Mainstream, VOL LIV No 37 New Delhi September 3, 2016
Assam Elections: Looking at the Complexities
Monday 5 September 2016
by Nazimuddin Siddique
In the recently concluded Assembly elections of Assam, the heterogeneous society of the North-Eastern State has accorded majority mandate to the Bharatiya Janata Party (henceforth the BJP), a party which essentially promotes religious homogeneity over social heterogeneity.
The elections have remained significant on multiple fronts. Firstly, the elections were essentially contested on the premise of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ or ‘self’ versus ‘other’. Secondly, the mandate is marked by a major shift of votes to the BJP from the Congress and other regional parties, signifying an unprecedented maiden victory of the former, in the history of Assembly elections of Assam. Thirdly, the successful alliance that the BJP formed with two regional chauvinist parties of the State, compounded with the failure on the part of the Congress to form an alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (henceforth the AIUDF), proved crucial to the win of the BJP vis-à-vis the miserable defeat of the Congress. This paper endeavours to delve into the underlying dimensions, and investigate the factors responsible for the outcome of the elections.
Assam has 126 Assembly seats and the elections were conducted in two phases—the first phase was held on April 4 for 65 constituencies and the second phase followed on April 11 for 61 constituencies. The elections witnessed a massive turnout of voters which amounted to 83.9 per cent of the total electors of the State and a triangular contest among three fronts. On the first front were the BJP and its allies, that is, the Bodoland Peoples Front (henceforth the BPF) and Asom Gana Parisad (henceforth the AGP). On the second front was the Congress and the third front was the AIUDF. In terms of geographic formation, Assam can be divided into three segments—Upper Assam, Lower Assam and the Barak Valley. The contest in Upper Assam was fundamentally between the Congress and the BJP combine. While in Lower Assam, by and large, the contest was between the Congress and AIUDF,1 in the Barak Valley the contest was virtually between all the three fronts. The BJP contested the elections playing the ‘outsiders’ card coloured with communal hatred, while the Congress relied on its credentials of fifteen years of development. The AIUDF, on the contrary, contested the elections with the claim to be the saviour of the minorities of the State. The confidence level of the BJP rose sky-high as the party had recorded a massive win of seven seats, out of the total fourteen Lok Sabha seats of Assam in the parliamentary elections of 2014.2
The result of the elections was declared on May 19 with the BJP as the party with the highest number of seats. The party has won 60 seats, and the stupendous rise of the party in the State became even more palpably evident given the fact that in the elections of 2011 it could win only five seats. (See Table 1)
The Congress, the party which fared miserably, had won 78 seats in the 2011 elections and the number of seats had gotten reduced to a meagre 26 in this year’s elections. Two regional parties, the AGP and BPF, having won 14 and 12 seats respectively, by and large have performed in a consistent manner since the last Assembly elections. The AIUDF, whose chief Badaruddin Ajmal, was expected to be the ‘kingmaker’ in the elections, could manage only 13 seats in his account, and his party performed poorer than in the 2011 elections, when it had won 18 seats. (See Table 2)
Source: Election Commission of India.
In the elections, the Congress has recorded a perceptable decline in the percentage of the vote-share vis-à-vis the Assembly elections of 2011. (See Table 3) Nonetheless, among all the political parties the Congress has polled the highest percentage of votes in the elections with 31.3 per cent of the vote-share. On the contrary, a sharp rise in the percentage of votes is visible on the BJP’s account, in comparison with the last Assembly elections. The percentage of votes polled by other regional parties remained, by and large, identical to that of the last Assembly elections.
The issue of the ‘outsider’ or ‘illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’ has occupied the centre-stage of the politics of the State since the 1980s. Now the question is: who are these ‘illegal immigrants’? Officially, the migrants who have come to Assam across the international border of Bangladesh, post-March 24, 1971, are illegal immigrants or ‘Bangladeshis’. But in the majoritarian political discourse of the State, the entire community of East Bengal origin—Muslims—is viewed as ‘Bangladeshi’.
The history of Assam is marked by the history of migration of different socio-ethnic groups. Ludden (2003) locates Assam as the region which has hosted ‘in-migration’ of ‘different generations and collection of settlers each century, from prehistoric times’. In this line the last significant wave of migration took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, of the peasants of East Bengal, inter alia. (See Hussain 1993) Most of these peasants were Muslims and presently known as East-Bengal origin Muslims of Assam. Arguably, this social group has contributed significantly towards enriching the economy, literature, and culture of the society of Assam. This particular community’s acceptance of Assamese as their mother tongue has strengthened the language and thus it is recognised as the language spoken by the majority of the population in the State. This is not to mention that over the decades the community has assimilated with the Assamese culture; in other words, they Assamised themselves comprehensively. Nonetheless, the irony is that this community has been labelled as the ‘other’ in Assam for long. Bauman (1991:8) explicates ‘the other’ as woman is the other of man, animal is the other of human, stranger is the other of native, abnormality is the other of norm, deviation is the other of law abiding, illness is the other of health, insanity is the other of reason, lay public is the other of expert, foreigner is the other of State subject, enemy is the other of friend.
The binary of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ in the interplay of various social groups positions the ‘self’ as the superior social group, while the ‘other’ is the inferior one; additionally, the latter is perceived as outsider to the society of the former. Not to mention that the ‘other’ is the suppressed, marginalised, exploited, degraded and ignored as the inferior social category. In Assam, the process of ‘othering’ got sharpened during the 1980s when the infamous and violent Assam Movement 3 started and whose ‘methods’ were ‘double-faced and proto-fascist’. (Guha 1980) Theoretically the movement was against the ‘illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’, but in essence, this was a movement against the entire community of Bengali origin peasants. Gradually but unmistakably a ‘fear psychosis’ has been implanted ‘into the Asamiya mind of being outnumbered’ by the East Bengal origin Muslims in due course. (Ibid.) The anger, thus roused, surged to the point that multiple massacres took place in the State, the deadliest being the Nellie massacre, where no less than 3000 people from this marginalised community—mostly women and children—were brutally butchered to death in a single day. (See Siddique 2014) It is fundamentally on the premise of this ‘fear psychosis’ issue that the AGP came to the power for two terms, but the party couldn’t solve the ‘Bangladeshi’ problem. It is noteworthy to mention here that Borooah (2013) has aptly argued that the Muslim immigration from Bangladesh is a phenomenon blown out of proportions and is nothing more than a myth.
It was again this complex ‘fear psychosis’ of the Asamiya Hindus which was used in the 2016 elections by the BJP with utter cunningness. Hindutva is at the forefront of the BJP agenda, and, in the campaign the BJP has obstreperously labelled the East Bengal origin Muslims as the ‘other’, and further deepened the divide by labelling them as ‘invaders’ of Assam. The party went to the extent of terming the election as the “Last Battle of Saraighat” and urged the people to save the State from ‘Muslim invasion’.4 East Bengal origin Muslims, who are the majority constituent of the Muslims of Assam, were unapologetically labelled as ‘Bangladeshis’ or ‘outsiders’ during the entire campaign with the help of the vernacular media of the State. Furthermore, in the election discourse, the AIUDF was termed as the party of the ‘Bangladeshis’ by the ‘little-nationalists’ of the State.5 This strategy of spreading communal hatred by the BJP proved successful yet again, and helped unify and bring the Bengali and Assamese Hindu electors into its fold.
Clout of Alliance
Earlier this year, in the Assembly elections of Bihar, the BJP got clumsily defeated by the mahagathbandhan—a JD(U), RJD and Congress combine. The party had learned a pronounced lesson from the setback it received in those elections, and was determined to set up an alliance prior to the Assembly elections of Assam. Therefore, the party meticulously stitched together a pre-poll alliance with the two chauvinist parties of Assam, that is, the AGP and the BPF, and the alliance formation proved to be a major factor for the BJP combine’s win. Selection of Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate was accepted by its alliance parties without any contestation, and the same emerged as a fruitful decision for the party. As mentioned earlier, the BJP-led alliance has won a total of 86 seats in the elections. The AGP had suffered substantial decline in the earlier elections, and had virtually nothing to lose in the recent polls. Nonetheless, the party holds multiple reliable bastions and support-bases, which benefited the BJP. Though the AGP had been on the threshold of a natural death, it survived due to its robust organisational struc-tures at the grassroots level in numerous parts of the State. The organisational structure of the BJP at the grassroots level was not as robust as the AGP, and the alliance facilitated the former to utilise the organisational units of the latter. The BPF is largely composed of the ‘former cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), a dreaded ruthless militant group that once blazed its name with massacres and acts of extreme terror’. (Gohain 2008) The party had been consistent in showing its strength in the districts of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD). (See Siddique 2015)
In a contrasting scenario, the Congress and AIUDF failed to form a pre-poll alliance, which contributed enormously towards the gloomy debacle of both the parties. The Congress didn’t pay heed to the call for forming an alliance by the AIUDF, for it was scared of losing the votes of the chauvinist forces of the State. The division of votes between the Congress and AIUDF has directly ensured the win of the BJP candidates in no less than 17 seats. These seats are Barchalla, Barkhetry, Barkhola, Barpeta, Batadroba, Bilashipara East, Golakanj, Gossaigaon, Katigorah, Lumding, Mangaldoi, Nowgong, Patharkandi, Raha, Ratabari, Sonai and Udharbond. Additionally, excessive division of secular votes in some constituencies too has contributed towards the victory of the BJP, a case in point being Sarbhog. Out of the 26 seats the Congress has won in the elections, no less than 13 seats have been won from constituencies where the Muslims are in a majority. These constituencies include Chenga, Dalgaon, Goalpara East, Goalpara West, Jania, Laharighat, Rupohihat, Abhayapuri North, Mankachar, Samaguri, Sarukhetri etc. This significantly underscores the shift of a significant number of Muslim votes from the AIUDF to the Congress.
Chaos in Congress
The chaos in the Congress too, especially in the last five years of its tenure, has contributed fairly to the unprecedented success of the BJP. The Congress Government could commit little time towards the governance of the State, as it was too busy in handling the internal feuds of the party. The fight between the Tarun Gogoi faction with the dissident faction led by Himanta Biswa Sarma pitched the entire administration into chaos for a significant period, till its last days, and the voters got rancorously disenchanted with the altercation. The central leadership too failed, or didn’t pay any heed to contain the party dissidents. The fundamental reason behind this prolonged fracas was allegedly the dynastic politics of the Congress, or of Tarun Gogoi to be precise. Tarun Gogoi contested the ambition of Himanta to be the next Chief Minister, and was preparing the ground for Gaurav Gogoi, his own son, as his successor. This made Himanta disconcerted and disenchanted and he eventually left the party to join the BJP, which proved catastrophic for the Congress. Severe misrule of the State administration followed as a consequence to the chaos, and profoundly contributed to the BJP’s success in the State.
From the above discussion it becomes obvious that multiple factors can be identified as responsible for the victory of the BJP. The ‘othering’ of the Muslims, along with its divisive Hindutva agenda was accepted by a significant section of the people of the State, which translated into the victory of the BJP combine. The defeat of the Congress has given a humongous setback to the party not only in the State but even in the national stage. The Congress’ vote-bank in Upper Assam got eroded in favour of the BJP thereby ensuring its humiliating defeat. The AIUDF won 18 seats in the 2011 elections; these have been reduced to 13 in these elections. The defeat of the party supremo, Badaruddin Ajmal, can be viewed as a strong message—not to take the Muslim votes for granted. Unfortunately Ajmal has been notoriously involved in dynastic politics by promoting multiple members of his family as MPs and MLAs, and this definitely made the voters highly disenchanted. The AIUDF extended its candidature to many constituencies of Upper Assam, where it has almost no support-base, and this proved significantly detrimental for the Congress and conclusively helped the saffron party in the elections.
A major section of the ‘indigenous’ people of Assam has been xenophobic regarding the ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ for decades. Nonetheless, these people have voted for the BJP, the party which has proposed to facilitate settlement the illegal Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh—with Indian citizenship. Is it a manifestation of the amalgamation of ‘Assamese identity’ with the Hindu identity? This remains an open question.
1. In most of the constituencies of Lower Assam, primarily the contest was between the AIUDF and Congress but in numerous constituencies the BJP emerged victorious on account of the high division of votes between the two parties.
2. In this paper we have deliberately not focused on the ascendency chapter of the BJP in Assam. The influence of the BJP got increased with the consolidation of Hindutva in the State. The same has been discussed at length by Bhattacharjee (2016).
3. This movement ‘propelled unprecedented terror and counter-terror’ in the State. For details, see Hussain (1993, 2000).
4. The battle of Saraighat was fought between the Mughals and Ahoms in 1671. This was never a Hindu versus Muslim battle, as the Moghul side was led by Raja Ram Singh—who was a Hindu; on the other hand, one the main fighters of the Ahom General, Lachit Barphukon, was a Muslim, namely, Bagh Hazarika, also known as Ismail Siddique. For details of the battle, see Gait (2008).
5. I borrow the term ‘little-nationalist’ from Guha (1980).
1. Bauman, Z. (1991), Modernity and Ambivalence, Cambridge: Polity Press.
2. Bhattacharjee, Malini (2016), “Tracing the Emergence and Consolidation of Hindutva in Assam”, Economic and Political Weekly, April 16.
3. Borooah, Vani Kant (2013), “The Killing Fields of Assam: Myth and Reality of Its Muslim Immigration”, Economic and Political Weekly, January 26.
4. Gait, Sir Edward (2008), A History of Assam, Guwahati: EBH Publishers (India).
5. Gohain, Hiren (2008), “Once More on Ethnicity and the North-East”, Economic and Political Weekly, May 24.
6. Guha, Amalendeu (1980), “Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist: Assam’s Anti-Foreigner Upsurge, 1979-80”, Special Number, October, 1980, Economic and Political Weekly.
7. Ludden, David (2003), “Where is Assam? Using Geographical History to Locate Current Social Realities” (CENISEAS Papers 1: Sanjib Baruah Series Editor), Guwahati : Centre for Northeast India South and Southeast Asia Studies, OKD Institute of Social Change and Development.
8. Hussain, Monirul (1993), The Assam Movement, Class, Ideology & Identity, Delhi: Manak Publications Pvt. Ltd.
9. ——— (2000), “State, Identity Movements and Internal Displacement in the North-East”, Economic and Political Weekly, December 16.
10. Siddique, Nazimuddin (2014), “Massacre in Assam: Explaining the Latest Round”, Economic and Political Weekly, May 31.
11. ——— (2015) “Bodoland Territorial Area District Elections 2015“, Economic and Political Weekly, August 1.
Nazimuddin Siddique is a Ph.D Student, Department of Sociology, Gauhati University. He can be contacted at e-mail: nazim10dream[at]gmail.com