The Asom Gana Parishad’s (AGP’s) decision to go it alone in the upcoming assembly elections in Assam, after failing to stitch up a pre-poll tie-up with the BJP may prove to be a decisive factor in the poll outcome. The BJP and the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) had already agreed to contest together, and the inclusion of the AGP in the alliance would have made it a formidable force. As things stand, Assam is likely to see a multi-cornered contest with the Congress, the AGP, the BJP-BPF and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) fighting independently. There are also smaller groups, ranging from the communists to tribal outfits, who may nibble away small slices of the vote. A fragmented opposition generally tends to benefit the ruling party in the absence of strong anti-incumbency.
But ethnic, regional and religious diversity makes it extremely difficult to predict electoral trends in Assam. The big story of the state’s politics in recent years has been the rise of the BJP. After hovering around a 12 per cent vote-share in the 2006 and 2011 assembly elections, the party cornered 37 per cent of the vote in the 2014 general elections. The Congress vote-share dropped by 10 per cent from its assembly count to 30 per cent in the general elections and many influential leaders left the party for the
BJP. The dynamic of an assembly election is different from that of a Lok Sabha poll and local factors, including leadership, governance, alliances and the nature of the campaign, matter. Amid the rise of the BJP and decline of the AGP, three-time CM Tarun Gogoi is seeking to present the Congress as a new beast. Gogoi has turned the incumbency question on its head by building a campaign on the poll promises of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is also attempting to project himself as a custodian of Assamese identity in a bid to paint the BJP as an outsider ignorant of local cultural nuances. Assamese sub-nationalism continues to be a subterranean influence in state politics and the Congress seems eager to tap the constituency, which was originally with the AGP. Gogoi’s criticism of the AIUDF, which draws support from migrant Muslims, is meant to bolster his claim to the sub-nationalist agenda.
Identity politics has a contentious record in the state. It can unleash dark forces and cause uncontrollable churn in Assam’s ethnic, religious and regional cauldron. Gogoi — and his rivals — should be careful when they tread this ground.