Less than nine months after it bagged seven of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP has captured 39 of the state’s 74 municipal boards and town committees. It came two days after the BJP was wiped out in the Delhi assembly elections, weeks after it had offended many in the Northeast with a manifesto that described its residents as “immigrants”, and five years after it had failed to win the majority in even one local body of Assam. And crucially, it also came a year before the assembly polls, for which the BJP has set itself on “Mission 84”, a target of a two-thirds majority out of 126.
How did the BJP manage it despite so many things going against it? “It is the outcome of the hard work put in by the rank and file of the party in the past few months. Every individual from central minister down to the last man at booth committee level has worked overtime,” says state BJP president Siddhartha Bhattacharyya.
And how achievable is Mission 84? Analysts say it will be difficult on account of a large number of Muslim-dominated seats. And if the BJP falls short of a majority, they add, even forming a government could prove tricky in the absence of allies.
The Congress is dismissive of the municipal victory. “Only 15 lakh people are involved in the elections, which were only for the urban centres,” says new PCC president Anjan Dutta. “The majority of about two crore voters live in rural areas, and they will definitely ensure a Congress victory next year.”
Many things, however, went against the Congress. The PCC has been weakened since an attempt last July, though unsuccessful, to dislodge CM Tarun Gogoi. A recent reshuffle in the Gogoi cabinet upset many powerful and long-serving ministers who were removed. And veteran Bhubaneswar Kalita was removed as APCC president, his relationship with chief minister Gogoi having fallen apart.
Alleged corruption involving the Congress’ civic body representatives, too, contributed. “There is a saying in Assamese, “Bokat-he padum phule”, meaning it is only in mud that the lotus blooms,” says Rintu Goswami, a lawyer fighting a number of cases against the Congress-run municipal board in Jorhat, Gogoi’s hometown, and among the boards swept by the BJP.
The BJP took several other Congress bastions, including in the constituencies of heavyweights Pradyut Bordoloi, Jayanta Malla Baura, Rana Goswami, Debabrata Saikia, Raju Sahu, Bhupen Bora, Ripun Bora, Rajen Borthakur, Ardhendu Kumar Dey and Piyush Hazarika. This was after the Congress had raised four issues against the BJP — plans to build dams after opposing it during the LS polls; the “immigrants” description; the Indo-Bangla land-swap deal; and PM Narendra Modi’s unfulfilled promise that Bangladeshi infiltrators would have to pack up after May 16, 2014.
State BJP chief Bhattacharyya describes the effort: “The state was divided into eight zones, and leaders and workers were assigned tasks and targets pivoting around intensive public relations.” The exercise engaged all seven MPs including the union minister, all five MLAs, all central committee members, all former presidents at various levels, and all district leaders and all frontal wings’ heads.
“There was this huge problem of choosing the right candidates, especially after a huge flow of leaders of various parties and student bodies to the BJP since the Lok Sabha campaign,” Bhattacharyya says. “Everybody worked hard, including those aspirants who failed to get nominations.”
It is an expression coined by then Assam election prabhari Sudhangsu Mittal after the Lok Sabha success. “Mittalji pointed out that we led as many as 69 assembly segments, and were behind by less than 500 votes in 12 others. Mittalji added three more to set the target at 84,” says state BJP vice-president Shantanu Bharali.
However, “it is not that easy a task given the demographic profile of Assam,” says journalist Adip Kumar Phukan, who was part of the BJP campaign team during the Lok Sabha election, but quit the party in November. “There are 42 assembly constituencies where Muslims are either a majority or the deciding factor, which leaves only 84. As far as I understand, Mission 84 is based on that calculation.”
Analyst Nani Gopal Mahanta, who teaches political science at Gauhati University, too is sceptical. “The BJP can definitely emerge the largest party but will find it difficult to find allies to form a coalition,” Mahanta says. “There is no possibility of the AGP joining hands with the BJP, which has eaten into its support base. There is no chance the BJP will even dream of asking for support from Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF. The only possibility is smaller parties representing ethnic groups. On the other hand, if the Congress retains even 30 seats (it has 78 at present), then it has a higher chance of finding an ally in the AIUDF. I will not be surprised if even the AGP with six or seven supports a Congress-led alliance.”
The state BJP chief disagrees, “There is a strong anti-Congress mood, which was reflected in the civic polls. I am sure we will be able to build on that.”