Updated: March 14, 2021 6:09:10 pm
On the afternoon of February 14, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took the stage to address an election rally in Upper Assam’s Sivasagar district, where sentiments of ethnic Assamese identity run strong and which is the epicentre of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that roiled the state in December 2019. Wearing an Assamese gamusa or scarf, with the letters CAA struck out by a red cross, Rahul assured the crowd, “Whatever happens, we will not let CAA be implemented.”
A few hours earlier, talking to journalists over breakfast at a five-star hotel in the city, senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma sniggered when asked if Rahul’s rally would bring up the anti-CAA protests of last year. “CAA is a complete non-issue for the people of Assam. Rather than talking about CAA, the youth will be more interested in knowing whether the state government will distribute two-wheelers to them, like it did for girls,” he said.
As Assam votes on March 27 in the first of a three-phase election to the 126-seat Assembly — the second and third phases are on April 1 and 6 — the anti-CAA protests that saw violent clashes, at least five deaths and steady protests, no longer seems to be a major rallying point.
The BJP is doing its best to ensure that the shadow of the anti-CAA protests recedes from public memory. It has, instead, sought to steer the poll rhetoric towards its development agenda, besides launching an onslaught against the “Miyas”, a term derogatorily used to refer to Assam’s Bengali-origin Muslim community.
The Congress, meanwhile, dislodged from power after 15 consecutive years in power, and now reduced to a shadow of its former self with just 19 seats in the outgoing Assembly, has made the CAA its main election plank, promising to build a memorial for anti-CAA ‘martyrs’ if voted to power. With the passing away of three-time former CM Tarun Gogoi, the party is without a strong CM face.
The party has, for the first time, entered into a formal alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which enjoys a large support base amongst the ‘Miya’ community. In the first phase of elections, of the 47 seats, the Congress is contesting 43, leaving four to its alliance partners. For the second phase, the Congress has announced a list of 28 candidates so far, and the AIUDF 19, including five that will see ‘friendly’ contests between the two parties. Three Left parties, the Bodoland People’s Front, and a new regional party, the Anchalik Gana Morcha, are also part of the alliance, popularly called the ‘mahajot’ or Grand Alliance.
BJP’s silence on CAA
Puni Mech, a 66-year-old in Khaatopothar village of Sivasagar district of Upper Assam, was part of the anti-CAA protests in her district. But now, as she prepares to vote, her concerns are different.
“We have to vote for the government that can make our lives better — give us roads, schemes etc,” she says, adding that the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government is “good”. “They have helped the poor,” she says.
The BJP has fielded a woman candidate, Surabhi Rajkonwar, from Sivasagar against the Congress’s Subhramitra Gogoi and Raijor Dal chief Akhil Gogoi.
For Puni, CAA is a distant cause. “Which Assamese would like the CAA? We have to protest against it and we did. I attended all the protests in December 2019. But at the end of the day, we are poor and it doesn’t matter if we like or hate CAA,” she says.
Assam has seen massive protests since mid 2018, when the Citizenship Amendment Bill was proposed to be introduced in Parliament. From then until the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, the protests against the state and Central governments had continued intermittently — reaching its peak in December 2019.
With the BJP steering clear of the issue, CM Sarbananda Sonowal told The Indian Express that those who led the anti-CAA protests had “vested political interests” and that the people of Assam had seen through their agenda.
“The CAA is not at all a factor. The effect of the anti-CAA protests on the BJP is zero. When the anti-CAB protests were on in Assam in December 2018, we swept the panchayat elections (the party bagged over 42% of the total seats). In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, we won 9 (out of 14) seats in the state,” said state BJP president Ranjeet Dass.
The Congress, meanwhile, has launched a door-to-door campaign to collect gamusas with anti-CAA markings and messages to be put up in the proposed CAA memorial.
“The BJP is afraid to react on the CAA because they know the CAA has been a bodyblow to Assamese identity. It has negated the Assam Accord. That’s why they are completely silent about it,” said Congress MP Pradyut Bordoloi.
Of the 47 seats in the first phase of polling, 42 are in Upper Assam (the eastern part of Assam that’s dominated primarily by Assamese speakers and where the anti-CAA protests were the fiercest). Congress spokesperson Konwar says that in these parts, the BJP needs a communal narrative to deflect attention from anti-CAA sentiments.
“They have to polarise to get the numbers because in Lower Assam (western part of Assam which has a large section of Bengali-origin Muslim and Bodo voters) and Barak Valley (Bengali-majority, both Hindus and Muslims), they will have a tough time.”
While the Congress is going all out to position itself on the anti-CAA plank, sources in the party admit the issue may be losing traction among voters.
“The Congress has stood fully against the CAA, from grassroots to Parliament. But now, the anti-CAA movement may not be getting as much traction as we had hoped for in this election. We are, however, sticking to it because the BJP will attack us on our alliance with Ajmal. So at least in Upper Assam, we have to go with the anti-CAA sentiment and the tea garden community.”
The tea tribes — comprising 17% of the state’s population and one of the most marginalised — is an influential factor in almost 40 seats. The community is spread across 800 tea gardens besides several small, unorganised gardens of Assam.
This month, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra visited tea gardens in Assam, interacted with workers and promised to increase their daily wage to Rs 365. Last month, the Assam government increased the wages of tea garden workers from Rs 167 to Rs 217.
While the Opposition blames the BJP for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) hitting a stalemate and the non-implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which promises Constitutional safeguards to Assamese people, the BJP says the government has been on track on the two issues.
The minority vote
While keeping a strategic silence on CAA, the BJP rhetoric has been relentless in its attack on ‘Miya’ Muslims, with the party tying its anti-Miya rhetoric to “protecting” Assam’s culture-language-heritage from the community.
In July 2019, Ashraful Hussein, a 28-year-old social activist from western Assam’s
Muslim-dominated Barpeta district, was named in an FIR over his poems written in his native dialect.
Hussein, who is out on bail in the case, is a candidate of the AIUDF from Chenga, a constituency that has over 82% Muslim votes. He had worked among the district’s poor to help with documentation during the NRC process. The NRC list published in August 2019 had excluded over 19 lakh applicants.
“Most of the people in my constituency belong to marginalised sections. There is also the issue of land erosion. But the issue of citizenship remains the most crucial — hundreds of genuine citizens are out of the NRC list,” he said.
The Congress-AIUDF alliance comes after years of taunts by the BJP about the two parties working in tandem.
Last month, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said, “Those who sit with Ajmal, can they stop infiltration?… Can they save the rhinos of Assam from being poached?… To win Assam elections, you will come with Badruddin Ajmal and you dare to talk of saving Assam?”
AIUDF general secretary Aminul Islam hit back at the BJP, saying, “Those who are calling us communal, I challenge them… Is there one anti-Hindu or anti-Constitutional statement that the AIUDF has made?”
While the Congress is firm on the alliance, here too, there are signs of trouble. In at least five seats, including Hussein’s, the AIUDF will be in ‘friendly’ contests with the Congress.
While defending the alliance with the AIUDF, senior Congress leaders admit that it may not go down well among sections of Assamese society. “But we do not think the AIUDF is communal. When you work to uplift a downtrodden community without affecting any other community, how can you be communal?” said Congress’s Bordoloi.
The AIUDF holds 14 seats in the current Assembly. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, though, its tally went down from three in 2014 to one.
On BJP’s bid to polarise, Ajmal told The Indian Express in February, “It’s a formula to divide people of Assam. They should focus on issues and their work. But unfortunately, they have not done any good work in the last five years and therefore, they take my name.”
The development pitch
The BJP hopes its development pitch will make up for its silence on CAA. The party plans to go to voters with its report card on infrastructure development projects, welfare schemes, “mitigating corruption and militancy, and taking steps to protect Assamese culture”.
The CAA, NRC test
As Assam votes on March 27, the BJP, which came to power in the state for the first time in 2016, will not just have to beat anti-incumbency, but will be tested on its position on CAA and NRC. Though the party has chosen to steer clear of these sticking points, the Opposition’s campaign will be centred on these issues, besides price rise.
“Whatever promises we made in 2016, we have implemented them in letter and spirit. Be it tackling corruption, pollution and extremism; or sealing of the Indo-Bangla border. Our government has taken both the valleys — Brahmaputra and Barak — together. Rhino poaching has come down, with 70 poachers convicted and 340 arrested during our government,” CM Sonowal told The Indian Express.
He added: “Beneficiaries have received 100% of the benefit of government schemes, especially through Direct Benefit Transfer. During the Congress regime, middlemen always took advantage of the poor.” Among the schemes the BJP has been showcasing is ‘Orunodoi’, through which a subsidy of Rs 830 per month is transferred to the accounts of women in over 18 lakh eligible families.
Dass, the state BJP president, said, “Congress built six medical colleges in Assam in the last six-seven decades; we built as many in the last five years. The Congress did not seal the Indo-Bangla border; we did. Congress provided indigenous people with no security over their land; we gave land pattas to over 3 lakh indigenous people. We built roads and bridges.”
The Congress has, however, rubbished the BJP’s claims. “As far as development is concerned, the BJP’s only claim in Assam is inaugurating and cutting ribbons of projects that were already completed by the previous Congress,” said Congress spokesperson Bobbeeta Sharma.
“Their claim of having more medical colleges falls flat as during the Tarun Gogoi government, we established the Jorhat, Tezpur and Barpeta medical colleges and Kokrajhar, Diphu, Nagaon, Dhubri and Lakhimpur were in the pipeline. The government is a continuous process and they should continue with what was planned during the previous Congress government, but have they been successful in doing that? Today they have not been able to make the existing medical colleges fully functional due to lack of doctors,” she added.
Smaller parties, fragmented votes
Late last year, two new regional parties emerged on the poll scene: the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal (RD), both born out of the anti-CAA protests.
“The BJP has seen the anger of people of Assam regarding the CAA and they are extremely scared now. They are not talking about CAA implementation, about framing CAA rules… nothing,” AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi told The Indian Express last month.
While the two parties announced that they would fight the elections together, there are already signs of stress. In at least nine constituencies, the AJP and RD have announced candidates against each other.
AJP’s Gogoi said the ‘friendly’ contests won’t harm the prospects of the two allies. “We have taken a strategic decision,” he said.
But the RD appears to be disappointed by the way the alliance is progressing. “We have been talking about consolidating anti-BJP votes, but now it seems even regional anti-BJP votes will get cut by these ‘friendly’ contests,” said Bhasco De Saikia, chief convenor of RD. The RD is led by farmer leader Akhil Gogoi, who has been in jail under charges of sedition and terrorism for over a year.
Many see this third front of the AJP-RD as little more than a grouping that might end up splitting the Opposition votes. While the Congress has repeatedly made public statements urging all anti-BJP forces to join the ‘grand alliance’, the AJP has maintained that it cannot align with any national or “communal party”, referring to the AIUDF. Raijor Dal’s Akhil Gogoi too said in a letter from jail to opposition parties that the Congress aligning with the AIUDF has alienated the regionalist parties.
As Assam votes in about two weeks, how these factors — from the minority vote to the regional parties, the BJP’s alleged bid to polarise to the Congress’s stand on CAA — play out will be little more than a roll of the dice.
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