BJP’s Assam win is proof Hindutva has reached areas where it was marginal

An important facet of the BJP’s strategy pertains to its Hindu nationalist discourse

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Updated: June 11, 2016 9:36 am
BJP, BJP ASaam, Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Chief minister, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Assembly elections 2016, Assam polls, Assam elections, Tarun Gogoi, Gogoi, Assam Tarun Gogoi, Assam anti-incumbency, Anti-incumbency in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP victory, BJP victory in Assam, COngress, BJP Congress, All India United Democratic Front, AIUDF, Narendra Modi, PM Modi, Modi, Sangh Parivaar, Indian express editorials Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal

The historic achievement that the formation of a BJP-led government in Assam represented last month has been attributed to a wide range of factors. For some observers, it was more the defeat of the Congress than victory of the BJP: Tarun Gogoi, after three terms, was affected by the anti-incumbency syndrome and charges of nepotism; the party had also alienated the other strongman of the state government, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who crossed over to the BJP in 2015.

Commentators have highlighted the effectiveness of the BJP’s strategy. While the party had tended to rely more on Narendra Modi’s image in the Delhi and Bihar elections in 2015, this year, the PM has not canvassed that much and the state units of the BJP have been largely left on their own. In Assam, the party formed a coalition with the AGP and the BPF. The seat adjustment has been well thought out since the BJP contested only 84 seats out of 126, the AGP, 24 and the BPF, 16. The three parties have won respectively 60, 14 and 12 seats, allowing the BJP to form a coalition government with its two allies.

An important facet of the BJP’s strategy pertains to its Hindu nationalist discourse. Like in so many other states, the party has adjusted to the local variant of Hindu culture. This vernacularisation process resulted in the promotion of an Assamese icon, the 15th-16th century Hindu saint and scholar, Sankardev, who had settled down in the Ahom kingdom in 1516-1517. In February, Modi attended the 85th conference of the Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha at Sibsagar, the ertswhile capital of the Ahom kingdom.

Besides associating itself with the main Assamese Hindu figure, the BJP claimed that his legacy was under attack. It launched a campaign against the alleged occupation of Sankardev’s monastries by “illegal immigrants”. In fact, the Bangladeshi migrants issue has been one of the cementing factors of the BJP-led coalition, as evident from the “sons of the soil” agenda of the AGP and BPF. After all, the man the BJP projected as its candidate for chief ministership, Sarbananda Sonowal, was an AGP leader till he joined the BJP in 2011 — and he had became popular after his PIL had forced the quashing of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983 that Indira Gandhi had promoted to protect her Bangladeshi vote bank. The xenophobic leanings of sections of the Bodos have found expression in recurring anti-migrant violence. While the anti-immigrant discourse is not new, it took an increasingly anti-Muslim turn during the state election campaign — which Sonowal compared to “a second battle of Saraighat”, where Ahom general Lachit Borphukan defeated Mughal general Mir Jumla in 1671. This polarisation along religious lines was made easier by the recent rise of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) that the perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal founded in 2004 and which had become the main opposition party in 2011 with 18 seats and 13 per cent of the votes (one percentage more than the BJP). During the election campaign, the AIUDF has been presented not only as a Muslim party, but also a party of Bangladeshi immigrants which could join hands with the Congress if Gogoi needed to form a coalition to get a majority in the assembly.

As a result, the Hindu-Muslim divide has become the main cleavage, overpowering every other social and cultural factor, including language. In 2011, according to the CSDS survey, the BJP had attracted only 10 per cent of the Assamese-speaking Hindu voters whereas 42 per cent of the Bengali-speaking Hindu voters were supporting the party. In 2016, these two groups have jumped to respectively 43 and 54 per cent. In contrast, the Congress registered a decline from 38 to 21 per cent in the first category and from 31 to 28 per cent in the second one.

For the first time, the strategy of polarisation has brought electoral fruit to the BJP in Assam. But this trend is also a result of decades of ground work by the Sangh Parivar. Not only has the RSS — active in Assam since 1946 — established more than 830 shakhas in the state, but other offshoots of the Parivar, including the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, are implementing the same welfarist strategy as in other tribal belts (free education, access to healthcare etc.).

In 2016, the other state where the BJP has made progress, Kerala, presented the same characteristics: like in Assam, the RSS has developed a dense network of shakhas across the state and the BJP has fostered religious, vernacularised resurgence through the instrumentalisation of dozens of kavu (ancient shrines) where theyyam (living gods) performances have been held for centuries in the form of a rather unorthodox Hinduism. Like in Assam, the BJP has also exploited the fear of Muslims, made easier by the revivalist attitude of some of those who had migrated to the Gulf countries.

In Kerala, the BJP could not win more than one seat and 15 per cent of the votes (in association with the Ezhavas-dominated BDJS), partly because of the state’s demographics — Hindus are only 55 per cent, against 61.5 per cent in Assam. But the communalisation of the state is evident from the cultural policing. Last year, writer M.M. Basheer had to stop his columns in Mathrubhumi because of a campaign denouncing the fact that a Muslim was writing on a Hindu god.

While the recent state elections have been interpreted mostly as a turning point for the Congress, they have been a milestone for another reason and for the whole of India: Hindutva has now reached in a significant manner areas where, till then, it was politically marginal. The rise of BJP majoritarianism may only be resisted by state parties or the articulation of an alternative form of polarisation — not along religious, but social, lines. This repertoire may gain momentum while inequalities are increasing. The state elections next year — especially UP, Gujarat and Punjab — will provide the Opposition parties with one last big opportunity to explore it before the 2019 rendezvous.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The enigma of arrival’)

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, London

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  1. H
    Hemant Kumar
    Jun 11, 2016 at 2:52 pm
    Excellent
    Reply
    1. H
      Hemant Kumar
      Jun 11, 2016 at 3:15 pm
      PM Modi is indispensable in the victory of BJP and he is the root of the victory tree. Why doesn't writer give credit to him
      Reply
      1. H
        Hemant Kumar
        Jun 11, 2016 at 10:01 am
        The propaa of Communalism is hit.
        Reply
        1. I
          IslamForFooools
          Jun 12, 2016 at 12:05 am
          Fck Allah the God of terrorists, Fck popat mohemmed Aisha repist , yellow pis b upon mohemmed
          Reply
          1. I
            IslamForFooools
            Jun 11, 2016 at 3:31 pm
            How gullible are u to expect jihadists to give credit to modi or any non Muslim for that matter, writers like this are nothing but jihadists in disguise fighting against non Muslims with petro dollars from their Arab masters. So stop being gullible like a fool. Call spade a spade
            Reply
            1. I
              IslamForFooools
              Jun 11, 2016 at 3:29 pm
              If you are Muslim, I understand your hatred towards non Muslims, it's kuran which preaches it
              Reply
              1. I
                IslamForFooools
                Jun 11, 2016 at 3:28 pm
                You are 100percent wrong. Muslims, not just Isis, are in continuous process of destroying everything that is non Muslim , just because we are not Muslims, with no fault of our own. When non Muslims try to protect from Muslims, people like you want to label us and compare with Isis, that means with you own ignorance and foolishness , knowingly or unknowingly, people like you are giving benefits to Islamic jihad and terrorism, you just don't know that you are doing that. So keep your ignorant, foolish, non human, babrbari can ideology in your tiny brain and don't open gutter of your mouth. People like you are biggest threat to human existence today, before Isis, fools like you should be dealt with. It is people like you who and your gullible thinking has made Europe hot bed of terrorists and Europe will be destro in next few decades, and reason will be you. I consider you bigger threat than isis, and there should be no mercy for gullible nature of yours which is working very well for Islamists.
                Reply
                1. C
                  Comm.Y.K.
                  Jun 11, 2016 at 5:51 am
                  CJ I was keen reader of your articles but of late,it has become a bit unbalanced and drab.I have traveled extensively in Europe and North America and seen and experienced how Christian majorationism works under the disguise of secular democracy. Please regain your scholarly unbiased respectful status back.
                  Reply
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