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Monday, May 17, 2021

How BJP retained Assam

The BJP owes its victory to multiple strategies — manufacturing social perceptions, implementing competitive populist schemes and bringing almost all mainstream tribal ethnic outfits into its fold.

Written by Akhil Ranjan Dutta |
Updated: May 3, 2021 8:55:15 am
BJP activists celebrate after getting the majority in the Assam Assembly elections at BJP head office in Guwahati (PTI)

The BJP has had the upper hand in every election in Assam since the party won big in the state in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It won seven and nine (out of 14) Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2014 and 2019 elections respectively, while registering leads in 69 assembly segments in both the elections. In the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP won 60 seats, while the “rainbow alliance” it led succeeded in 86 constituencies. In the 2019 general election, the NDA led in 82 assembly segments. The alliance seems set to repeat the same tally in the 2021 polls.

The BJP has achieved this victory through multiple strategies. It manufactured social perceptions, implemented competitive populist schemes and brought almost all mainstream tribal ethnic outfits into its fold. During the first wave of the pandemic, the BJP regained the political legitimacy it had lost during the period of the CAA enactment through initiatives such as the Arogya Nidhi. By exempting the three Sixth Schedule council areas — the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), the Karbi Autonomous Council and the Dima Hasao from the purview of the CAA — the BJP government succeeded in luring away many ethnic nationalist organisations from the anti-CAA movement. While the two new regional political parties — the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal (RD) — centred on the anti-CAA sentiments, the BJP limited the anti-CAA fervour to a section of the Assamese speaking non-tribal population. The victory of Akhil Gogoi, president of the RD, is more a reflection of the peoples’ wrath against his extended imprisonment. Meanwhile, the grand alliance forged by the Congress with the AIUDF, the Left, the BPF and a few other smaller regional parties failed to mitigate inner and intra fighting among the parties and produce a common minimum programme.

The BJP consolidated its base by foregrounding developmentalism, accompanied by hyper populism. The decades-long work by the RSS had turned the tea tribes, particularly in upper Assam, to BJP supporters. The community received the highest patronage from the incumbent government. The number of beneficiaries under various schemes such as the “Orunodai” under the National Food Security Act also increased substantially. It also launched new and innovative schemes for different segments of society. Not a single segment of society remained untouched by the populist beneficiary schemes, including girls and women belonging to the minority Muslim community. The BJP’s Sangkalpa Patra 2021 is a case in point. The BJP also successfully engineered the perception that Narendra Modi stands for all-inclusive development.

The BJP also popularised the theory of civilisational threat emanating from the East Bengal-origin Muslims. It targeted the East Bengal-origin Muslims, particularly the AIUDF, the main political outfit of the community. The BJP’s strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma brought in the theory of “65 per cent vs 35 per cent”, that is the 65 per cent of the indigenous Assamese people were under threat from 35 per cent Muslims, mostly migrant Bengali-speaking Muslims. This narrative surely impacted the voter psyche in Upper Assam, the epicentre of the anti-CAA resistance, which accounts for over 45 assembly seats.

The party built a strategic alliance with almost all the mainstream political outfits of tribal ethnic groups and the AGP. The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) was replaced by the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) as the key NDA ally in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD). It sustained its alliance with the mainstream Rabha and the Tiwa ethno-political outfits and also co-opted the mainstream leadership of the Mising community. To pacify the discontent of the six OBC communities over the failure of the Union government to grant them ST status, the state government awarded three of those communities — Motoks, Morans and the Koch Rajbongshis — non-territorial ethnic councils through legislations in December 2020. All these contributed to the BJP’s success.

The writer is professor and head of the department of political science, Gauhati University

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