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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

From Bihar to Assam: Understanding and Predicting BJP’s Election Strategies in Upcoming Assam Elections

Saturday 26 December 2015

by Aejaz Ahmad and M. Rafiq Wani


The story of religious invocation and incantation in politics is as old as modernity itself. While modernity was supposed to release what is now called ‘modern politics’, of all the parochial traditions that had fused religion and politics into one interdependent system for several centuries, it could not bring the presumed transformations in the developing world for several reasons. Instead, it opened up new avenues wherein the parochial traditions could play themselves out, of course now in the garb of modernity.

In India, the fusion between religion and politics is one such example. With modernity, the caste system didn’t wither away; rather it became a fodder for the politics per se of what is often called as politicisation of caste. Similarly, politics and religion in India are so intertwined that their fusion has served as a persistent ‘avenue of investment’ where the rate of return is tremendously high in terms of political dividends. This fusion runs deep into Indian history where temples were razed to the ground in places of Buddhist sites and mosques in places of temples and so on.

But what differentiates its contemporary form is its penetration into society, education, institutions and the language that it speaks. It is certainly not debatable that if there is any organisation or party that has best harnessed this fusion between religion and politics, it is BJP and its allies. In fact, its very origin can be attributed to that very fusion. Whether it be the case of re-invoking the ‘idea of India’ in its own terms, the systematic lynchings, the hijacking of the public sphere, denial of the resurgence of intolerance, in all these the BJP has given us numerous illustrations and demonstrations.

Bihar Elections, BJP’s Religious Rhetoric, and the Resultant Disappointment

Ever since the BJP took over, the fusion between religion and politics, that had been moribund after they left the national scene in 2004, has been supplied enough fuel to ignite it once again. This doesn’t mean that the Congress acted saintly in all these years. Although in its new avatar, the BJP unfolded the developmental agenda as its very hallmark, but whenever there are elections in the States or an event of national or State importance, the ‘motor mouths’, such as Sadhvi, Niranjan Jyoti, Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj have supplied content to its developmental agenda. On the other hand, the perpetual silence of the Prime Minister in all these issues has surpassed the former PM, Dr Manmohan Singh’s “record of maintaining silence”. It raises serious questions about the developmental discourse that is being talked about.

On the eve of the Bihar elections, the religious invocation was unleashed with well-coordinated preparations. The cow issue was prepared much before and supplied to the Bihar cadre on time through speeches and pamphlets. In the political quarters, the co-opting strategy started by the Congress many decades ago was brought forth to co-opt Manjhi into the BJP to ensure Dalit votes. It was much evident as to who was to be cornered. In a rally at Buxar, Modi, despite being the PM, played the anti-Muslim card and said that Nitish Kumar was supposedly preparing to give five per cent reservation to a ‘particular community’ at the cost of OBCs. This logic destroyed the very constitutional logic of India, for reservations in India are not awarded on religious lines because we don’t follow the proportional representation system any more after independence. But then Modi is known for making factually erroneous statements!

Despite all the gimmicks and religion-politics combo card, the Bihar elections showed that far from the much-anticipated division of votes along caste and religious lines, the people of Bihar voted for both development and tranquillity, which the BJP too believes, according to its spokespersons, but its tacit approval of certain unwanted events, particularly the lynching episode and its aftermath, differentiates them from Nitish’s development discourse.

The victory of the Mahagatbandhan in Bihar vindicated that the idea of India is much consolidated and inclusive and can’t be oscillated to one side only. It proved to be a backlash against covert attempts of establishing unipolarity in the idea of India and showed that the idea of India is marked by multipolarity which is what helps that very idea to blossom.

Impending Multi-State Elections, BJP’s Strategies and Challenges for Secular India

The elections are on hand for many States such as UP, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, and Kerala. Amongst all these, the important from the BJP’s standpoint should be the State of Assam—where it thinks it can easily take over from the Congress which suffers from problems in local units given the anti-incumbency factor and defection lately of ten odd MLAs for whom the grass now looks greener on the other side. After the recently concluded Bihar elections analysts have suggested that the BJP needs to alter its ideology of religious gown for politics, some even saying it may do so after internal restructuring and rethinking. However, the question remains: will it do so in the case of Assam? Will the BJP fight on developmental issues or will it persist with its worn-out religious-politics mix to harness its dividends there where no Nitish Kumar is present as an alternative? We propose that the BJP will not alter its strategies at least in the State of Assam where the situation at the moment seems congenial to the BJP because of three reasons.

Firstly, the growth rate of Muslims in the recently released SECC-2011 is highest in Assam as compared to other States. The decadal growth rate of Muslims is 3.3 per cent as against the national average of 0.8 per cent and their population has risen from 30.9 to 34.2 per cent between 2001-2011. The BJP and its affiliates have always maintained that this growth is imported from Bangladesh given its porous borders, particularly along lower Assam and Barak valley. They have always blamed it on the Congress’ appeasement of minorities. According to Mahendra Singh, the BJP secretary in charge of Assam, ‘’these are all illegal immigrants ..... They are protected by the government and the original inhabitants of the area, Scheduled Tribe Hindus, have been forced to leave because of the rising dominance of these immigrants.” Given this stand of the BJP and the general aura in the State of Assam, the BJP will surely attempt to capitalise on these vulnerabilities that are built into the politics of Assam.

Secondly, connected to the first reason—the panacea to this population growth rhetoric presumably is uniform civil code. The BJP’s demand for the UCD in its manifesto is not driven by any humanist interpretation or women empowerment but mainly by the fear of growth of the burgeoning “other” in terms of population. Presumably, the development discourse will lend space to the religious discourse here also. In an article, titled “Time to Act Before Too Late”, in the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, the VHP head, Praveen Togadia, said: “a serious extinction seems to be on the anvil. And it is of Hindus. There is a method in the systematic growth of Muslims .... He even went on to say that if we do not stand up against population jihad Bharat will soon be an Islamic state ...census figures are a wake-up call.”

Even in the recently concluded annual congre-gation at Nagpur, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was very much concerned about the growth rate of Muslims and was quoted as saying in a tacit warning to the Central Government to take steps to restrict the growth rate of certain communities which is ostensibly a reference to Muslims. So this way too, the BJP cannot override the master control.


Every State in india is a nation in itself and the one-size-fits-all formula does not hold ground here too. Unity in diversity is what is holding India intact miraculously. The issue of immigrants has been the main bone of contention between the BJP and Congress in Assam in the recent years resulting in many riots, some of which are blamed to have been engineered Clearly, the BJP cannot afford to allow this issue to slip away so easily.

The Congress, though much elated by the Bihar results, suffers from anti-incumbency which it can’t avoid but in Assam, the Congress will likely join the religious discourse by generating fear among the minorities likely to be triggered by the strategies of the BJP in Assam. In both cases the minorities can be put into the continuum of fear and this possibility will certainly make a case for the BJP to dig harder because the Muslim vote in Assam is considerable, running between 40-80 per cent in some districts; therefore it cannot be ignored.

All in all, religion is not leaving the stage for development, at least not for now, and in the coming months as the buzzer is hit by the Election Commission. What remains to be seen is when the ‘motor mouths’ will be let loose.

Aejaz Ahmad belongs to the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. M. Rafiq Wani belongs to the Department of History, University of Kashmir.