Mainstream, VOL LIV No 25 New Delhi June 11, 2016
Assam Assembly Elections 2016: BJP Triumphs and Congress Dwindles
Saturday 11 June 2016
by V. Bijukumar
The election verdict of the Assam Assembly brought some dramatic developments in the politics of the State. It not only brought down the three consecutive Congress governments led by Tarun Gogoi but also consolidated the electoral base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam. The BJP could form its first government in North-East India through the election in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The verdict also gave some solace to the ruling party at the Centre which failed to make much impact in the States like Kerala, West Bengal, Tamilnadu and Puducherry where Assembly elections were held along with Assam.
The BJP’s entry into Assam helped to shed its image as a North Indian party and moved towards emerging as an all-India party. The party made its presence across the State, both in the Brahmaputra Valley and Barrak valley. In the Bengali-dominated Barrak valley, which comprises districts such as Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, the BJP won eight out of 15 seats leaving the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) with four, and the Congress three. The BJP made inroads into the Muslim-dominated areas as it won 15 seats in 49 Muslim-dominated constituencies in the State.
Apart from winning all seats in Guwahati city, the BJP swept all seven seats in Dibrugarh and all three seats in Karbi Anglong. Moreover, the BJP was able to penetrate into the tea belt showcasing its impressive win. Interestingly, for the first time in the history of Dima Hasao, the BJP candidate, B.B. Hagjer, won the 16 Haflong (ST) constituency. In the Barrak valley, the BJP’s lone Muslim winner, Aminul Haque Laskar, a businessman, scripted history by wining from the Sonai constituency.
In the 126 seats in the State, Assembly, the BJP won 60 seats with a vote-share of 42 per cent, its alliance partner AGP secured 14 seats with a vote-share of eight per cent. The BPF, another partner in the BJP alliance, won 12 seats with a vote-share of 3.9 per cent. The BPF, a former ally of the Congress, initially moved towards the BJP for the development of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC). It has to be pointed out that the BPF ended its ties with the Congress and withdrew its Ministers from the Gogoi Government instigating Bodo tribals against Bangladeshi Muslim migration raising the bogey of threats from migrants. In the 2011 elections, the BPF won 12 seats and joined the Gogoi Govern-ment and broke its alliance with the Congress in 2014. Moreover, the anti-Muslim sentiment generated in the Bodo areas of Assam describing it as anti-Muslim went in favour of the BJP. The three-party pre-poll alliance thus bagged 86 seats with two-thirds majority in the Assembly.
The incumbent Congress party, however, could secure only 26 seats by winning 31 per cent vote-share. The AIUDF, which claimed its base in the Muslim community, won 13 seats with a vote-share of 13 per cent. It has to be reminded that in the 2011 Assembly elections the BJP won only five seats against the 78 seats of the ruling Congress party. The AGP won 10 seats, the AIUDF won 18 and the BPF only 12. By aligning with the BJP in the Assembly elections, the AGP strengthened its position in the State. The AGP President, Atul Bora, was elected to the Assembly in Bokakhat consti-tuency. However, the AIUDF chief, Dhubri, and present Lok Sabha MP lost to the Congress candidate, Wajed Ali Choudhury, from Salmara South constituency.
Electoral Performance Total Seats: 126
|Party||Seats Won||Vote Percentage|
The BJP’s surge in Assam in the Assembly elections can be analysed in the context of its strategic approach in the State. Firstly, the BJP could muster the tacit support of the Bodos, the Tiwas and the Rabhas which enabled the party to make inroads into the minority areas. Secondly, the election saw a strong Hindu consolidation behind the BJP as both Bengali Hindus and Assamese Hindus supported the party. However, the Muslim vote (both Assamese and Bengali Muslims) split between the Congress and AIUDF. Thirdly, the BJP’s pre-poll alliance with the AGP and BPF consolidated anti- Congress votes in its favour. It has to be pointed out that just before the announcement of the elections the BJP sealed an alliance with the AGP and BPF. Initially there were local protests from both the BJP and AGP in certain regions like Bongaigaon, Sivasagar, Sonitpur, Amguri and Tezpur against the alliance. However, the BJP leadership could overcome the dissenting voices in forging the alliance. In the run-up to the election, the BJP sealed an agreement with the AGP and BPF to consolidate the Opposition vote against the ruling Congress dispensation.
In fact, such a realist strategy of alliance- building came in the context of two reasons. First, after it lost in the Bihar Assembly elections in October and November 2015, it reversed the party’s stand of ‘going it alone’ in the Assembly elections. Secondly, the realisation that the combined strength of the three-party alliance can combat the Congress. It has to be mentioned that in the 2011 Assembly elections, the BJP won five seats and the AGP got 10 and the BPF 12 altogether with a voting share of 33 per cent. The BJP hoped that a grand alliance can dislodge the Congress regime which wielded political power for three consecutive terms in the State. Perhaps, the reasons for making an alliance rather than going it alone in the State was the realisation of the party of the Bihar experience where it crumbled before a strong Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) alliance. Thirdly, the election verdict, however, proved that the alliance succeeded in preventing the splitting of anti-Congress votes. Fourthly, the BJP succeeded in bringing Tarun Gogoi’s most trusted Himanta Biswa Sharma, who served as the Minister of Health and Education in the Gogoi Government, to the party; he in fact was the mastermind in the BJP’s alliance with the other two regional parties in the State. The seven of the ten sitting Congress MLAs, who left the parent party, won on the BJP ticket.
Further, in spite of the above factors which went in favour of the BJP’s fortunes in the State, the BJP’s victory was related more to the systematic activities of the RSS in the State; that outfit has been quite systematically working in the tribal belt of the State for years. It has to be emphasised that in 1979, the RSS founded its first school, Shishu Shiksha Samiti, in the State and about 500 Ekal Vidyalayas were set up by the RSS in the State over time. The RSS for a long time spread its roots in the State by appro-priating Assam’s medieval saint, Srimanta Sankardev, for political gains. Sankardev led a reformist neo-Vaishnavite movement against Brahmanism. (Bhattacharjee, 2016) It also actively supported the anti-infiltration of Bangladeshis in the Assam movement of 1979-84 as it believed that illegal infiltration is a threat to national security.
Mosaic of Cultural Diversity
Assam is a complex society which constitutes Assamese Hindus, Bengalis, migrant Bangla-deshis and tribal population considered to be a mosaic of ethno-cultural diversity. The Assamese Hindus are dominant in the Brahma-putra Valley and the Bengalis are dominant in the Barrak valley. Initially, the BJP’s traditional stronghold was the Bengali-dominated Barrak valley. As Srikanth argues, “although the BJP did not initially get the support of the Assamese Hindus, as early as in 1991, it could make a dent into the Bengali-dominated Barrak valley region, where it won parliamentary seats from Silchar and Karimganj constituencies (in 1999)”. (Srikanth, 1999, p. 3413) However, in the recent past, in the Brahmaputra Valley too, the BJP wooed the Assamese Hindus by raking up the issue of illegal migration of Bengali Muslims and its impact on the Assamese society. It accused the Congress of playing vote-bank politics of Bengali migrants. In fact, the BJP’s promise to check illegal immigration presumably gained wider acceptability among the Assamese elite.
Among all the States in the North-East, Assam is considered to be the gateway to the rest of the States in the region. For quite some time, the BJP is turning its attention to the political developments in Assam and trying to occupy the Opposition space vacated by the AGP. For instance, on December 29, 2014, Amit Shah constituted a five-member committee, headed by its senior leader, S.S. Ahluwalia, to visit and review the condition of tribal victims of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland- Songbijit (NDFB-S) violence in the Assam relief camps. More than seventy tribals were killed in the violence in Assam in attacks by the pro- Bodo militant groups in December 2014.
In fact, a few days before the visit of Shah in April, the BJP Government was contemplating to delink Assam from the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh. The Protocol to the 1974 LBA, signed on September 6, 2011, paved the way for settlement of the outstanding land boundary issues between the two countries. The 2011 Protocol was prepared with the full support and concurrence of the State govern-ments concerned—Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal. As agreed upon through several rounds of negotiations started during UPA-II, Assam is set to lose around 268.39 acres in the final arrangement with Bangladesh under the LBA, but does not get any land in return. West Bengal will lose 1957 acres, but get 2398 acres, while Meghalaya will lose 41 acres and get 250 acres in return from Bangladesh. Assam giving up land is part of settling a disputed 6.1 km stretch that’s been with Bangladesh since Partition. For quite some time, this is an emotive issue in Assam’s polarised and volatile politics and the BJP’s Assam unit has always opposed the land loss. The BJP’s top brass considered Assam a winning prospect and these poll calculations, it was thought, may result in delinking the LBA with Bangladesh for now. Due to the growing resentment against the LBA in Assam, the BJP is revising the actual plan and accordingly the Indo-Bangladesh LBA will now involve only West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya on the Indian side. The Constitution Amendment Bill to ratify the Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement is likely to be introduced in Parlia-ment with a major change by delinking Assam.1
Emergence as a Political Alternative
Before 1991, the BJP was not a significant force in the electoral politics of Assam. In the 1991 Assembly elections, the BJP won 10 seats out of 48 Assembly seats it contested securing a vote-share of 6.4 per cent. In the 1991 general elections, the BJP won two seats with a vote-share of 9.6 per cent. In the 1996 general elections its vote-share went up to 15.9 per cent with one seat. However, in the Assembly elections in 1996 it could manage 10.4 per cent votes winning four seats. In the 2001 Assembly elections in alliance with the AGP the party bagged eight seats and 35.8 per cent votes. In the 2004 general elections the BJP won two seats and in the 2006 Assembly elections won 12 seats with a vote-share of 11.98 per cent. Like elsewhere in India, initially the BJP allied with the regional party, AGP, in the 2006 Assembly elections and 2009 general elections. In the 2014 general elections by winning seven seats (of the total 14 seats) and securing a vote-share of 36.86 per cent the BJP gradually emerged as a credible alternative to the Congress in the 2016 Assembly elections. In the February 2015 municipal polls the BJP made a clean sweep winning 21 municipal boards and 24 town committees compared to the 2009 elections when it won only five municipal boards and 11 town committees.
The BJP’s growth in the State’s politics can be seen in the context of the anti-incumbency against the three consecutive term of the Congress Government and the declining promi-nence of the AGP as an ethno-regional party. In the recent past the State witnessed the erosion of ethno-regional nationalism championed by the AGP in the eighties. It needs to be stated that the Assam movement (1979-84) sowed the seeds of ethno-regionalism which witnessed the emergence of the AGP making inroads into the State politics eroding the Congress’ mass base. The AGP, which came to power with the cause of ‘Asomiya Nationality’ and the issue of illegal migration, in course of time diluted its stand on Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 due to the compulsions of electoral politics. As a result, there was growing disillusionment among the Hindus against the AGP; this created a fertile ground for the BJP in Assam. Over time, the BJP used the issue of illegal migration of Muslims for expanding its mass base in the State. As Srikanth argues, “the politics of regional identity had kept Hindutva at bay in Assam for over two decades. But the AGP Government’s poor performance and the bogey of Muslim fundamentalism led Bengali and Assamese caste Hindus to the BJP.” (Srikanth, 1999, p. 3412) As a result, the AGP, the prominent regional political force, is declining in the State. Moreover, the AGP’s alliance with the BJP in the 2006 Assembly and 2009 Lok Sabha elections cost more to the AGP. The BJP could grow at the expense of the declining political space of the AGP. It is argued that the traditional support-base of the AGP—the Assamese Hindus, the Assamese Muslim and tribals— gradually shifted their allegiance to other political parties. (Mahanta, 2014, p. 20) The regional agenda of the AGP, especially detection and deportation of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, was hijacked by the BJP. In the recent past, many leaders of the AGP joined the BJP adding further boost to the BJP in the State. In December 2015, the BJP constituted its campaign panel for the Assembly elections 2016 with a number of former All Assam Students Union (AASU), AGP leaders.
Diminution of the Congress
The three consecutive terms of the Tarun Gogoi Government witnessed a strong wave of anti-incumbency and charges of corruption. During the tenure of the Gogoi regime there were many clashes in the Bodo areas in the State, especially between the Bodos and Muslims. The growing resentment against the persisting frequent clashes and the civil administration’s failure to rehabilitate the victims of clashes was a further blow to the Gogoi administration. When the Assembly elections were approaching and the BJP was chalking out its strategy to win the elections in the State, the Congress faced disarray within the party and government. In the recent past, many Congress legislators joined the BJP.
In August 2015, in a big embarrassment to the State Congress, former Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma joined the BJP. Himanta, who was Tarun Gogoi’s trusted aide, was disillus-ioned with the Congress due the realisation that his political ambition to become the Chief Minister of the State was dashed by the Congress as Gogoi was promoting his son, Gaurav Gogoi. While contesting such an argument Assam Congress leader Kishore Bhattacharjee said that “Gaurav’s entry into politics has no role in their differences. It started way back when (now Congress MLA) Pijush Hazarika was elected the Assam Pradesh Youth Congress President in June 2008. Then there were speculations in 2012 that Tarun Gogoi would resign as the Chief Minister and become the country’s Vice-President. Sharma was really hoping to become the Chief Minister.”2 Further, a section of the Congress questioned Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi for promoting his son, the Lok Sabha MP, as his political heir in the State.
The Repeal of IM(DT) Act, 1983
The appointment of Sarbananda Sonowal, the Union Minister of State for Sports, as the President of the State BJP gave further boost to the saffron party. Sonowal, the former leader of the AASU and subsequently MLA of the AGP, switched over to the BJP some time back; he is a crusader against illegal migration of Bangladeshis in Assam. In 2012, he accused the illegal migrants of deteriorating the life of the indigenous people of Assam. He said that in the last 32 years the indigenous people of Assam have been cornered and pushed to the status of minority due to the huge influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.3
The illegal migration from Bangladesh is a sensitive issue in Assam as it had far-reaching consequences in the political, economic and socio-cultural life of the people. It was one fo the biggest issues in the Assam elections since 1985. As stated earlier, the Assam movement projected the demand for the detection and deportation of illegal migrants (often called ‘foreigners’) in the State. In its effort to end the movement, the Indian Government formulated the IM(DT) Act 1983 to protect the interest of Assam. According to the Act, anybody settled in Assam before March 25, 1971 was a legal citizen. However, in the rest of India, the cut-off date for acquiring Indian citizenship is July 9, 1948. Further, the person accused had to do nothing to prove his/her citizenship whereas the complainant had to prove that someone was staying illegally. The Act also provides special protections against undue harassment to the minorities affected by Assam agitation. The Act is applicable only to Assam while the other States in India are covered by the Foreigners Act, 1946. The essential provision of the Act was designed to make it difficult for authorities to identify, leave alone deport, illegal Bangladeshi from Assam.
In a petition filed by Sarbananda Sonowal, who was with the AGP, it was contended that the IM(DT) is only encouraging vote-bank politics without addressing the problem of illegal migrants. In July 2005, the Supreme Court observed that the Act was the biggest barrier to deportation of the illegal migrants from the State. The Supreme Court, in its 114-page judgment, stated that “the Act has created the biggest hurdle and is the main impediment or barrier in the identification and deportation of illegal migrants”. Further, it observed that “the presence of such a large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, which runs into millions, in fact is an aggression on the State of Assam and also contributed significantly in causing serious internal disturbances in the shape of insurgency of alarming proportions”.4
The repeal of the IM(DT) Act by the Supreme Court in 2005 further communally polarised the State. While both the BJP and AGP welcomed the Court verdict, the Muslim communities expressed their anguish. The BJP claimed that ‘discriminatory’ Act failed to effectively identify and deport illegal migrants in the State but the Supreme Court’s observation was a setback to the Congress which was using this for vote-bank politics. After the Supreme Court verdict, the BJP took out a rally in Guwhati in July 2005 demanding the deportation of all illegal Bangladeshi nationals from Assam. It has to be recalled that the RSS and BJP supported the Assam movement to end the illegal migration in the State. Over a period of time, the party shared the sentiments of the AGP on the issue of illegal migration and supported this provision in the Assam Accord of 1984 between the AASU and the Rajiv Gandhi Government.
The Supreme Court’s invalidation of the IM(DT) Act was viewed by the AIUDF as the inability of the Congress to defend the Act. However, foreseeing the possible minority resentment against the Congress which had to face the Assembly elections in 2006, the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, constituted a Group of Ministers to examine the fall-out of the repeal of the IM(DT) Act, particularly its impact on minorities. The BJP and AGP criticised this action and described it as the backdoor entry of the Act.
Even after ten years of repeal of the IM(DT) Act, the issue continues to haunt the politics of the State. The BJP accused the Congress of following a policy of appeasement which created grave security implications for the country. It said the large-scale intrusion of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants had significantly altered the demographic complexion of the North-Eastern States and had serious long-term political, social and economic implications.5 In September 2012, Ram Madhav, the RSS leader, said that “we need to detect and defranchise the Bangladeshi infiltrators from the country. There is very little done by the Central Government to deport them, just one per cent per five days, though the rate of infiltration is about 6000 per day”.6 The BJP’s Vision Document released before the General Election 2014 contained a separate section on the North-East which promised to put an end to infiltration from Bangladesh and vigorously pursue the three D formula—Detect, Delete and Deport (illegal migrants from Assam).7 The BJP’s Assam Vision Document for the 2016 Assembly elections also promised to crack down on infiltration and to seal the Indo-Bangla border. It accused the Congress of destroying and changing the demography of the State by encouraging infiltration. The document also promised stringent action against industries and businesses which employ illegal migrants.
In his visit to Assam on April 26, 2015, the BJP President asserted: “Bangladeshi infiltrators have taken away everything. They have taken away land of the Assamese people. They have taken away your jobs. They have eaten into the development funds. Yet the Congress Govern-ment does not have the guts to touch them. It is only the BJP which can free Assam from the clutches of the Bangladeshis.”8 He also took credit for the process of updating the National Register of Citizens currently going on in the State and said the NDA Government had earmarked Rs 140 crores to the State for this purpose. In his opinion, “once the NRC is revised and updated, all the Bangladeshi infiltrators will be exposed”. Accusing the Congress of not stopping illegal migration as it is playing vote-bank politics, the BJP President promised to stop illegal migration of Bangladeshis into Assam.9 Setting the agenda for the campaign for the elections, Shah was categorical that the “next elections will be fought on this issue. Assam polls will be for freeing the State of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Assam polls will also be for development of Assam and North-East.”
The BJP often depicts a majority of the Muslims as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh who cause imbalance to the State’s demography and socio-cultural mosaic of the State.
Setting aside its national agenda and issues, the BJP was able to rake up regional issues such as illegal migration, detection and deportation of foreigners which were once raised by the AGP. In fact, the BJP hijacked the regional agenda of the AGP, especially on the issue of illegal migrants. However, though the BJP rakes up the migration issue, it only focuses on the Muslims not the Bengali Hindus whom it considers as its support-base. The BJP, while criticising the illegal migration from Bangladesh, in the recent past took another turn on this issue. The party now welcomed the migration of Hindus from Bangladesh stating that those Hindus who face religious persecution in that country would be accommodated in India and given citizenship. Shah in his visit to the State even asserted that the BJP would provide all support to Hindus who came to India due to religious persecution and promised that the Hindu refugees from Bangladesh will be given Indian citizenship if the BJP came to power in Assam in the 2016 Assembly elections. The communal fervour of the BJP is explicat when it is a critic of the Muslim migrants, and takes the burden of supporting Hindus who came to India because of the so-called harassment and religious discrimination. The saffron party’s surprise move, however, created certain resentment in the State when organisations such as the AASU and Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Saba Parishad (AJYCP) alleged that it was in fact diluting its stand on the Bangladeshi migration problem. However, some sections of the State BJP feel that this would lead to the alienation of educated and middle class Assamese away from the party.
For quite some time, Assam is passing through a critical political juncture in which the linguistic chauvinism and ethnic regiona-lism which dominated for decades were overshadowed by the growing tendencies of communal mobilisation. The growing communal polarisation between Bodos and the Muslim minority groups leads to frequent ethnic killings. The Bodo Kacharis, which constitute the largest tribal group in Assam and which account for 38 per cent of the total population of the State, were instigated against the Muslim population in the Bodo areas of the State. However, the BJP’s communal polarisation between migrant Muslims and Assamese-speaking Hindus and the tribal communities and migrants paid political dividends to the party.
The astounding victory of the BJP in Assam gave some relief to the ruling dispensation at the Centre after its stunning defeats in the Delhi and Bihar Assembly elections. Rather than seeing it as a victory for Narendra Modi, the result can be viewed as the consequence of communal polarisation, strong anti-incumbency and the vacuum created by the absence of regional forces and secular alternatives in the State. In a closely fought election, regional issues rather than national issues figured throughout the election campaign. The emotive issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration once again assumed the centre-stage in the political domain and gave more political dividends to the BJP. However, the real challenge of the first ever BJP Government in the North-East depends on its approach towards preserving the cultural diversity of the State.
1. The Economic Times, April 13, 2015.
2. The Assam Tribune, August 28, 2014.
3. see Organiser September 16, 2012.
4. “IMDT Act is the biggest barrier to deportation, says Supreme Court”, The Hindu, July 14, 2005.
5. See BJP (2006), “Achievements and Looking Ahead; 1980- 2005", Vol. 9, New Delhi.
6. See Organiser, September 16, 2012.
7. See BJP (2014), Vision Document, 2014.
8. “Amit Shah in Guwahati: Get ready to ‘oust Congress’ in 2016 Assam assembly polls”, The Indian Express, April 28, 2015.
9. “Only BJP can free Assam from illegal immigration, Amit Shah”, The Economic Times, April 27, 2015.
Bhattacharjee, Malini, 2016; ‘Tracing the Emergence and Consolidation of Hindutva in Assam’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. LI, No. 16, 30, 16 April, pp. 80-87.
Mahanta, Nani Gopal, 2014; ‘Lok Sabha Elections in Assam: Shifting of Traditional Vote Bases to BJP’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLIX, No. 35, August 30, pp. 19-22.
Srikanth, H, 1999; ‘Communalising Assam: AGP’s Loss Is BJP’s Gain’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XXXIV, No. 49, December 4, pp. 3412-3414.
Dr V. Bijukumar is an Associate Professor, Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org