With the Bihar Assembly election results now less than a week away, irrespective of how it does, the focus of the BJP will swing towards Assam, its next target. The term of the Assam House ends on June 5, 2016, and elections will likely be held in March or April, possibly along with elections to the Assemblies of West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, all of which will reach the end of their terms over the preceding two weeks. Of this clutch of states, it is only in Assam that the BJP stands a realistic chance of a shot at power.
The saffron party had, in fact, announced its “Mission 84” for Assam immediately after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, in which it won 7 of the 14 seats, reduced the Congress to an all-time low of 3 seats, and was the No. 1 party in 79 of the 126 Assembly segments. “We need 84 seats for a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, so we have named it Mission 84,” state BJP president Siddhartha Bhattacharyya said.
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The BJP is “unstoppable”, according to Bhattacharyya. “In just one year, the party’s membership in Assam has increased more than ten-fold from just about 2.5 lakh to over 27 lakh. Thirty-eight of the 74 urban local bodies are with us, including most major towns.” For the first time, the BJP had contested the Bodoland Territorial Council elections, and won a seat, he said.
Last month, the BJP formed the Tiwa Autonomous Council along with some independents and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and wrested the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council by causing defections in the Congress and getting several former DHD militants-turned-Council members on its side.
The party’s focus on the 2016 Assembly polls is clear. “We have committees up to the booth level, and have overtaken the Congress in this respect,” Bhattacharyya claimed. “And, most importantly, ABVP has won about 75% of posts in college and university students’ unions, which proves that we have established a connect with young and first-time voters,” he added. Last month, two prominent leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Sankar Prasad Roy and Tapan Kumar Gogoi, joined the BJP.
The party has been taking stock of its situation almost every month in each of the 126 Assembly constituencies. The RSS has been carrying out a similar exercise independently. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, on his part, ensured that there is at least one central minister in the state every week.
But can the BJP, which won only 5 seats in the 2011 Assembly elections, really do it? The Congress, which has won three consecutive Assembly elections since 2001, thinks not.
“You can’t fool the people every time. The people of Assam know how many false promises the BJP had made in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Modi had said Bangladeshi infiltrators would have to pack up after May 16 (2014). How many have left? Not one has been deported since the BJP came to power,” said Chief Minister and veteran Congress leader Tarun Gogoi.
But there are other facts too.
To begin with, the BJP defeated the Congress soundly in 2014 even though the people had chosen the latter in the Assembly polls three years earlier. Two, and more importantly, the BJP has dented Gogoi severely by taking away his once most-trusted lieutenant and former Health and Education Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma has in turn taken away hundreds of Congress workers across the state over the last couple of months. At least 9 MLAs from the Congress met BJP president Amit Shah in September.
The AGP, which too has lost several leaders to the BJP, feels the saffron party cannot win many seats because the people have been “cheated”. Sarbananda Sonowal, MoS (Independent Charge), Youth Affairs and Sports, in the Modi government, is a former AGP leader; other AGP leaders who have gone to the BJP over the past two years include Atul Bora (Sr), Chandra Mohan Patowari, Hitendra Nath Goswami, Jagadish Bhuyan, Pulakesh Barua, Hemanta Kalita, Queen Ojah, Bijan Mahajan and Padma Hazarika.
AGP president Atul Bora said Modi had only “carried out what Manmohan Singh had promised to Bangladesh”, and also given up its opposition to the Lower Subansiri dam being built on the Assam-Arunachal border.
“The latest is the worst,” Bora said. “While the people of Assam have been pressing for detecting and deporting lakhs of Bangladeshi infiltrators, the BJP government has issued a notification welcoming more of them in the name of protecting those affected by religious persecution in Bangladesh.”
But Bhattacharyya says there is little the BJP could do if Congress or AGP leaders wanted to join the BJP. “The common people are happy with what we have done so far. People wanted an end to the boundary issue with Bangladesh, and we have done it. People want Bangladeshis to go, and we have expedited the updation of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. You can’t throw people out overnight, there has to be a process.”
The Centre’s September 7 notification exempting persons of minority communities of Bangladesh and Pakistan from the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, is likely to persuade most Hindu Bengalis of Assam having roots in erstwhile East Pakistan to vote for the BJP.
But the BJP faces a few problems at home. A pronounced rift has existed between Bhattacharyya and union Minister Sonowal ever since the former became state party president. And despite being in Assam on the day the erstwhile Congress leader Sarma joined the BJP, Sonowal stayed away from the function. He has also been avoiding being seen alongside Sarma.