My article in DailyO.
Assam is witnessing a riveting three-cornered contest between the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Congress and the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The Congress has been ruling the state for the past 15 years, under Tarun Gogoi.
The BJP recorded its best performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls bagging seven out of the 14 seats. This performance has put the BJP in the reckoning to win the state for the first time and make its entry into the Northeast. It was leading in 69 Assembly seats, enough to ensure a simple majority on its own. The growth of the BJP was significant as it had managed to win only five seats in the Assembly polls in 2011.
The BJP gained in the elections at the expense of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Congress and Bodoland People’s Front (BOPF). It succeeded in attracting Assamese Hindus who were hardcore supporters of the AGP earlier with its consistent stand against illegal Bangladeshi immigration. The Lok Sabha elections witnessed a strong polarisation of Hindu votes in favour of the BJP while the Muslim vote got divided between the AIUDF and Congress.
However, it’s not going to be a smooth sailing for the BJP. Let’s look at the factors which will help the BJP and the points it needs to keep in mind:
Factors in favour of BJP
1. Grand win in municipal polls
In the municipal elections held in Assam in February 2015 (touted as semifinals to the Assembly polls in April-May 2016), the BJP captured more than 20 town committees and 23 municipal boards while the ruling Congress managed to win only seven and nine respectively. In 2009, the Congress controlled over 50 per cent of the 74 committees and boards.
2. Deftly crafted alliances with AGP and BOPF
The BJP has roped in the AGP, led by former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, and the BOPF into the NDA fold. While the AGP is way past its heydays with many top leaders already having joined the BJP, it still has pockets of influence among Assamese Hindus.
The BOPF has a presence in four Bodo districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. Both parties combined, enjoyed a vote share of 6.1 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and could provide additional cushion to the BJP.
3. Failure of Congress to ally with AIUDF and splitting of Muslim vote
The Congress tried to forge an alliance with the AIUDF but talks failed as a result of disagreements over seat-sharing. Together they garnered 44.9 per cent vote share in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. If they would have fought together in 2014, they would have been leading in 58 seats, the BJP in 57 seats, and 11 seats would have been too close to call. The AIUDF was demanding 60 seats while Congress was willing to give 40-odd.
The other reason the alliance didn’t take off was that both parties have a similar vote bank of Muslims, accounting for 34 per cent of the population. There are 40 seats in the state where the Muslim population is greater than 35 per cent and the Muslims are in a position to influence the outcome in these seats. Both parties wanted to contest on the maximum number of these seats knowing well that chances in other seats are comparatively lesser. The split of the Muslim vote will help the BJP as it did in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.
The AIUDF has risen sharply in the political landscape of Assam owing to the perceived failure of the Congress government to “protect the lives, liberty and property of the Muslim minority”. Badrauddin is also the president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind which helps in the mobilisation of Muslims in favour of the AIDUF.
4. Anti-incumbency against Gogoi government
Gogoi has been in power in Assam for the past 15 years. It’s very natural for any such long-serving state government to suffer from anti-incumbency. Additionally, Gogoi has been witnessing rebellion for quite some time resulting in a tall leader like Himanta Biswa Sharma along with his nine MLA supporters leaving the party to join the BJP. This has visibly weakened the party.
The government has been embroiled in many corruption scams involving at least seven of his ministers. On the economic front, the state is amongst the poorest in the country and the benefits of economic growth under the UPA I and II have not reached the state. Gogoi has also been accused of fanning dynastic politics and projecting family members for key positions in the state. The government has also failed to control ethnic and group clashes.
5. Learning from the mistakes in Bihar: Announcement of CM candidate
With more and more elections being fought and won around personalities (for instance, Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and the Assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar last year), the BJP has announced Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate in Assam.
The firebrand and dynamic politician was All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) president in the 1990s and is expected to connect with the youth, given that 65 per cent of the population of India is below 35 years of age. He is 53 years old as against his 81-year-old competitor Gogoi.
6. Ability to craft a social combination of religious and ethnic groups
The BJP emerged as the first choice of both Assamese and Bengali Hindus in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, with more than 60 per cent from both communities coming out and voting for the party. It was able to delicately balance the political claims of both Assamese and Bengali-speaking Hindus which was the main point of discord during the 1979-1984 Assam agitation.
The party also got tremendous support from the tea garden workers and was able to win three out of 14 seats where they have significant influence. Notably, the BJP’s vote share among this community was only eight per cent in the 2011 Assembly polls as against 71 per cent recorded by the Congress.
The strong belief among the Assamese Hindus and tribals that “immigrants” would outnumber them has helped the BJP to consolidate the votes of these communities in its favour.
7. Congress losing vote share in all states where it has been ruling post the 2014 Lok Sabha elections
The Congress, on an average, has lost two-five per cent vote share in state elections where it was in power compared to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 as shown in table below. If this trend continues, it would mean that the party could end up getting anywhere between 25-28 per cent vote share compared to 30 per cent it received in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It has never been able to form the government in Assam with such low vote share. Its lowest vote share when it succeeded in forming the government in the state was 29.4 per cent in 1991 when it won 66 out of 126 seats.
Factors which BJP needs to be wary of:
1. Absence of Modi factor
We have seen more and more that there has been an absence of Modi wave in state polls. One-fourth of the BJP’s votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were attributed to the Modi factor according to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). This means it could lose some of its vote share ranging from three-seven per cent.
2. Rebellion by Trinamool BJP
A section of BJP leaders miffed with the BJP’s alliance with AGP have rebelled and formed a new party called Trinamool BJP. They are expected to put up candidates in 24 seats which have been allocated to the AGP under the quota. This could mar the chances of the party in these seats.
3. Inability of AGP/BOPF to transfer votes to BJP
Critics argue that the AGP is a spent force and would benefit more from this alliance than the BJP. It was not leading in any Assembly seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It had won only ten seats in the 2011 state polls. Similarly, the BOPF, which was leading in only one seat in the Lok Sabha elections has been given 16 seats. The biggest fear is whether the AGP and BOPF will emerge as the Paswsans/Manjhis of Bihar and hamper the BJP’s prospects.
4. Lack of uniform presence throughout the state
The BJP has a strong presence in the Brahmaputra Valley. It retained three of its Lok Sabha seats and snatched four from the Congress in the Valley. However, it lost its Silchar seat to the Congress as it lost Bengali Hindu votes in the Barak Valley.
Even in Brahmaputra Valley, its presence in lower Assam is limited.
5. Very high strike rate required to win
With 40 Muslim-dominated seats already out of reach of the BJP (which most likely will end up with the AIUDF or Congress), the BJP and allies are essentially contesting on the remaining 86 seats. Out of these 86 seats, it has to win 64 to form the government which results in a strike rate of 74 per cent.
6. Possibility of AIUDF and Congress coming together post polls is still there
In case of a hung Assembly, the Congress and AIUDF can still join hands and form the government to keep so-called communal forces at bay. So emerging as the largest combination may not help the BJP. It needs to at least attain a simple majority.
To sum up, can the BJP mark its entry in Northeast? Can Assam repeat a Haryana with the Congress being relegated to the third place behind the AIUDF? Can Muslims vote strategically to defeat the BJP? Will the AGP and BOPF repeat Paswan and Manjhi’s performance in Bihar in Assam? Can the BJP carry together the inherent contradictions in its support base and allies’ vote bank? The answers to some of these questions will decide who the winner is.
The BJP is undoubtedly the frontrunner in Assam. This is a golden opportunity to form its government in Assam as the Congress is reeling under the pressure of 15 years of misrule, corruption, ethnic clashes, low economic growth and factionalism. If it doesn’t it will have only itself to blame.
*The Assamese are dominant in Brahmaputra Valley and Bengalis are dominant in Barak Valley.