Ahead of Assembly election, new regional parties pop up in Assam; but they may not be potent enough to dislodge BJP

Emerging out of anti-CAA protests, with its Assamese centric character and consequent inability to significantly mobilise cross-sectional participation, these parties would face considerable difficulty to expand their appeal beyond some 35 seats where Assamese speakers are dominant.

Abhinav Pankaj Borbora October 12, 2020 09:23:04 IST
Ahead of Assembly election, new regional parties pop up in Assam; but they may not be potent enough to dislodge BJP

Announcement of the formation of Raijor Dal. Image courtesy News18 Assam North East

With elections due in spring next year, Assam’s politics is going through a churn with the formation of several new regional parties, the latest being Raijor Dal (RD) backed by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a leading pressure group of the state.

These groups have surfaced at a time, when on hand, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems extremely confident about its prospects, with a senior minister recently asserting that it would win 100 seats while the Congress, having set a target of securing 80 seats, is now mooting the idea of leading a ‘grand alliance’ of anti-BJP forces.

In the 2016 elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party securing 60 seats. Along with its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad (14 seats), Bodoland People’s Front (12 seats) and Gana Shakti (1 seat), the party formed the government ending the 15-year tenure of Congress.

Ahead of the forthcoming elections, the BJP continues to maintain a significantly dominant position in the state. This is probably the most significant factor conditioning party-competition at the moment. Despite being in government for over four years, the BJP has not encountered any considerable electoral setback and has rather managed to deepen its dominance by making a cross-sectional growth except in Muslim strongholds. The party has also won the Panchayat elections by a landslide and presently controls a significant number of district and autonomous councils.

More notably, in the 2019 general elections, held in the backdrop of anti-government protests due to the passage of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the BJP successfully managed to further improve its performance. It won nine out of 14 constituencies, from its previous tally of seven, by securing a lead in 67 assembly segments.

During this time, the party has also managed to keep a rein on its coalition partners. The AGP, which stood by it even during anti-CAA protests, is likely to remain content playing second fiddle and would acquiesce with contesting a small number of seats that it would be offered. While cracks are appearing in its relationship with the BPF, the BJP has sought to balance the development by nurturing close ties with the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), which is rapidly gaining ground in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) following the third Bodo Accord.

Such an impressive growth of the BJP has naturally constricted the space of the opposition in a significant way. The Congress managed to win only 26 seats in the 126 member assembly in 2016. Its base among crucial social constituencies like the tea tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities has severely eroded with the growing influence of the BJP among these groups and has managed to retain a significant hold only over the Muslims and a small section of Assamese speakers.

On the other hand, the All Indian United Democratic Front (AIUDF) which is the other major contender of the BJP, continues to retain considerable influence despite its seat tally coming down to 13 (2016) from 18 (2011) but its popular base is however mostly restricted to the Bengali Muslims. Both major opposition parties, at this moment, are therefore quite weakly positioned to comprehensively challenge the BJP.

Partly to overcome this limitation and also because a section felt that mainstream parties did not powerfully voice concerns of the Assamese, several new regional parties have recently sprung up. However, the extent to which these groups would be able to impact party-competition remains doubtful.

Emerging out of anti-CAA protests, with its Assamese centric character and consequent inability to significantly mobilise cross-sectional participation, these parties would face considerable difficulty to expand their appeal beyond some 35 seats where Assamese speakers are dominant.

In any case, some of these groups hardly have much presence on the ground beyond the personalities leading them. This could hold true for groups like Anchalik Gana Morcha, which joined hands with Congress as well as Asom Sangrami Mancha or United Regional Party Assam that have therefore now merged with Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal (RD), two other regional parties formed recently.

Being comprised of leaders having close ties with strong pressure groups like All Assam Students Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) respectively, both AJP and RD are however being touted to play a significant role with their support. But again, the level of electoral influence that their cadres would be able to wield remains deeply questionable.

It is this shared weakness of the opposition that has led to calls for jointly contesting the BJP. The basic idea being that a Congress-AIUDF alliance would consolidate the Muslim vote to give it an advantage in some 30 seats while the new regional groups would mobilise support in Assamese dominated constituencies. At first sight, such an equation seems alluring as it brings the alliance quite close to the halfway mark.

But if recent electoral trends are studied, actual voting behaviour is unlikely to aggregate according to the above hypothesis. Two reasons would suffice. Precluding split of the Muslim vote would certainly make the contest difficult for BJP in areas where the community plays a decisive role. But such an alliance, owing to Assam’s political background, would itself easily play into BJP’s polarising narrative triggering a Hindu counter-consolidation across constituencies. This factor coupled with the regional players’ own debility would in turn severely impede them from mobilising ethnic Assamese sentiments against the saffron party.

Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, despite the high sounding anti-CAA rhetoric of regional groups, most Assamese constituencies witnessed significant levels of turnout and gave BJP a lead.

Ahead of next Assembly elections, the BJP led alliance thus appears to be in a comfortable position at this moment. If it manages to be successful, the saffron party would become the first non-congress party in Assam’s history to secure a consecutive term in office. The opposition, in spite of its theatrics, would probably have a difficult road ahead. It can begin to revive itself by making a more committed effort to build a robust grassroots base instead of wishing to piggyback upon motley alliances, promoting credible leaders rather than banking upon armchair personalities and by evolving a more inclusive politics.

The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Assam Royal Global University, Guwahati and can be reached at abhinav92ac@outlook.com

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