It is BJP’s failures vs Congress’ guarantees in Assam

As the gap between the BJP’s electoral promises and the ground realities is stark, the ruling party falls back on its familiar tactic of communal polarisation.

Published : Mar 25, 2021 06:00 IST

THE issues of raised by the Congress-led eight-party alliance of opposition parties—such as such as unemployment and price rise—have become the talking points in Assam, heightening the level of discomfort for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led ruling alliance ahead of the three-phase Assembly election beginning March 27.

The unease in the ruling party was evident from the multiple visits made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet colleagues such as Union Home Minister Amit Shah to Assam over a short span of time to campaign for the alliance candidates. The BJP’s stakes are higher in Assam than in the other four-election bound States as retaining power in this north-eastern State is critical for expanding its base in the region.

The Congress has accused the BJP of going back on its electoral promises made in 2016 with regard to unemployment, price rise and wages of tea garden workers. It has articulated five “poll guarantees” and hopes to convince voters that these promises will be kept. The five guarantees are creating five lakh jobs for youths, increasing the daily wages of tea garden workers to Rs.365, providing monthly income support of Rs.2,000 to all housewives, granting 200 units of free electricity to every household, and passing a resolution in the Assembly against implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, in Assam.

The ‘five guarantees’ campaign launched by Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi other senior Congress leaders, including Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, in their election rallies is getting traction. The Congress is pushing this slogan to neutralise the ruling coalition’s campaign that the Congress-led alliance will be detrimental to the interests of indigenous communities. However, the Congress has not yet explained how it plans to mobilise the huge funds needed to implement the guarantees. A lack of clarity on the implementation of the schemes has blurred the line between “poll promises” and “poll guarantees” for many voters.

Also read: Revolt in Assam BJP and allies over seat-sharing deal

The Congress claims that over 1.13 lakh people have registered on its portal until March 17, which it says is an indication that the campaign is gaining support. There are about 65 lakh voters below 30 years of age, including about five lakh first-time voters in the 18-19 age group in the State. These voters are expected to play a crucial role in swinging the votes. In 2016, the ‘campaign for change’ by the BJP and its regional allies attracted a large section of young voters. The vote swing led to the defeat of the Congress and installation of the first BJP government in the State after 15 years of Congress rule under Tarun Gogoi.

The rising unemployment rate is reflected in the migration of youths belonging to distressed farm families and urban households outside the State in search of livelihood. Many voters are disillusioned with the coalition government as the COVID-induced lockdown and the consequent downturn in the economy have aggravated the unemployment crisis. The disillusionment and anger against the government could turn into positive reactions for the Congress’ promises and campaigns on other issues at the hustings.

BJP’s polarisation attempt

Fearing that the unemployment crisis and price rise may make its constituency among youths and other sections shift its electoral preference to opposition parties, the ruling alliance is leaving no stone unturned to push the narrative around “infiltration of Bangladeshis” to overshadow the opposition campaign. The coalition has been projecting the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and its president Maulana Badruddin Ajmal as “anti-Assamese” and “anti-indigenous” and as “protectors of Bangladeshi infiltrators” in a bid to polarise the votes on religious lines and create apprehension among Assamese and other ethnic communities in the constituencies that are going to the polls in the first phase of election on March 27.

Also read: Opposition parties in Assam form anti-BJP grand alliance for Assembly election

Of the 47 seats for which election will be held in the first phase, 42 are in the 11 eastern and northern districts, spread across both banks of the Brahmaputra, and five seats are in central Assam’s Nagaon district. In 2016, the BJP won 27 of the 47 seats while its ally, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), won eight. The Congress won nine seats, the AIUDF two and independent one. The Congress did not have an electoral ally in 2016. However, its seat-sharing agreement with the AIUDF, the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM) has changed the election arithmetic this time as split in votes had resulted in victory to the BJP and its allies in many constituencies in 2016. So, it is crucial for the BJP-AGP alliance to win a large number of seats in the first phase to retain power. It is, therefore, pinning its hopes on the promise of welfare measures for tea garden workers and harping on the Congress’ alliance with the AIUDF to stymie the opposition’s campaign against the CAA.

Issue of immigrants

The BJP lexicon defines a “Bangladeshi infiltrators” as not only those Muslims who had migrated from the erstwhile East Bengal after 1971 but also those who came between 1951 and 1971. At the grass roots level, BJP workers and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activists have been telling Assamese and other indigenous communities that Hindu and other non-Muslim immigrants from erstwhile East Bengal are refugees and not infiltrators and that they do not pose any threat to their, language, culture and religion. India does not have a refugee law and treats all undocumented immigrants as “illegal migrants”.

The BJP has used the AIUDF’s rise in the State’s electoral politics since its formation in 2005 to sharpen the debate around the refugee-infiltrator narrative. Through the enactment of the CAA, the BJP has institutionalised its campaign that the threat to the State’s demography comes only from infiltrators. To further this campaign, the BJP and the AGP have been trying to project the Congress-led mahajot as a mere understanding between the Congress and the AIUDF. But with the BPF, which was a constituent of the BJP-led coalition, joining the Congress alliance, the BJP’s narrative appears to have lost its appeal among voters in some of the constituencies.

The AIUDF has officially stated that it is for the implementation of the Assam Accord and is opposed to the CAA. The Assam Accord calls for detection of all “illegal migrants” post 1971, irrespective of whether they are Hindus or Muslims, deletion of their names and their expulsion from the State. Ironically, the BJP government at the Centre has tampered with this core clause of the Accord through the enactment of the CAA. The CAA provides for granting citizenship to Hindu and other non-Muslim “illegal migrants” who came to Assam until December 14, 2014. Although the BJP has been trying to stave off the CAA as an election plank, the delay in framing of rules for the implementation of the CAA indicates the Modi government’s apprehension over opposition to the Act becoming a major election plank and dilution of its narrative built around refugee versus infiltrators.

Also read: Assam: Defining issue

The two new regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal, born out the anti-CAA movement, have made the CAA their main plank. They have termed both the BJP and the AIUDF as “communal” and distanced themselves from the two major alliances. This has triggered speculation that the anti-CAA votes may be split in some constituencies to the advantage of the ruling alliance. The anti-CAA movement was not a united affair despite a common demand for repeal of the Act. Organisations demanding the scrapping of the CAA had supported the BJP in 2016, which helped in the defeat of the Congress. The BJP will find it difficult to ignore the fact that the Raijor Dal and the AJP can erode its support base.

The BJP also cannot ignore its Bengali Hindu constituency in the Brahmaputra valley and the Bengali-dominated Barak valley. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal expressed confidence that the campaign against the CAA would not have much influence on the voters. He said the apprehension of those opposed to the Act that crores of Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants would come to the State if the Act were implemented was an exaggeration to mislead the people. In 2016, of the 60 seats won by the BJP in the 126-member Assembly, 49 came from the Brahmaputra valley, eight from the Barak valley and three from the three hill districts.

The Tea Garden factor

The votes of tea garden workers and Adivasi peasants will be a crucial factor in many of the 47 seats in the first phase of election. This attests the fact that the issue of the low wages of tea garden workers is a major electoral factor this time. The Congress’ guarantee to increase the daily wages of tea garden workers and its heightened campaign that the BJP went back on its 2016 promise of increasing the daily wage to Rs.351 prompted the Sonowal government to rush to approve in its last Cabinet meeting an increase in the daily wage by Rs.50. The increase has not been given effect and garden workers are still paid at the current rate of Rs.167 a day. The Indian Tea Association and 17 tea companies have challenged the government’s decision in court. The Gauhati High Court has passed an interim order giving tea companies the liberty to decide on any interim enhancement of wages until the case is decided by the court and has asked the government not to take any coercive action against the tea companies.

The influential All Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (AATSA) called for a complete shutdown of tea gardens on March 22 to protest against the “failure of the government to address the problem of tea garden works and putting the issues of increasing the wages, granting of Scheduled Tribe status to ‘tea tribes’ and other Adivasi communities on the back burner”.

Also read: Funds crunch cripples industrialisation in North-eastern States

The ruling alliance has made development in the past five years as one of its major planks and has highlighted construction and repair of roads as one of its major achievements. In its “Assam Vision Document 2016-25”, the BJP stated: “More than one crore, roughly 42%, of Assam’s population has no access to clean and safe drinking water. In a land surrounded by rivers and blessed with rains, such apathy is appalling.”

The dashboard of Jal Jeevan Mission, a flagship programme of the Modi government, reveals how the State continues to grapple with the problem of non-availability of safe drinking water. It shows that only 7.77 per cent of the 63.35 lakh households have tap water connections as on March 17, 2021. Of the 25,335 villages in the State only 0.63 per cent (159 villages) have functional household tap connection (FHTC) in every rural home.

Chief ministerial candidates

The BJP has been troubled by inner party rivalry over the chief ministerial face. Senior party leaders have maintained that the BJP Parliamentary Board will choose the candidate and that the party projects a chief ministerial face only when it is in the opposition and not when in power. This has not helped the BJP put at rest speculation about the two major claimants to the post, Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, Health, Finance and Education Minister. In 2016, the campaign song projecting Sonowal as the chief ministerial face was popular. This time a song on Himanta Biswa Sarma has kept alive the speculation among voters but triggered confusion among the party rank and file about whom to side with. The Congress is also seeing camp politics coming to the fore over the probable chief ministerial face. Responding to media queries on its choice, senior Congress leaders said the decision would be left to elected legislators and the party high command. The Congress has seized the opportunity to shape the perception that it is seriously in the game and keen on recapturing power.

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