The BJP’s announcement of Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate for Assam, months ahead of the assembly election, suggests a shift in the party’s poll strategy. After all, ever since Narendra Modi became its supreme leader, the party has run spectacularly centralised campaigns in the states. Except in Delhi, the party has refused to name a chief ministerial candidate, keeping Modi at the front and centre of its campaign. By all accounts, now with the party’s winning streak being seen to wane, most visibly in Bihar, the BJP is doing a rethink.
Of the five states headed for elections this year, the BJP’s prospects seem the brightest in Assam. Here, the party won a record seven (out of 14) Lok Sabha seats and notched a vote share of 36.86 per cent in the 2014 general elections. The ruling Congress recognises the threat from the BJP and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has tried to label the latter an “outsider” in state politics by arguing that its Hindutva agenda is disconnected from Assamese aspirations. Sonowal, who has had a long association with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Asom Gana Parishad, two organisations that champion ethnic identity politics, appeals to the regional sentiment. His choice could also help calm the fears of party long-timers that positions of power would be usurped by relatively new entrants in the party like Himanta Biswa Sarma. More broadly, the Delhi and Bihar elections have revealed that voters do make a distinction between national and regional leaders and a credible regional face in the campaign helps energise the campaign and enthuse the local unit. The Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar were helped by the presence of strong local leaders and, in Assam, Gogoi, despite facing a possible anti-incumbent sentiment, remains influential. Sonowal, in this reckoning, could puncture the outsider narrative the Congress may wield against the BJP, while also shielding the party’s central leadership from blame in the event of a setback.
The naming of a CM candidate in Assam could also be a step for the BJP towards retrieving its erstwhile political USP. Before Modi cast a long and compelling shadow, the party boasted a strong line-up of high-profile regional leaders. Power in the Congress flowed from its high command, but the BJP took pride in showcasing an organisational culture that allowed state leaders to flourish. Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, B.S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka, and Modi himself in Gujarat, were products of a strategy that enthusiastically projected second-rung leaders and helped the BJP expand across the country. Even as Modi has guided the BJP to unprecedented electoral success nationally, a course correction may have become necessary in the states, and in this, Assam may well show the party the way.