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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 26 New Delhi June 18, 2016

Assam Election Results: Major Implications for the Crucial North-Eastern State

Saturday 18 June 2016

by Amitava Mukherjee

More than the party-wise tally and the installation of the BJP-led government in Dispur, the actual implications of the recently concluded Assam election results lie in the stark pointers to shifting social dynamics and the possibility of a mutual distrust in Indo-Bangladesh relations as Sarbananda Sonowal, the new Chief Minister of Assam, has vowed to completely seal the Indo-Bangladesh border within two years. No doubt Sonowal has a right to do so and reason may be on his side too on this issue. But his statement has generated mistrust across the border. On the whole the BJP’s victory in Assam is being keenly watched by political observers as any maverick approach by the RSS-dominated Hindutva outfit may upset the fragile racial balance in at least five strategically important States of the North-East.

It will be interesting to watch how the Asom Gana Parishad(AGP) adjusts itself to the Central Government’s decision to regularise the entry and stay of the minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan on humanitarian grounds, meaning religious persecution in these countries. It is also a conundrum how the Assamese middle class in spite of its long history of chauvinism and little nationalism could embrace the BJP with open arms even as the latter starts exhibiting soft corners for a certain section of immigrants from Bangladesh.

Perhaps the Assam Congress had lost all credibility well before the elections and the shabby treatment that Himanta Biswa Sharma, the former Assam Congress leader, had received at the hands of the central leadership of the Congress, had dealt a blow to Assamese pride. It had become the talk of the town in Guwahati that Himanta was not only kept waiting for a long time when he had gone to Delhi with certain grievances against the Assam Pradesh Congress but a particular top functionary of the party had also rudely behaved with Himanta.

Although the pre-election atmosphere in Assam was too much sensitive this time, yet it has to be admitted that the minority community responded with restraint. Perhaps Tarun Gogoi had anticipated this and therefore he refrained from striking any alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal. It is entirely a different thing that the Muslims, constituting 34 per cent of Assam’s population, and the tea tribes, commanding nearly 35 lakh votes, have completely jettisoned the Congress and sided with the BJP in this year’s Assembly elections.

The last parliamentary elections of 2014 had, however, left ample signs that the BJP will romp home in 2016. From one per cent vote in the 1985 Assembly elections, the BJP showed signs of ascendancy in the 2006 Assembly elections by capturing 12 per cent votes. In the 2009 Lok Sabha poll its share of vote jumped up to 16 per cent and the party captured four Lok Sabha seats. Although in the 2011 Assembly elections it experienced a slight reversal of fortune, the party came out with flying colours in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll when it captured 36 per cent votes and seven out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats from Assam.

Three factors—changing social dynamics of Assam leaving the Congress behind, the BJP’s success in stitching up a coalition with the AGP and Bodo People’s Front (BPF), and the all- pervasive threatening spectre of infiltration from Bangladesh—have combined to hand over a convincing win to the BJP-led conglomeration on a platter. Tarun Gogoi’s failure to come to terms with the AGP has proved to be dear and the Congress may have to pay the price for a long time to come for this mistake. Although the AGP commanded only 3.7 per cent votes in the 2014 parliamentary poll, yet its relevance in Assam politics is immense. Still the AGP with its call for regionalism has a solid influence over the Assamese Hindu middle class which controls the politics of entire upper and central Assam. Moreover numerous indigenous communities living on both sides of the Brahmaputra river still consider the AGP as a sincere protector of their interests.

In this type of a situation the man who could have tilted the balance in favour of the Congress was Hiimanta Biswa Sharma. In his absence the Congress could not match the BJP’s efficiency in seeking coalition partners. Although Tarun Gogoi had initially hooked a certain section of the AGP, led by its legislative party leader Phani-bhusan Chowdhury, yet the table was ultimately turned against the Congress by the more powerful section of the AGP, led by Atul Bora, who used to maintain good equations with the BJP.

The BJP’s victory in Assam should not surprise the political watchers. It was on the cards. Having been used to winning consecutive Assam Assembly elections from 2001, the Congress became oblivious of some fundamental changes that had meanwhile occurred in Assam’s body politic. One such factor is the growing urbanisation of the State during the last ten years. In the last parliamentary poll 45 per cent of urban voters voted for the BJP while only 18 per cent had voted for the Congress. This wide chasm has been repeated in this year’s Assembly poll also. The electoral arithmetic is likely to reveal that the AIUDF, by contesting 60 odd seats, has ensured defeats of many Congress candidates. But a new feature of this year’s elections is that a significant number of Muslim votes have been transferred to the BJP-led alliance. It is true that the Bengali-speaking Muslims of lower Assam have not supported the AIUDF the way it was expected and a good number of their votes have gone back to the Congress. But the same cannot be said about the Assamese-speaking Muslims of upper Assam although during the last parliamentary poll this section of minority voters had stood behind the Congress.

Tarun Gogoi is now over 80 years of age and if the Congress cannot put up a credible substitute to him in the near future then the party’s future is bleak. During the run-up to the elections the Congress had floated the name of Pawan Singh Ghatowar, a leader from the tea tribe community, as the next Chief Minister if the party was voted to power. That Ghatowar’s name cut no ice is borne out by the poll result. In all probability the Congress in Assam is heading towards a leadership crisis.

Whether one agrees with it or not, the BJP’s victory in Assam is the result of a very mature political management. The BJP’s task was made easier by the presence of the AGP and BPF in its fold. The BPF won 12 seats but influenced results in 30 other constituencies where the Bodos have votes ranging from 5000 to 50,000.

The author is a senior journalist and commentator.