BJP sweeping the Assam tribal council polls highlights huge gap between electoral narratives and reality

The tribal council elections have just ended in Assam, and the BJP has swept the polls. This may have come as a surprise for those who expected the BJP to be punished for its misadventures with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. News emerging from Assam painted a bleak picture of the BJP's 'mismanagement' and blunders with a bill that apparently further marginalises the indigenous tribes of Assam and endangers their identity.

The curious thing is that the opposite seems to have happened. If the tribes were up in arms against the BJP, as has been reported, the results belie the narrative. In the recently-held autonomous tribal council elections for the Mising Autonomous Council (MAC), the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC) and the Sonowal Kachari Autonomous Council (SKAC), the BJP and its ally whitewashed their rivals.

According to media reports, the BJP, along with the Jautha Sangram Samity, pocketed 34 of the 36 seats in the RHAC. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Congress won one seat each. In the SKAC, the BJP bagged 18 seats, while in the MAC, the BJP and Ganashakti party together managed to win 34 of the 35 seats.

There are elections and narratives about elections, and often, these don't match. The reasons are many. One good reason is that instead of letting reality shape the narrative, narratives seek to shape reality. In the process, narratives reveal less about the real issues that need attention and more about those who build it. Narratives need not always have an agenda. Sometimes, the pressure to break down the complexity of an election into a simple storyline also leads to mistakes.

We have been told that Assam is burning, and the BJP is chiefly responsible for it. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha on the last day of the Winter Session of Parliament on 8 January, has caused massive unrest among the aboriginal tribes because it promises to open India's borders to non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and reinforce the demographic changes.

Even as Assam is busy updating its National Register of Citizens to identify illegal immigrants from Assam, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, we are told, is seeking to put the "very idea of Assam at stake". One such article among a clutch of pieces, carried in HuffPost India, says that the BJP has "betrayed" the people of Assam by pushing through a bill that divides Assam on communal lines, and for this mistake, "if not anything, at least in the 2019 elections, the BJP will be taught a lesson".

Another one, carried in Firstpost, says the BJP has "misread Assam and North East's socio-cultural fabric" by bringing in a communal bill, and the party may pay a heavy price in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. "What it failed to read is the mismatch between Hindutva ideology and Assamese sub-nationalism, the two things the BJP has tried to unite vehemently. Not surprising then that the results are starker. People have refused to buy the religion-based Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, that promises to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees, among others," it reads.

 BJP sweeping the Assam tribal council polls highlights huge gap between electoral narratives and reality

Representational image. AFP

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has sought to re-imagine the contours of Assam, a troubled state where immigration has wreaked havoc to the state's social and cultural fabric. The charge against the BJP is that it rode the promise to solve the problem of illegal immigration and came into power, but it now wants to implement its own version of social engineering by excluding Muslim immigrants and granting citizenship to Hindu refugees, thereby "betraying" its original promise. This, say critics and protestors against the bill, doesn't solve Assam's problems but adds an extra communal angle to it.

There is no question that the bill is contentious. The AGP broke its alliance with the BJP just a day before the Lok Sabha passed it. There have been protests all over Assam; three AGP ministers have resigned from the Assam Cabinet; and fissures have emerged even from within the party. BJP MLA from Bihpuria Debananda Hazarika said he cannot accept the bill because "a foreigner is a foreigner". "Religion cannot be the basis on which a section of foreigners can be granted citizenship," he said.

But does this present the full picture? Or are we missing the wood for trees?

Former Assam chief minister and senior Congress leader Tarun Gogoi is confident the BJP will bite the dust in the Lok Sabha elections and his party will "more than double its seats". He told The Print that the BJP may feel it "will benefit from this bill, but according to me, they won"t. "People are agitating… If the BJP had support, why would people be on the streets? The bill isn't acceptable to the people, so how will the BJP win in a democracy? Indian people are not so communal, particularly not the people of Assam," he said.

The results don't match Gogoi's optimism. Monday's results are part of a larger trend that indicate that the BJP's political fortunes in Assam are improving, not waning. In the other tribal council poll held on 19 January — the election to the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC) — the BJP won 19 of the 28 seats, the Congress got two and the AGP, one. Incidentally, in 2013, the BJP had drawn a blank in the NCHAC polls, while the Congress and Independent candidates had won 10 seats each.

Not to mention the fact that the BJP's sweep of the autonomous tribal council elections comes less than two months since it won the three-tier Assam panchayat polls by bagging 42 percent of the total seats in the fray. The BJP bagged 11,325 of the total 26,784 polls cast in the elections held on 9 December with an 82 percent voter turnout. The Congress came second, securing 34 percent of the seats, according to the Assam State Election Commission.

Clearly, the existing political narrative — that the BJP is burning Assam and the state's ethnic tribes and secular citizens are up in arms against its social and communal engineering — cannot adequately explain the factors that determine elections. Whether that is due to inadequacy of data or wilful shaping of reality to suit the narrative is moot.

One can draw a larger inference from this gap between electoral narratives and reality. A larger canvas may actually serve to make the distortion even bigger — if there is a narrative-induced distortion to begin with. It might be worthwhile to take the poll predictions with more than a pinch of salt.

Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 16:17:42 IST