘love jehad’ and ‘land jehad’.

Also read: The Mahajot in Assam formed

In 2016, the BJP won eight seats in the Barak valley, the Congress three and the AIUDF four. This time, the presence of rebel candidates may cut into the votes of the ruling party and opposition alliance in some of the seats. In 2011, the Congress won 13 seats while the BJP drew a blank.

Of the 19.06 lakh applicants excluded from the final NRC list, a good number of applicants are Bengali Hindus of Brahmaputra valley and Barak valley. Biometric details of several lakhs of applicants are locked with the NRC authorities and they are unable to register for Aadhar cards. The BJP’s failure to mention the CAA in its Assam manifesto and the fate of those excluded from the NRC list are issues that figured prominently during election talks in the Barak valley.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is looking at reviving its base in Sarbhog and Rangia constituencies. The CPI(M)’s confidence of wresting Sarbhog increased when State BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass chose to contest from Patacharkuchi instead of Sarbhog. Rangia will see a triangular contest between the BJP, the CPI(M) and the Raijor Dal. The BJP is pinning its hopes on a split in the anti-CAA votes to retain the seat. The Communist party of India (CPI) is hoping to regain its hold in Marigaon constituency. The CPI (ML-Liberation) candidate is locked in a straight contest with the BJP in Behali.

Article 244 A as poll plank

Election was held for five seats in the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao in the second phase. The demand for the creation of an autonomous State, comprising the three hill districts, under Article 244A took centre stage here with the ruling and opposition parties making it a major plank. Article 244A was inserted in the Constitution to pave the way for the creation of Meghalaya as an autonomous State within Assam on April 2, 1970, before it became a full-fledged State on January 21, 1972.

The people of Karbi and Dimasa enjoy autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution with the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council governing the Karbi Anglong East and Karbi Anglong West districts and the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council governing the Dima Hasao hill district (the erstwhile North Cachar hills). The BJP is in power in both the autonomous councils. In 2016, the BJP won three seats and the Congress one in Karbi Anglong. The BJP won the lone Assembly seat in Dima Hasao.

Also read: Nationwide NRC, a roll of contention

Issues of unemployment and price rise raised by the Mahajot of 10 opposition parties posed a hurdle for the BJP in forcing the electoral discourse around the single narrative of “infiltrators versus refugees”. The ruling alliance tried to woo women voters with the promise of increasing their monthly cash assistance under the Orunodoi scheme from Rs.830 to Rs.3,000 and increasing the number of beneficiary families from 17 lakhs to 30 lakhs. If returned to power, the BJP has promised to repay the outstanding loans and interest to the tune of Rs.12,000 crore payable by women to Bandhan bank, a microfinance group. The BJP also promised to increase assistance to women self-help groups from Rs.25,000 to Rs.1 lakh for the first two years and from Rs.50,000 to Rs.2 lakh for the three subsequent years. It has promised to provide scooters and motorbikes to all college students and a daily cash assistance of Rs.100 against their attendance.

The narratives in this Assembly election have presented the electors the option of choosing between those seeking to burn bridges and those seeking to build bridges in the multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic Assam.

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