Ascension in Assam: How BJP metamorphosed its course to a debut triumph

Cushion of power and not the cuisine was what interested the BJP in Assam. Unlike the interference seen in many other states, when Himanta Biswa Sarma declared that his party was not going to decide on as to what meat the people of Assam should eat, hardly anyone in the RSS frowned. For the Sangh Parivar making inroads to the power politics of Assam and other states of North East was a different ballgame altogether.

The intent was evident in the manner the BJP captured power in Assam for the first time riding on the massive anti-incumbency faced by the 15-year-long Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. File photo. PTI

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. File photo. PTI

"During the last decade of the 15-year-old Congress government in Assam, serious charges of corruption and misrule were leveled against it. People were fed up of corruption they faced in their daily lives. They voted against it by voting for the BJP," political scientist Apurba Kumar Baruah told Firstpost in Guwahati.

BJP sensed the anti-incumbency wave way before the election and fielded Sarbananda Sonowal, a leader with a clean image as its chief ministerial candidate.

"Sarbananda Sonowal was associated with All Assam Students' Union, Asom Gana Parishad for a long time before joining BJP. He has a relatively clean image then many other leaders. That must have been a reason of presenting him," said former Gauhati University professor and a left-wing thinker, Hiren Gohain.

The diversity package

But that (fielding Sonowal) itself was not enough to create the magic that the saffron party did, given the multiplicity of voices and aspirations that prevail in the richly diverse political terrain of Assam. It needed to have a strategy or a political story that would connect it to the masses.

"Muslims constitute one-third of Assam’s population. Tribals, who were never part of conservative Brahminic Hindu tradition, play a major role in electoral politics here. Had BJP told the hardline, casteist Hindutva story as it did in Hindi heartland, hardly anyone would have listened to it," said Baruah.

In fact, the party faced tremendous opposition before election from a section of the Assamese intelligentsia. Gohain, along with some other intellectuals and writers appealed to the people of Assam, not to vote for BJP, citing it as a communal party.

“People did not listen to us. But still I do not see any reason why, I should change my opinion on the party," he said.

Assam is only the threshold of North East

"The moves the party makes here could well be sending signals to electorates in the other tribal dominated states of the region. Especially at a time, when Manipur, another state of the region is heading towards assembly election next year, the party had to make cautious moves," said Baruah.

Having failed to get power in North East India for decades even for once, the party needed this victory badly.

"After its defeat in Delhi and Bihar, Assam was the only silver lining in the cloud. So it was ready to recalibrate its Hindutva model to make it more suitable for local politics," said Guwahati-based writer and book publisher Paresh Malakar.

Linguistic nationalism is a strong political sentiment in mainstream Assamese society. This is a caste and religion agnostic sentiment that encompasses all the components of an indigenous Assamese society. This fervor catapulted Asom Gana Parishad to power twice. On the other hand Hindutva evokes religious nationalism.

Congress was well aware of this difference. It was not difficult to understand why the last chief minister kept on harping in election meetings, "Assam is a land where both the saints Sankardev and Ajan Fakir once walked. A communal party like BJP can never win power here."

"Then, Assamese linguistic nationalism has a strong Hindu influence," said Baruah. "This is the reason why BJP and AGP sound often alike."

Smart to spot the opportunity BJP began frequently using two Assamese words—Jati (identity) and Mati (land)—in its campaign. These two words often used used by Assamese nationalist forces to evoke chauvinistic sentiment among the mainstream Assamese refer to Assamese nationalism and right over the land and local resources respectively.

Assamese nationalism has always stood for safeguarding the political and economic rights of the indigenous from the 'aggression' of people who migrated from both Bangladesh and mainland India.

"But in the recently concluded election BJP targeted only the Bangladesh origin Muslims branding them as illegal immigrants in its campaign, though most of them migrated far before India became an independent country," said Hafiz Ahmed, an intellectual among the Bangladesh-origin Muslims living in the river islands of Assam.

This river islands are referred to as char areas.

"The party also aggressively campaigned that this section of people will politically outpower the Assamese," Ahmed said.

As a result of this campaign polling booths saw massive voter turnout. Mainstream Assamese- dominated Guwahati East Constituency, that casted 56.45 percent of its votes in 2011 Assembly Election, saw an upsurge with 79.21 percent of its voters reaching out to vote this time around. On the other hand, Muslim dominated Jania constituency saw 88.72 percent voter turnout, crossing its earlier 83.86 percent mark. Total voter turnout in the entire state drastically increased by 12.34 percent than the last Assembly polls in 2011.

In an interview published in The Indian Express, just before the election, Sarma, the flag bearer of BJP’s campaign said that people have polarised in terms of ethnicity and not in terms of religion.

Seat sharing alliance with Asom Gana Parishad, allowed funnelling of the regional parties votes to BJP’s bank leading to its victory in 60 constituencies.

Statistical reports of the Chief Electoral Officer shows that BJP’s vote share has increased by a whopping 18.03 percent than the previous election and Congress has lost 8.39 percent of its voters.

The tribal equation

Tribal communities in Assam who increasingly aspire to see themselves determining their fate themselves required separate and equal attention.

"Extending a hand of friendship towards the tribals, setting aside casteist dogma was another feature of the recalibrated model of Hindutva under experimentation in Assam," said Malakar.

A Bodo intellectual comments gratefully about the saffron party’s ‘benevolent’ terms of alliance with the Bodo People’s Front, "BJP had an understanding with the BPF and fielded candidates only in three constituencies in Bodoland Territorial Area District, leaving the remaining 13 seats for BPF.”

He said that in turn BPF helped BJP to garner support from the Bodo people living in various other constituencies outside BTAD.

"The result was evident," he said. This help extended by BPF to the national party, helped BJP win three of the four reserved seats for tribals in Karbi Anglong district,and one in Dima Hasao district which had all been occupied by the Congress earlier.

The Bodo intellectual, who did not wish to be named, said the tribals in Assam are facing serious economic and political threat because of encroachment of their lands by suspected illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. They also fear existence of jihadi elements among these encroachers.

"The tribal intelligentsia have been repeatedly demanding constitutional safeguard of the people who settled in Assam before the year 1951. But the then chief minister Tarun Gogoi was not even ready to discuss this issue,” he said.

This attitude by Gogoi only helped BJP BJP make inroads to the tribal dominated areas of the state.

Hindutva agenda and North East India

Recalibrating the Hindutva agenda for North East India is not a new phenomenon. BJP began it well ahead of time in the year 2014, by assuring to fulfill the demand of reservation made by six ethnic groups of Assam -- Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, tea garden community, Maran, Matak and Chutiya.

Though the demand is yet to be fulfilled, this time around BJP assured them of expediting the process by finalizing the modalities by 30 May.

"Our people have voted for BJP, expecting that our demand will be fulfilled as promised. We are yet to see our aspiration come true," said Himu Rajbongshi, one of the leaders of the struggle.

However, there is also a bunch of political pundits who did not see Hindutva agenda in BJP’s campaign unlike the many Muslims living in char areas. They suspected that the Hindutva agenda was camouflaged under the garb of Assamese nationalism and ethnicity.

"If branding all the Bangladesh origin Muslims as illegal infiltrators was not a communal agenda then what else is? Why did BJP declare Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal its prime enemy? Wasn't only because he is a Muslim? Would have BJP used the same words if he were a Hindu?" asked Ahmed.

Editor's note: The BJP's recent victory in the Assam Assembly Election signals a systemic shift in the politics of the North East. These altered circumstances are bound to telegraph their effects to Assam's near neighbours. Firstpost senior reporter Kangkan Acharyya will travel through the seven north-eastern states to document the transformation, filing regular dispatches like this one.)

Updated Date: May 31, 2016 19:01 PM

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