North by Northeast: What explains BJP’s stunning win in Assam?

Deft planning by the party, an Opposition that failed to notice trouble within its ranks, and the AIUDF that had hoped to be kingmaker but is nowhere in sight.

Written by Abantika Ghosh | Updated: May 24, 2016 5:59 pm
Assam elections, assam election results, Assam assembly elections 2016, BJP Assam election results 2016, India news The day after, the architects of the BJP’s win in Assam — (from left) Himanta Biswa Sarma, Sarbananda Sonowal and national general secretary Ram Madhav. (Express photo/Dasarath Deka)

After the drubbing Tarun Gogoi got at the hands of the BJP, the three-term octogenarian chief minister was compared in the local press to Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapur who, blind to his son’s failings, triggered the Mahabharata. It may perhaps sound like poetic justice then that Gogoi, who has had to battle charges of nepotism for promoting his son Gaurav, should be replaced by a bachelor, the BJP’s Sarbananda Sonowal.

It is also a sign of how far Assam politics has travelled that the BJP, which not too long ago was seen in these parts as a North Indian, Hindi-speaking party of outsiders, should emerge as the biggest gainer — from five seats in 2011 to 60. In an election fought on the issue of identity, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the original proponent of identity politics in Assam, has also come back in the reckoning, winning 14 seats.

Which is why, this was an election unlike any other this state has witnessed.

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Precision planning by BJP

The saffron party changed colours in Assam — and got its allies to change theirs. The BJP repackaged its core Hindutva agenda in the Assamese context till it became an unbending stance on illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

The party also freely chose its leaders from other parties without quibbling about ideologies. Its CM face, Sarbananda Sonowal, is the man who had once been anointed “jatiyo nayak (national hero)” after his PIL forced the quashing of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983. The law dates back to the era of Indira Gandhi and was widely believed to have been a Congress ruse to protect Bangladeshi immigrants who largely voted for the party.

No stranger therefore to the Assamese brand of identity politics, Sonowal cut his political teeth in the AGP, of which he had been both MLA and MP. He joined the BJP only in 2011.

The party also welcomed with open arms Himanta Biswa Sarma, one-time Gogoi lieutenant who quit the Congress in frustration over the rise of Gogoi’s son in the party.

While doing so, the BJP changed its over-centralised model of electioneering to make the state unit the most important cog in the wheel. Assam is a complex state and the high command went with the state leadership’s assessments on alliances rather than foisting decisions and candidates as it had done in recent elections in Bihar and Delhi.

“The entire election was managed by the state leadership — Sarbananda, Himanta and the MPs — who all worked very hard. The Prime Minister and the party president came only thrice each, Rajnathji came twice and Sushmaji and Jaitleyji only once each. We did not let any national issue hijack our agenda of keeping local issues at the top. It was a very controlled campaign,” says BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, who was part of the BJP’s core strategy team for Assam.

The BJP has always had voters in Assam, what it did not have are leaders and that is what changed this time, says journalist Haider Hossein.

“It is the entry of leaders from the Congress (Sarma) and AGP (Sonowal) that filled the leadership void in the BJP and helped it sharpen its strategy. From the beginning, they positioned themselves as the protectors of the Khilonjia (indigenous Assamese) identity and thus appealed to both Hindus and Muslims. The BJP also made astute use of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) by whipping up the scare of its leader Badruddin Ajmal. They spoke about how he could become a powerful player in the state and insinuated that the Congress would be a willing collaborator with him. That had an effect in Barak Valley, where Hindus voted en masse for the BJP,” says Hossein.

The split in the Muslim vote, in constituencies where the community has a substantial presence, too worked for the BJP. For example, in Bilasipara east, while the Congress and AIUDF cut into each other’s Muslim base, the BJP’s Ashok Kumar Singhi won comfortably.

However, much after the euphoria of its momentous win subsides, the BJP will have to grapple with a question that is already being asked in hushed tones. Can two swords remain in one sheath? How will the BJP accommodate the aspirations of Sarma and Sonowal?

Political observers say Sarma, who has been number two in the Gogoi cabinet for years, certainly did not walk out of the party to play second fiddle once again.

One solution is already being talked about. There is speculation about who will replace Sonowal in Parliament. That could be Sarma.

Also Read: ‘We started working on Assam even before 2014 polls’

Price of nepotism?

What cost the Congress this election? Was it a “wave” in favour of change or was it CM Tarun Gogoi’s over-reliance on his son that did the party in? These are questions that will linger for some time now.

What is clear from the election results is that the Congress found it hard to shrug off charges of nepotism. Assam PCC president Anjan Dutta’s daughter Angkita lost Amguri by 1,620 votes; Diganta Barman, minister Bhumidhar Barman’s son, lost in Barkhetry by 8,613 votes; Bharat Narah, husband of Rajya Sabha MP Ranee Narah, bit the dust in Dhakuakhana by 24,542 votes; Lok Sabha MP Sushmita Dev’s mother Bithika lost Silchar by 39,920 votes; and former central minister Paban Singh Ghatowar lost Moran by 16,231 votes. His wife Jibantara was the sitting MLA from the constituency.

b16269b8-64df-4187-bcda-069912cb9271The Congress’s Pranab Gogoi, the speaker in the outgoing state Assembly who managed a win from Sivasagar, says, “There were many acts of omission and commission by the government that the people did not approve of. There were grievances of the people that were not addressed. That is what the BJP took advantage of. It is too early to start analysing what really went wrong and it would not be appropriate to do so right away.”

Pranab Gogoi will feel vindicated. He had to fight it out for his ticket given his less than congenial equation with Chief Minister Gogoi and considering that PCC president Anjan Dutta had hoped to keep the Sivasagar constituency for himself.

“There were many things that went wrong. The large numbers of relatives who were accommodated, right from the top… In fact, had it not been for the CM’s insistence on accommodating his son in the party, this may have been a respectable result for us because then Himanta would not have quit the party and the workers’ morale would not have been hit. I believe many Congress workers actually voted for the BJP,” says a Congress insider not willing to be named.

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Some within the party talk of Gogoi’s Koinadhora hilltop residence as a metaphor for his disconnect with the real world. His unwillingness to heed advice, they say, not only hit the party hard but was also the reason for his misplaced confidence about a fourth term on election eve, when all indicators were that Congress was going down a very slippery slope.

Assam Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Anil Raja is not willing to count Sarma as one of the factors that cost the Congress this election. “The arrogance cost us, the syndicate raj and corruption cost us… How can one say that his (Sarma’s) being around would have changed everything? Even now, his contribution to the BJP’s win is not more than 20 per cent.”

There is no dearth of Congressmen here or in Delhi who disagree, among them general secretary Digvijaya Singh. “That single action of driving (Sarma) out took away 10-15 seats from the Congress’s kitty,” Digvijaya has said.

Why Ajmal failed to fire

It is not good publicity for a peer (holy man) who claims to turn water into panacea by spitting on it to lose his own Assembly constituency by 16,723 votes.

On Thursday evening, as news of his loss trickled in, AIUDF chief Ajmal invited all and sundry to his quarters in the MLA hostel — B6 allotted to his son — as his aides distributed sweets. “Sweets do not necessarily come with a win. Come and eat sweets for my loss,” he said.

It was perhaps this flamboyance that misled many to believe that the perfume baron, an MP from Dhubri, would be the most important factor this election.

As the BJP positioned itself as the guardian of the Assamese identity, Ajmal came to symbolise the “other” — people from across the border who are “infiltrating” the state. That he made several tall claims of being the kingmaker — “nobody will be able to form a government in Assam without me,” he had said — worked in the BJP’s favour, pushing those suspicious of him to the BJP.

Even on the eve of the results, he had maintained that his AIUDF would be the single largest party in the 126-member Assembly with 46 seats. The party won 13 seats, five down from its earlier tally, with a vote share of 13 per cent.

“The explosion in the number of illegal immigrants was an important issue this election and Ajmal was the face of that. Of the 65 seats in Upper Assam, the Congress got only six because it was a mandate against illegal migration. There was that panic factor that Ajmal would emerge kingmaker if the mandate was not decisive enough. That is why neither the AIUDF nor the Congress benefited,” says Nanigopal Mahanta, head of the Department of Political Science in Gauhati University.

The Congress’s dogged refusal to ally with the AIUDF was perhaps a recognition of this fact. It was not for nothing that Gogoi made his famous “Who is Badruddin” remark in 2011.

He tried the same line on Thursday during his brief press conference, but this time, the zing was gone.

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