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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 29 New Delhi July 9, 2016

Outcome of Assam Elections and its Impact on Other North-Eastern States

Saturday 9 July 2016

by Kadayam Subramanian

The BJP, which fared badly in the recently concluded State Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Union Territory of Puducherry, nevertheless did remarkably well in the Assam State Assembly elections. The party won 86 out of 126 seats in the State Assembly with its allies—the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Organi-sation (BPO). The reasons for the remarkable success call for an analysis.

The basic issue of contestation in the 2016 electoral battle in Assam related, among others, to illegal immigration from neighbouring over-populated Bangladesh. The issue has led to continuous political conflict and turmoil in the State since 1947, when the partition of India led to the emergence of Pakistan and then again the division of Pakistan in 1971, which led to the emergence of Bangladesh in the North-East.

The Assam movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s led to the enactment of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983 to check and eliminate illegal migration of population from Bangladesh into Assam. In 2005, the Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of India, which said that it had resulted in ‘massive illegal migration’ from Bangladesh to Assam and had created ‘insurmountable difficulties in the identification of unauthorised immigrants’. The Supreme Court was responding to a Public Interest Litigation filed by Sarbananda Sonowal, the present Chief Minister of Assam who was then a leader of the All Assam Students Union (AASU).

During the 2016 election campaign, Sonowal, as a BJP Member of Parliament, promised to usher in a ‘Khilonjia Sarkar’ or a government of indigenous people, if he came to power, which went down well with the people.

The previous two State governments led by the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), a party which had arisen from the Assam Movement of the 1980s, had failed to do much to address the problem of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. It remains to be seen whether Chief Minister Sonowal of the just set-up BJP Government of Assam would be able to do anything significant about the complicated issue.

India’s ruling BJP repackaged its core ‘Hindutva’ agenda in the Assamese context and took an inflexible stance on the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and chose the local leaders from Assam to lead the election campaign. It did not quibble about ideology. Sarbananda Sonowal, a local leader, had been proclaimed as ‘jatiyo nayak’ (national hero) by the Assamese middle class for his successful effort in getting a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court judgement on the IMDT Act declaring it ‘unconstitutional’; he was selected to lead the BJP-led ruling coalition government.

The charismatic and able Congress party dissident and former Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s close colleague, Himanta Biswa Sarma, was recruited to the BJP to supply organisational inputs with his established talents. Further, the party discarded its overcentralised model of electioneering and went with the local leadership’s assessment on alliances and candidates. The party openly positioned itself as the protector of the ‘khilonjias’ and indigenous Assamese identity and interests and appealed to both Hindus and Muslims. But it astutely whipped up the fear of Badruddin Ajmal, the leader of the Muslim-centric All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), in order to prevent the Opposition Congress party from taking advantage of the situation and collaborating with him. This had an effect on the Hindus of the Barak Valley and caused a split in the Muslim vote.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s mentor, which has been active in Assam for a long time provided support for the BJP’s election campaign with its 22 front organisations and over 100,000 volunteers. The BJP successfully produced a Hindu-Muslim political polarisation and isolated the Congress party and AIUDF from mobilising the Muslims of Assam, the second largest community after the Hindus.

It inducted Prime Minister Narendra Modi into the electoral campaign only in the last stages of the contestation. It made sure that the chemistry of the electoral campaign, if not its arithmetic, went in its favour. It entered into an effective electoral alliance with the regional parties—the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Organisation (BPO).

Thus, the BJP, with 29.3 per cent of the vote- share, managed to bag 60 seats in the State Assembly for the party while the Congress party with 31 per cent of the vote, could muster only 26 seats.With the support of the AGP (14 seats) and the BPO (12 seats), the BJP had a tally of 86 seats out of the total 126 seats in the State Assembly.

The Muslim-dominated All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Badruddin Ajmal won 13 seats.

Surprisingly, the several ethnically divergent and mutually differing tribal groups in the State too voted for the BJP.

The corrupt, inefficient and dynastic Congress party, led by Tarun Gogoi, was out-manoeuvred in the State Assembly elections 2016. Hindus constitute over 60 per cent of Assam’s population and Muslims are over 34 per cent. This is a sharp and significant division.

The victorious BJP thus used two trump cards: i) the anti-incumbency wave against the corrupt and inefficient government led by Tarun Gogoi’s Congress party; and ii) the anti-immigration issue which weighs heavily with the Assamese middle class.

The immigration issue was highlighted in the BJP’s Vision Document.

A survey found that 75 per cent of Assamese Hindus and 68 per cent of Bengali Hindus saw the ‘illegal migration’ issue as important.

This remarkable Hindu coalescence around the BJP was, however, not matched by a counter-consolidation of Muslims behind any one party. In a State where Muslims constitute 34 per cent of the population, Muslim voters were divided.

While language has ceased to be a factor in determining Hindu political preferences, it continues to be a factor with Muslims. Whereas two-thirds of Assamese-speaking Muslims voted for the Congress, among Bengali-speaking Muslims, the vote was divided almost equally between the Congress and AIUDF.

The Hindu-Muslim divide was thus so strong that it overpowered every other identity, social characteristic or political opinion. The survey’s questions on political matters elicited diame-trically opposite answers. As high as 76 per cent Muslims were satisfied with the Congress Government’s performance, as opposed to just 47 per cent Hindus.

Hindu preference for Sarbananda Sonowal as the Chief Minister was 15 times more than the preference for him among Muslims. This diver-gence among Hindu and Muslim preferences on political matters has been seen in the past Assam elections too, but never was the divide so sharp.

Of the seven States in the North-East of India, the ruling BJP is now in control of two States: Assam, the biggest State (population: 31 million) and Arunachal Pradesh, the second smallest State in population terms (1.3 million). The party’s control over the latter was established in controversial circumstances. There were defections from the then ruling Congress party and the State Governor played a partisan role.

Of the remaining five States in the region, three (Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram) are Congress-controlled just as Assam was before the elections; while Tripura is ruled by the Communists and Nagaland by the Naga People’s Front (NPF). It is far from clear whether the recent controversial Naga Peace Process would have an impact on the electoral processes in the State.

After its recent victory in the Assam elections, the BJP has set up the North-East Democratic Alliance under the party strategist and Assamese leader, Himanta Biswa Sarma, to activate party work across the region.

In Manipur elections are due next year. The BJP performed well in the previous November by-elections. It also did well by bagging 10 out of the 27 seats in the State capital Imphal Municipal Corporation elections; the Congress got 12 seats and Independents five. The party feels that this performance will help it in the State Assembly elections in 2017. The agitation in the valley for the introduction of inner line permit to prevent immigration is opposed in the Hills, which also demands Sixth Schedule provisions for the autonomous tribal districts. The BJP would have to mollify both groups in different ways to gain the upper hand in elections. The Manipur valley is predominantly Hindu and the Hills are Christian. How the BJP/RSS will deal with these differences would be interesting to watch.

In Meghalaya too there is an internal revolt in the ruling Congress party which the BJP will try to take advantage of to gain power. Mizoram (population: one million) too suffers from internal dissensions though it appears to have a stable Congress Government right now.

The ruling political parties in the North-East (except in the Communist-ruled Tripura) often shift loyalties depending on who is in power at New Delhi: the Congress or BJP. They do this knowing fully well that governance in the region depends crucially on significant financial hand-outs from whichever party is in power in New Delhi. Since the BJP is in power at the Centre and has just won a major victory in the most populous State of the North-East, its magnetic attraction is likely to be greater.

The Lok Sabha in Parliament has 542 seats and the Rajya Sabha has 241 seats. The seven North-Eastern States have together 23 seats in the Lok Sabha (Assam—13; Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura—two seats each; and Nagaland and Mizoram—one seat each). They have together 13 seats in the Rajya Sabha (Assam—7; and the six States—one each).

The then undivided State of Assam has given rise to the present tribal-majority States of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh in the North-East. Manipur (about three million) and Tripura (about 3.7 million) are former princely states which were integrated into India in 1949.

All the six States became autonomous States of the Indian Union in 1972. The total population of the seven North-Eastern States (about 45 million) can play an important role in shaping the course of Indian politics if they are united. This is at present not the case. All of them now compete for the Central Government’s attention.

Assam shares with other North-Eastern States the problems of insurgency, poverty, poor human development et al. Political change in Assam affects developments in the rest of the region.

Finally, the extremist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), with its lasting demand for independence from India, did not exercise much influence in the State Assembly elections, 2016.

The organisation today is divided into three factions, the Paresh Baruah, the Arabinda Rajkhowa and the Anup Chetia factions. The first is intransigent while the other two seem to have opted for a dialogue process with the Government of India.

In Manipur, which boasts of several still-active extremist groups, the government needs to address the persisting hill-valley divide. Though political benefits could occur in the long run, electoral benefits depend on immediate results.

Apart from Nagaland, the States of Mizoram and Meghalaya are Christian majority States. However, Manipur, like Assam, has a Hindu majority and could fall prey to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. The RSS too has a base in the districts of the Manipur valley.

The BJP has a presence of two members in the Manipur State Assembly. The party may benefit by supporting the demand amongst a section of the majority Meitei community for Scheduled Tribe status though the demand is opposed by the tribal communities in the Hills. The ruling Congress in Manipur, like its counterpart in Assam, completes three conse-cutive terms in office this year and will face anti-incumbency and corruption charges. The BJP’s success in the Assam elections will push the party’s fortunes forward in Manipur.

The author was a Director-General of Police in North-East India. He is the author of State, Policy and Conflicts in North-East India (Routledge, 2016).