After three phases of voting, the Assam election comes to an end on Tuesday. The results on May 2 will determine whether the BJP can retain its hold over Assam after its landslide 2016 victory, following which it formed its first government in the state and the Northeast. Up against the NDA is the Congress, this time aided by a ‘grand alliance’ with six parties.
The election started off as a triangular contest between the NDA — the BJP, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) — on the one side; the ‘mahajot’ — Congress, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), three Left parties and a regional party, the Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM) — on the other; and an alliance of two newly formed regional parties — Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal (RD) — on the third.
However, as it progressed, the newer parties seemed to have been relegated to the background, with the Mahajot and NDA emerging as the key competitors.
The first phase —where 47 seats went to polls (42 of them in Upper Assam) on March 27 — is where many say the main battle lies. Most seats in the region, home to primarily Assamese speakers, were swept by a saffron wave when the BJP stormed to power in 2016, dethroning the Congress from its bastion. Five years ago, the NDA alliance won 38 out of 47 seats, while Congress was reduced to six.
The question is whether this election will see Congress reclaiming its lost seats in Upper Assam. While in 2016, the Congress was fighting nearly 15 years of anti-incumbency and a Modi wave, 2021 has the party leading the Mahajot, battling it out on issues of both identity and economy.
Considering this is the first election post the CAA and NRC, developments which again brought the fraught issues of identity and regionalistic sentiments to the fore in Assam, one would expect it to dominate electoral conversations and trends.
However, the mood on the ground — which saw the most vociferous and violent protests against the amended citizenship law — suggested that CAA was not a primary concern when it came to voting. While the protests have not entirely receded from public memory, it certainly did not seem to be an electoral factor.
That coupled with BJP’s slew of welfare schemes and developmental work suggests the party has not lost favour among its voters.
Moreover, electoral mathematics may work against the Congress with the entry of the two new regional parties, AJP and RD. These parties, which emerged from the anti-CAA protests, with faces like jailed peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and anti-CAA student leader Lurinjyoti Gogoi, do not find traction on the ground, despite their popularity during protests, and may just end up dividing anti-BJP votes.
The other electorally important community in Upper Assam is that of the tea garden workers, which both the BJP and the Congress have tried to woo. While this extremely marginalised community has traditionally been a Congress-stronghold, welfare schemes announced by the BJP in the last five years have led them to switch loyalties to the saffron party.
Tea garden workers say they have benefitted from the BJP’s schemes, like roads and toilets in residential areas. However, it remains to be seen how the Congress’s promise to increase the workers’ wages to Rs 365 — a major issue in the community — plays out.
While the BJP has focused on development, it has also vociferously emphasised on the need to “save Assam’s culture” from outsiders. The latter has largely centred around Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF’s — which enjoys a large support base amongst Bengali-origin Muslims — partnership with the Congress.
By constantly attacking the Congress’s alliance with the AIUDF, the saffron party has implied a threat towards the interests of indigenous communities from the Bengali-origin Muslim community, colloquially referred to as ‘Miya’ Muslims. While the BJP toned this down in the third phase of the election, the constant communal targeting has ensured high chances of the Congress-AIUDF alliance sweeping votes in the districts of Western Assam. Members of the community have said while development issues — like building roads in riverine sand belts — are important, the BJP’s rhetoric “hurts them” and the ‘Mahajot’ makes them feel “safe”.
A similar sentiment was found in south Assam’s Bengali-speaking Barak Valley, which shares a border with Bangladesh. The region has been known to be historically polarised, and the last five years of BJP rule have deepened the divide. While many Muslims said they voted for BJP in 2016 in the hope for change, this election could see them move away because of its consistent communal rhetoric targeting them.
Moreover, the CAA, which found wide support among the Bengali Hindus in Barak Valley, has pushed the Muslims further away. Here too, the partnership of Congress and AIUDF — which fought neck-to-neck in some constituencies of Barak in 2016 — will hurt the BJP.
The ‘Mahajot’s alliance with influential Bodoland party the BPF, led by Hagrama Mohilary, a former ally of the BJP, has given the Congress a much-needed shot in the arm in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). The BJP has, on the other hand, allied with the UPPL, who has in its fold the popular student leaders who signed the recent Bodo peace accord.
While they are riding on the promise of peace and development, battling Mohilary’s influence — who has been the undisputed face of Bodo electoral politics for nearly 15 years — will be a challenge.
Moreover, Mohilary has currency among non-Bodos (Assamese speakers, Bengali Hindus, Bengali-origin Muslims, Adivasis and Koch Rajbongshis), which make up 70 per cent of BTR. Additionally, UPPL is not expected to draw Muslim votes in the region because of the alliance with the BJP, whereas, the ‘mahajot’ has Ajmal’s AIUDF to bank on for that.
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