Ruling Bharatiya Janata Party created history in the north eastern Indian state of Assam by becoming the first non-Congress party to win two successive terms in the state assembly elections there.
Staving off a spirited fightback from its main challenger Congress, the saffron party, along with its regional allies like Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), won 75 out of the total 126 seats, 11 less than the previous assembly elections five years ago. The Congress-led 10-party alliance including All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) of perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, finished runners up with a total of 50 seats this time. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which did not have AIDUF in it in 2016 but had Left parties, got 26 seats in the 2016 poll.
There were two firsts in the election this time. For the BJP, the assembly election in Assam in 2021 stood apart from the other four states of Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry as the north eastern state was the only place among them where the party was eyeing to retain power. On the other hand, Congress went into this poll with AIDUF for the first time.
Leading the National Democratic Alliance with AGP, United People's Party Liberal (UPPL) and the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP), which mainly represent the Bodo and Sarania communities respectively, BJP faced challenges from two fronts this year—one from Congress-led Grand Alliance of which AIDUF, Bodoland People's Front (BPF) which has pockets of influence in Bodoland area, and small regional groupings Anchalik Gana Morcha, Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI and CPI (Marxist-Leninist) and second from two nascent regional parties Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal which were born out of the widespread violent street protests against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 when five people were killed in police firing. It had at that time appeared that anti-CAA protests would dent BJP's electoral prospects by stoking fresh fears about a fresh influx of undocumented migrants into Assam, particularly in upper Assam. It may be noted that the Indian government is yet to notify the rules to implement CAA.
How did BJP manage to retain power in Assam? More importantly, how did the party manage to deflect public attention from CAA? Victory in any poll has to be won by a strategy that takes into account various factors. In Assam, the party used polarisation, implementation of a series of welfare schemes like income support for housewives and land rights for indigenous people and, above all, by a very fine balancing act to navigate the minefield of CAA and NRC issues. Over the years, BJP has raked up the issue of influx in Assam from across the border with Bangladesh, accusing the previous Congress governments of encouraging illegal immigrants in return for their support. This had helped the party come to power in Assam for the first time 2016. Five years down the line, the same strategy remained in place. What provided more fodder for BJP's polarising narrative this time was Congress' tie-up with AIUDF as the ruling party projected Ajmal's party, which has a huge hold mainly among Bangla-speaking Muslims in Assam. BJP projected Congress-AIDUF alliance as detrimental to the interests of Assam's indigenous people and "the culture and civilisation of Assam." Anti-CAA activists, particularly in upper Assam, have always opposed the influx of migrants irrespective of their religion. The BJP established its sway in upper Assam, which has the largest chunk of 28 assembly seats, and this propelled the party to power for the first time in 2016.
According to Congress insiders, the alliance with AIUDF hurt Congress' bid to recapture power in Assam and resulted in the party's poor showing especially in upper Assam where AIUDF does not have any significant presence. The results show Congress-led UPA got just three out of the total 28 seats in upper Assam as against NDA's 23 this time. Congress had hoped to cash in on the opposition to CAA, which aims to give Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who have come to India till 2014. The party had even promised that if voted back to power, it would bring a law to nullify CAA. But the issue, as evident by the results, failed to cut ice with voters in upper Assam.
On the other hand, BJP successfully diverted the issue of CAA away from the political discourse by arguing that a "corrected" NRC would address the sensitive issue of "illegal" immigrants. Secondly, BJP President JP Nadda, while releasing the party's manifesto in Assam, countered Congress by saying CAA cannot be changed through a state-level legislation but did not commit to its implementation. Thirdly, votaries of anti-CAA agitation have always had reservations about AIDUF which they think is a supporter of illegal migrants. This is the chord BJP successfully struck in upper Assam by repeatedly pointing at AIDUF's presence in the company of Congress. Fourthly, BJP managed to mollify the people belonging to different anti-CAA indigenous communities in upper Assam by giving them positions not only in local administrative bodies created for them, but also in the party. All these factors cumulatively helped BJP blunt the resentment against CAA and National Register of Citizens and reassert its dominance in upper Assam, electorally the most crucial part of the state.
BJP lost a key ally in the form of BPF this time as the latter joined the Congress-led alliance in the run up to the election. But it meant little for the saffron party which roped in another Bodoland outfit, United People's Party Liberal, which helped it make substantial gains in Bodoland area where NDA got eight out of the 12 seats. Assam's Barak Valley, predominantly inhabited by Bangla-speaking Hindus and Muslims, gave BJP-led NDA nine seats and six to Congress-led alliance.
BJP's polarising narrative led to a massive consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of Congress and AIUDF which together managed to get 31 legislators belonging to the minority community to Assam assembly this time, even though the treasury bench of the House would not have any Muslim member for the first time in half a century. The presence of 31 Muslim legislators—16 of Congress and 15 of AIDUF—this time is the second-highest in 38 years in a state where, as per the Census of 2011, Muslims account for 34.22 percent of the population, while Hindus and other religious groups account for the rest of the 3.12 crore total population. Of the 126 assembly seats, religious minorities decide the electoral fate in 23 seats, mostly in western and southern Assam and play a crucial role in about seven other seats.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.