Watching the victor

Watching the victor

Hindu consolidation helped BJP win Assam. Now, its government must reach out, mend fences.

Assam elections, assam election results, sarbananda sonowal, narendra modi, Assam assembly elections 2016, BJP Assam election results 2016, India news
Sonowal’s first remarks after the victory have not been reassuring. (Source: AP)

The BJP, in alliance with the AGP and BPF, has won a decisive mandate in Assam, winning 86 of 126 assembly seats and over 41 per cent of the valid votes polled, and defeating the Congress which was seeking a fourth consecutive term in office. Analysis of post-poll survey data by Lokniti for this paper shows that a never-before consolidation of the Hindu vote undergirded the BJP-led alliance’s victory. Over 65 per cent of persons who identified themselves as Hindus had voted for the alliance according to the survey data, whereas only 5 per cent of Muslims, who make up over 34 per cent of the state’s population, preferred the BJP-AGP-BPF combine. By all accounts, this sharp communal polarisation may have been the outcome of a campaign that focussed on religious identity as a marker of citizenship. Such a campaign casts a responsibility on the winner. Now that the polls are over, chief
minister-to-be Sarbananda Sonowal and others must ensure that the divide widened in the run-up to polls is bridged and the insecurities stoked in Assam’s many minorities are assuaged. In the aftermath, the BJP is projecting this win as a mandate for governance. It will be watched now for whether or not it lives up to its own claims.

In this context, Sonowal’s first remarks after the victory have not been reassuring. He has listed the fencing of the international border with Bangladesh, including the riverine parts, as his government’s main priority. Is this the most pressing issue for Assam, especially when the Modi government at the Centre has wisely continued the UPA government’s policy of mending political fences with Dhaka? To be sure, the BJP revived the illegal immigrants issue, which had become dormant in the past few years, as part of its campaign for protecting a greater Assamese identity. Illegal migration was a core agenda of the Assam Accord, but practical difficulties and the threat of communal conflagration has held back successive governments, including of the AGP, a party born of the Assam movement, from aggressively pursuing the project of identification and expulsion of illegal migrants. If the Assam Movement was secular in discriminating against migrants, the “outsider” in the BJP narrative has been the Bengali Muslim.

Hindu consolidation behind the BJP combine — data shows that Muslims were split along linguistic lines between the Congress and AIUDF — may have been something more than an endorsement of the Hindutva agenda. The character of the alliance facilitated a consolidation around the theme of Assamese identity, which has a strong resonance in the state for historical reasons. Reading religion into an essentially linguistic identity could disrupt the social harmony most parts of the state have experienced in recent times.