If 2014 changed the grammar of politics in India, the 2019 verdict is further proof that conventional arithmetic no longer holds for national elections. BJP has not only come back to power, but it has also bettered its own performance since 2014, with 303 seats and 37.4 percent of the total vote share.
In tune with the national picture, BJP won nine out of 14 parliamentary seats in Assam with a gain of two seats from the last time. The Congress managed to retain three seats. The BJP’s stellar performance in Assam in 2014 was a result of long-term shifts in the politics of the state. Continued erosion of Congress’ traditional constituencies, BJP’s ability to appropriate the nativist politics and its attendant cultural symbols gave the party a strong foothold, unprecedented in the history of this northeastern state.
Comfortably in power in the state since 2016, the BJP ran a polarising campaign in the state amid controversial issues of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Bill.
BJP kept its earlier poll promise by attempting to updating the NRC, a record which is to consist names of all genuine Indian citizens residing in Assam. The second and final NRC draft released in 2018, through a rather fraught bureaucratic exercise, happen to exclude about four million names. To BJP’s dismay, many Bengali Hindus on whose support it depends in the Barak Valley, have been found to be left out of this draft list. On a defensive, the party introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in the Lok Sabha partly in keeping with BJP’s poll promise in 2014 to welcome Hindu refugees and persons of five other faiths except for Muslims.
BJP leaders in Assam tried to assuage Hindu voters that they would have an opportunity to apply for citizenship in case their names have been left out in the NRC. The Bill was met with resistance from many quarters. Critics pointed out that the CAB could cost the saffron party in this election. On the contrary, voters in Assam have given an overwhelming mandate to the BJP.
For the BJP, this election was about Assam’s very survival. While nationally, the BJP successfully transformed the election into a presidential-style “if not Modi, who?”, in Assam, this was combined with the ‘illegal immigration’ card.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, perhaps BJP’s most influential leader from the North East, called this election the ‘last battle of Saraighat’-- to evoke a sense of urgency against what he claimed to be a demographic and political onslaught of “illegal Bangladeshis”. Like the battle of Saraighat in late 17th century where the Ahoms resisted the entry of Mughals into Assam, the BJP claimed its main agenda is to arrest the aggression that Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF party represents.
Religious polarisation is not new in Assam since the anti-immigrant student agitation in 1970s-80s also had sectarian elements, leading to widespread violence against minorities particularly Bengali Muslims. A re-energised and communal brand of sub-nationalism in this election seems to have worked in the party’s favour.
Interestingly, divisive rhetoric and politics helped consolidate Muslim votes in favour of Congress instead of the AIUDF. The latter managed to retain Ajmal’s Dhubri constituency, which is two less than 2014. Its vote share has also been halved. Congress snatched Barpeta earlier represented by Ajmal’s brother Siraj Uddin Ajmal. Ajmal’s party has been on the decline since 2016 and won only 26 seats in the 2018 panchayat election.
There are over nine parliamentary seats constituting of 40 Assembly segments, where Muslim votes range from 35 to 90 percent of the total vote share. So a decline in its support is a significant development in Assam politics. Since its creation in 2006, AIUDF had significantly eaten into Congress’ core support base of Muslim votes. However, this election seems to have convinced many Bengali Muslims that Congress was a more sustainable alternative given BJP’s strategy of religious polarisation.
Congress garnered 35.44 percent votes in the state and even managed to wrest the minority-dominated Nowgong seat from the BJP by a margin of over 16,000 votes. Assam politics is often organised around two major social cleavages: linguistic and religious. In this election, religious fault line trumped language as Hindus (Assamese, Bengalis and others) have coalesced around BJP while Muslims have predominantly voted for the Congress. In the larger picture, this configuration benefits the BJP.
Moreover, since 2014, there is a strong indication that the regional forces no longer hold sway with voters in Assam. Once a formidable challenger to Congress’ dominance, the AGP has been drawing a blank since 2014. Riding on the coat tails of the BJP, the AGP has marginally improved its vote share since the previous election. Shortly after the announcement of the CAB, AGP exited the alliance with the ruling BJP government in Assam, arguing that the Bill is in direct violation of the clauses of the Assam Accord. The fact that it came back to BJP for a pre-poll alliance for Lok Sabha shows its absolute diminished electoral capital. Historically known to be a ‘Hindi-cow belt’ party, the BJP needed the regional party to gain a cultural legitimacy in the state. The 2019 verdict is proof that this project is now realised, at the cost of regional forces.
- Prof. Smitana Saikia - Assistant Professor – International Studies