Updated: March 20, 2021 8:35:45 am
In an interview to this newspaper, prominent BJP leader in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said it was impossible for his party to retain power in the state by projecting its record on development alone. The party has raked up the issue of Assamese identity because it is central to the people of the state, he suggested. And that since the BJP campaign has framed the identity question in opposition to Muslims, particularly Bengali-speaking Muslims, it has focused on the figure of Badruddin Ajmal, chief of the AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front) and Lok Sabha MP. This strategy, outlined by Sarma, could have disturbing long-term consequences.
The BJP’s promise for the nation is “sabka saath sabka vikas”. The prime minister, no less, reiterates this mantra. Why should the party abandon this promise in favour of polarising rhetoric in Assam? Ajmal is a successful businessman and a politician — the AIUDF has, since its formation in 2005, become a platform for Bengali-speaking Muslims and Ajmal has been elected as a Lok Sabha MP multiple times. Seizing on the figure of Ajmal, and the attempt to frame him as the “other”, seems like an attempt by the BJP to steer the poll conversation away from its own development record and welfare agenda, which it has advertised so zealously in the past. Sarma himself has spoken about the success of a slew of welfare schemes, especially the Orunodoi, a direct benefit transfer programme that gives Rs 830 every month to women in the state.
The playing on religious and other differences can leave scars that remain long after the poll dust has settled. Assam was the epicentre of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. For the time being, Sarma has also indicated, the BJP prefers to mute its voice on both the CAA and the NRC, presumably because it calculates that the faultlines they could stoke could work to its immediate electoral disadvantage. Whatever the reasons, the caution on a polarising issue is welcome. But it must also be exercised on all divisive issues in national interest. The disturbing and unseemly campaign on “illegal immigrants”, for instance, had almost derailed a painstakingly built relationship with Bangladesh. The shared history and inheritance of the Subcontinent demands that politics in frontier states such as West Bengal and Assam is conducted with special sensitivity and care, without reopening wounds of the past.