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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

Assam: Crafty Coalition of Conflicts

Monday 6 June 2016

by Joydeep Biswas

The BJP’s emphatic victory in Assam is not only the tale of two tall leaders, fallen apart, contrary to what the media would have us believe. This electoral spectacle is scripted by a complex social engineering whereby Assamese regionalism, ethnic assertion and Hindutva could be rallied successfully against the perception of a Muslim demographic invasion

Out of the four States and a tiny Union Territory which went to Assembly polls during April-May, only Assam appeared high on the possibility frontier for the BJP. In this traditio-nally Congress-dominated State, the BJP could be off-the-mark only in 1991 when it managed an encouraging number of ten Assembly seats riding on the back of the nation-wide polarisation over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy. Since then the party could never consolidate its organisational base in Assam till the last Assembly hustings. The total tally of the BJP in the five Assembly elections between 1991 and 2011 was a meagre 37 seats, and in between it could touch the double-digit mark only once in 2006.

But the 2014 Lok Sabha polls proved to be a watershed for the BJP in Assam much like on the national electoral map. Not only did the vote-share of the saffron party phenomenally shoot up to 36.5 per cent from a modest 11.47 per cent it had garnered in the 2011 Assembly polls, the ravaging Modi-wave was successful in bagging seven of the fourteen parliamentary constituencies in the State for the BJP’s kitty. During the two-year-period from May 2014 to May 2016, interestingly enough, the BJP had more MPs from Assam than they had MLAs in the State Assembly!

HBS Factor

The third edition of the Congress-led government in Assam plunged into a serious crisis around midway through the term when the undeclared Number Two of the State Cabinet, Himanta Biswa Sharma, challenged the leadership of the Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, his one-time mentor, on the ground of what the former called ‘inefficiency and under-performance’ of the latter. What had initially looked like a manageable problem of intra-party dissidence, not unheard of in the Congress, reached its crescendo when this ‘de facto Chief Minister’ of Assam failed to convince 10 Janpath in New Delhi that not the octogenarian at the helm, but a Himanta Biswa Sharma in his mid-forties would be required by Rahul Gandhi to install a Congress Government in the State for a record fourth time on the trot. The intransigence of the Congress ‘High Command’ coupled with the recalcitrance of Tarun Gogoi and the obstinacy of Himanta Biswa Sharma culminated in the latter joining the BJP in the summer of 2015.

The media—both regional and national—had already been closely following the high-voltage dissidence drama in the State Congress. Having defected from the Congress, of which he had been a member of for more than two decades, Sharma picked Sonia-Rahul as his targets for political tirade in sync with the BJP’s national vendetta against the ‘dynastic politics’ of the Nehru-Gandhi family which instantly fit the media-bill as well. The Assam State BJP, under the new-fangled aura of Sharma, was witty enough to manufacture an Assamese version of the ‘dynastic politics’ pointing to Tarun Gogoi’s son, Gaurav, an MP from Kaliabor seat in central Assam. The media-savvy BJP was successful in cashing in on the individual popularity and charisma of Sharma throughout the campaign trail and till the two-phase polls on April 4 and 11. The historic win for the BJP on May 19 is being sought to be explained in a very reductio-nist manner. The over-simplistic explanation made available in the public domain is that the defeat of the Congress at the hands of the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance is solely because of the ‘HBS factor’. While the cutting-edge advantage of having a deft election-manager like Sharma in the strategy room of BJP can surely not be explained away, more objective analysis of the electoral victory for the alliance is visibly missing.

Stitching the Alliance

Initially, the poll pundits failed to find any psephological logic behind a purported pre-poll patch-up between an upbeat BJP and an off-colour AGP given the extreme form of existential crisis the latter as a political formation was facing on the day. Since 1996, the last time this regional party came to power in Guwahati’s Janata Bhavan, the electoral prospect of the AGP had been steadily on the slide in the subsequent elections till 2011 in terms of both the number of seats won and the vote-share.

In 2011, the AGP could manage only 10 seats with a vote-share of 16.29 per cent in the Assembly elections. The party’s worst ever performance was recorded in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in which it drew a blank with a paltry vote-share of 3.8 per cent. The obvious question then arose as to why the BJP, fresh from its brilliant performance in the 2014 general elections followed by another splendid display of electoral success in the 2015 civic polls, needed a morbid AGP to play the second fiddle in the Assembly hustings. Why couldn’t the BJP dare to go alone to take on the one-and-a-half-decade of anti-incumbency of the Congress and Tarun Gogoi?

Neither the BJP State President, Sarbananda Sanowal, nor a sizeable section of the AGP top-leadership was convinced of the prospect of this tie-up. On this corridor of confusion stepped in Himanta Biswa Sharma. He provided the answer to the BJP’s central leadership that such an alliance was indeed potent to reap political dividend. He could perhaps impress on Amit Shah and Ram Madhav that the raison d’être of the BJP-AGP alliance lay not in electoral, but ideological logic. A robust BJP did not perhaps require the seats of the AGP to add to its tally in the fourteenth Assembly that much. What it urgently needed at that moment was a loud and clear message to the Assamese middle class that the BJP was very much with the Assamese regional nationalism, a force which has dominated the State politics in the post-colonial period.

The Bodoland People’s Front, a political formation in the BTC area in western Assam, was born out of a protracted violent battle with the Indian state for a separate Statehood for the Bodos. This party, which represents the assertion of an ethnic identity even older than that of the Ahoms, was a coalition partner of the Congress Government in Assam. Himanta Biswa Sharma was instrumental in brokering the Congress-BPF seat adjustments on more than one occasion during 2001-2011. This time he made use of his old personal rapport with the BPF chief, Hagrama Mohilary, to bring this Bodo party on board for his new masters.

How it worked

Assam exhibits such a complex demography and conflicting sectarian interests that devising a win-win dispensation on an electoral agenda is always an uphill task for a political party. The Congress, by dint of its accommodative and inclusive policies, could manage to rule the State for a better part of the post-independence period. But for a pro-Hindutva brigade like the BJP it was never thought possible to win Assam on its own. With non-overlapping constituencies like Hindu Assamese, Hindu Bengali, Muslim Bengali and various tribal groups—each of which is capable of tweaking a verdict either way—the prime task of the BJP was to pick the friends and foes, and then to draw the battle-line accordingly. The standard strategy for the the BJP in the Hindi heartland works in consolidation of the Hindu votes across caste divides. This modus operandi was successful in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the 2014 parliamen-tary elections, but failed in the subsequent Bihar Assembly polls.

For Assam such a greater consolidation of the electorate in the name of Hindutva did not seem possible for the BJP given the demographic distribution and diverse cultural contexts of the State. Hence the party think-tank apparently took a detour by picking the foes first, and the friends later, by a method of simple subtraction. Immigration from across the Bangladesh border has always been a big issue in Assam politics. In fact, the genesis of the major alliance partner, the AGP, is found in the six-year long violent anti-foreigner agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union in the eighties. This regional outfit was born after the signing in 1985 of the Assam Accord which declared the post-1971 Bengali migrants foreigners in Assam. The AASU leader, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, went on to become a two-time Chief Minister of Assam during the AGP rule in 1985-1991 and 1996-2001.

The foreigners’ question in Assam has a linguistic angle. The Assamese nationalism has always considered both Hindu and Muslim Bengali equally qualified to be branded as ‘foreigners’ in Assam, and their existence on the State’s soil has been construed as detrimental to the cultural, linguistic, economic and political interests of the local Assamese and tribal groups. But the BJP, under the RSS diktat, was compelled to infuse a religious dimension to the immigrants’ issue. Two Central notifications from the MHA dated September 7, 2015 incorporating suitable changes to the relevant provisions contained in the Foreigners Order 1948 and the Passport (Entry into India) Rules 1950, allowed the non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh (and also from Pakistan), who came to India upto December 31, 2014, to stay back in India. This effectively meant that the BJP was not in favour of deporting the Hindu Bengali migrants from Assam.

The BJP had to do it because of two reasons. One, as a policy, the RSS considers India as the natural refuge for the persecuted Hindus from all over the world. Two, for sheer electoral expediency, the Hindu Bengali voters—who constitute a decisive chunk in more than twentyfive Assembly segments in the State—were given such a legal safeguard as a quid pro quo for their unstinted support to the BJP since 1991. But such an arrangement did not expectedly produce Pareto-optimum state as the move irked the votaries of Assamese chauvinist sentiments like the AASU and AGP. Here came the master-stroke from the BJP back-office. They successfully persuaded the AASU to withdraw the petition it had filed in the Supreme Court challenging the September 7 Central notifications regularising the stay of the Hindu Bengali migrants in Assam. In the bargain, however, the BJP sharpened its attack on the Muslim migrants, ostensibly to nurse the bruised Assamese emotion.

But the strategy worked wonders in the BTC area as well which saw brutal anti-Muslim pogrom on numerous occasions in the last decade. The Bodo ethnic identity also found a common enemy in the Muslim neighbours. The entire campaign language was craftily drafted in such a manner that the resulting sharp religious polarisation could push the Congress in a cul-de-sac. The Battle of Saraighat of 1671 was used as an allegory to foment the theory of Muslim invasion. The 2016 Assembly poll was named as the LastBattleofSaraighat so that the indigenous Assamese and tribals could be pitted against the ‘invaders’ (read the Muslim settlers) for electoral vengeance. The retaliatory gesture from the AIUDF, which claims to represent the rights and interests of the migrant Bengali Muslim in Assam, added grist to the Hindutva mill. The end-result was the worst possible for the Congress. Already suffering from anti-incumbency of fifteen years and a defection of ten MLAs including Himanta Biswa Sharma from its fold on the eve of a crucial election, the Congress leadership, both in Delhi and Dispur, appeared just clueless as to how to hold on to its secular vote-bank. This century-old party had run dry of any counter-narrative to this smart social engineering by the BJP.

Joydeep Biswas, an Associate Professor of Economics in Cachar College, is a scholar with the Department of Political Science in the Assam (Central) University. He can be contacted at joydbiswas@gmail.com