Assam Elections: BJP Faces Uphill Task In Realising Its Goal Of ‘Hundred Plus’ Seats

Assam Elections: BJP Faces Uphill Task In Realising Its Goal Of ‘Hundred Plus’ Seats

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Saturday, March 6, 2021 12:06 PM IST
Assam Elections: BJP Faces Uphill Task In Realising Its Goal Of ‘Hundred Plus’ SeatsAssam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal with state Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma (Pic via Twitter)
  • Muslims form 35 per cent of the state’s electorate, and Bengali-speaking Muslims who are concentrated in lower and central Assam districts play a decisive role in as many as 40 Assembly segments.

    It will take deft politics by the BJP to surmount this formidable challenge — posed by a tactical alliance between Congress and Islamist AIUDF.

The BJP has set a very ambitious target of bagging more than a hundred of the 126 seats in the Assam Assembly.

BJP national president J.P. Nadda and a host of senior leaders have been asserting that the party will win more than a hundred seats in the polls, due a little over three weeks from now.

However, the saffron party, which won 60 seats in the last Assembly elections in 2016, will not find it easy to meet its vaulting goal of a hundred-plus seats, or ‘Mission Hundred Plus’ as its leaders term it.

That’s because the party faces many tough challenges, some of which are of its own making. The primary among them is the Congress-led seven party alliance that includes the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

The ‘M’ factor

The alliance between the Congress and the AIUDF has precluded a division of Muslim votes. This is the first time that the two parties have entered into an alliance, primarily to prevent the votes of Muslims, who play a significant role in at least 50 Assembly seats.

Though the Congress had resisted alliance overtures from Ajmal in the past to prevent possible alienation of its Hindu supporters primarily in Upper Assam, the party concluded it would need the AIUDF’s help to consolidate Muslim votes and prevent the BJP from retaining Assam.

An informal understanding between the Congress, then helmed by three-time chief minister Tarun Gogoi, and the AIUDF was reached sometime in 2018, two years after the Congress suffered a drubbing in the 2016 Assembly elections when it won just 26 seats.

The Congress had failed to win any election in Assam since 2014. It won just three of the 14 Lok Sabha seats from Assam in 2014, a performance it repeated in 2019. The party even lost all panchayat and civic body polls over the last seven years.

The desperation for survival drove it to join hands with the AIUDF. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress managed to win three seats because the AIUDF sacrificed two seats to the party. The AIUDF did not field any candidates in two of the three seats that the Congress won.

Incidentally, the three seats that the Congress won — Barpeta, Nagaon and Kaliabor — are all Muslim-dominated seats. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had won from Silchar, Karbi Anglong and Kaliabor seats.

But in 2019, both Silchar and Karbi Anglong (Autonomous District) were bagged by the BJP. Thus, had the AIUDF not been magnanimous, the Congress would have won just one seat in 2019.

Even the late Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav would perhaps have lost Kaliabor had the AIUDF fielded a candidate from there.

Muslims form 35 per cent of the state’s electorate, and Bengali-speaking Muslims who are concentrated in lower and central Assam districts play a decisive role in as many as 40 Assembly segments.

The support of the Bengali-speaking Muslims used to get divided between the Congress and the AIUDF in the past, thus benefiting the BJP.

But that will not happen this time and the Congress-led alliance is likely to bag most of the seats where the support of Bengali-speaking Muslims is a decisive factor.

The BJP posted a victory from 28 seats in 2016 as a result of division of Muslim votes. This time, most of these seats will go to the Congress-led alliance.

Additionally, there are the Assamese-speaking indigenous Muslims who are spread mostly over Upper and central Assam districts but whose support can make the crucial difference between victory and defeat in a few seats.

The AGP, an ally of the BJP, had always enjoyed the support of a significant chunk of the indigenous Muslims of the state. In the 2016 Assembly elections, many from this community had even voted for the BJP.

However, the shrill Hindutva rhetoric by some senior BJP leaders, the Citizenship Amendment Act that is highly reviled in Assam and some other acts of omission and commission committed by the BJP over the last five years has turned the Assamese Muslims not only away from the BJP, but also from its ally — the AGP.

The Congress is expected to bag an overwhelming majority of the votes of Assamese Muslims this time. That can spell trouble for the BJP.

A lot, however, depends on how the alliance between the Congress and the AIUDF works on the ground.

The two parties have often been at loggerheads and there is no love lost between the workers of the two parties. Many in the Congress are still wary, and even resentful, of their party joining hands with the AIUDF which they considered to be an Islamist and communal party.

The late Tarun Gogoi had himself labelled the AIUDF a “communal party” and had alleged that the AIUDF was a ‘B team’ of the BJP propped up by the saffron party to divide Muslim votes.

Also, the alliance with the AIUDF is likely to cost the Congress the support of a significant section of the Assamese Hindu electorate and the support of the indigenous tribes who view the AIUDF as a party representing Bangladeshi-origin Muslims who they perceive as a threat.

The Bodo factor

In 2016, the BJP’s alliance with the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) helped it come to power in the state. The BPF won 12 seats in the Bodo-dominated areas of the four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).

The BPF had been in alliance with the Congress in the 2006 and 2011 elections and had helped the Congress come to power then. But in 2016, the BPF joined hands with the BJP and won 12 of the 16 seats it contested from.

Apart from 12 seats in the BTR, Bodos form a significant chunk of the electorate in another 12 seats in Bongaigaon, Darrang, Nalbari and Sonitpur districts.

The BPF, formed in 2005, has been considered the primary political representative of the Bodos ever since the signing of the second Bodo Accord in 2003.

The BPF has ruled the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) — it governs the BTR and is a semi-autonomous body — ever since the first elections to it were held in 2005.

The BJP broke its alliance with the BPF before the BTC polls held in December last year and joined hands with the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) led by the highly-popular Pramod Boro who was one of the leading lights of the Bodoland movement.

Even though the BPF emerged as the single-largest party by winning 17 of the 40 seats, the BJP-UPPL combine formed the BTC’s executive council. The UPPL had won 12 seats and the BJP nine, while another ally — the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) — won one seat.

The Congress won one seat while the AIUDF, which had won four seats in the 2015 BTC polls, drew a blank.

The BJP’s performance was impressive considering the fact that it had won just one seat in 2015. Political analysts say the saffron party earned a lot of goodwill with the signing of the Third Bodo Accord on January 27 last year.

This Accord, whose signatories are the Union and Assam governments, four factions of the militant National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the influential All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) that was being led by Pramod Boro at that time, has ushered in permanent peace in BTR.

The Assam government’s move in October last year to accord official status to Bodo language also generated a lot of goodwill for the BJP.

The combined vote share of the BPF, Congress and the AIUDF in the BTR is much more than that of the UPPL-BJP-GSP-AGP combine.

But a lot will depend on how the Congress-led alliance works on the ground, given the past history of animosity between the BPF which represents the Bodos and the AIUDF which represents Bangladeshi-origin Muslims.

The Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims have clashed many times in the past and Bodo militant groups had frequently targeted the Muslims. To get the cadres of the BPF and AIUDF to work unitedly would be a tough task.

The Assamese and Indigenous Voters

The Congress feels that the intensity of the opposition to the CAA amongst the Assamese and the non-fulfillment of its promise to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord that provides for Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people” could work against the BJP, thereby resulting in a rebound benefit.

The delay and uncertainty over implementing this vital clause as was promised by the BJP in the 2016 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections has angered many Assamese.

The Congress feels that this anger of the Assamese will negate any adverse fallout over its association with the AIUDF.

However, say political observers, the anger over CAA and non-implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord fizzled out during the long pandemic-induced lockdown last month.

Assamese Hindus and an assortment of plains tribals dominate 40-odd seats in Upper Assam and are a deciding factor as well in 12-odd seats in central Assam.

Political analysts say that the good work done by the BJP-led government in the state over the last five years in terms of infrastructure development, public health, sanitation and aggressive implementation of various social welfare schemes will work to the BJP’s advantage.

However, the existence of two parties borne out of the anti-CAA agitation — the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) backed by the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Raijor Dal — may queer the BJP’s pitch, albeit marginally, in some constituencies.

Barak Valley

The Bengali-dominated Barak Valley comprising Karimganj, Hailakandi and Cachar districts of southern Assam has 15 seats and is polarised along religious lines.

The BJP won eight of the 15 seats in 2016 while the AIUDF won four and the Congress won three seats. The BJP lost two seats — one to the Congress and the other to the AIUDF — by narrow margins.

Bengali-speaking Hindus have been favourably inclined towards the BJP while the Bengali-speaking Muslims were firmly behind the Congress till the advent of the AIUDF in 2005.

Since then, the AIUDF has been gaining strength at the expense of the Congress. But this time, hopes the Congress, its alliance with the AIUDF will prevent a split of the Muslim votes and result in a higher tally from Barak Valley for the alliance it leads.

But the Congress and the AIUDF need not be too optimistic about the outcome of their alliance in the Barak Valley.

That’s because in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, both the parties had an informal understanding. But the BJP posted a decisive win from both the Lok Sabha seats — Karimganj and Silchar — in the Barak Valley.

That in itself proves that the ‘informal understanding’ between the Congress and the AIUDF did not work on the ground and did not translate into a victory for any of the two parties which unitedly fought the BJP.

Also, the Congress’ alliance with the AIUDF will drive all Bengali Hindus who have been traditional Congress supporters to the saffron fold. That could well result in the BJP improving on its 2016 performance in Barak Valley.

The Congress’ stringent opposition to the CAA, which finds overwhelming support among the Bengali-speaking Hindus of Barak Valley, has also angered the community and pushed even the last Congress supporter (amongst the Hindu Bengalis) to the BJP.

As in lower Assam, in Barak Valley also a lot will depend on how the Congress-AIUDF works on the ground. In Barak Valley, too, the Congress and the AIUDF have been entrenched rivals and their workers have clashed many times in the past.

Overcoming and burying past animosity and working together to ensure success of coalition candidates will be a difficult task for the workers of both the parties.

Absence of Tarun Gogoi & Lack of CM face

The faction-ridden Congress is feeling the absence of Tarun Gogoi, who passed away in November last year.

Apart from his political acumen, sagacity and his widespread acceptance, Gogoi also held various factions of his party together and commanded respect across the political spectrum as a senior statesman.

His son, Gaurav, who is being propped as a chief ministerial candidate by one faction of the Congress, is no match for his father. Apart from other senior leaders opposing him, the nascent move to project him as the future CM is being opposed by other constituents of the Congress-led alliance.

The lack of a CM candidate, factionalism within the Congress and the suspicion and uneasiness among alliance partners could also affect the electoral prospects of the Congress-led alliance.

However, despite all this, the hurdles for the BJP in achieving its goal of bagging a hundred-plus seats are formidable.

The Congress-led alliance poses a tough challenge to the BJP and the prospect of the Muslim vote uniting behind the Congress-AIUDF alliance can upset the BJP’s prospects in many constituencies.

Apart from all the factors listed above that will work in favour of the BJP, the saffron party will have to employ deft political management tactics and skills to post a decisive win.

Here, it enjoys a distinct advantage over the Congress and the AIUDF in the persona of its principal strategist: Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma’s political skills are legendary and he will have to deploy all of them to ensure a victory for the BJP.

However, all said and done, the BJP’s target of bagging a hundred-plus seats seems to be very ambitious as of now. A victory for the party is perhaps very much on the cards, but a sweep may be difficult to achieve.

But then, politics is also about conquering seemingly insurmountable odds. And Himanta Biswea Sarma is very well-versed in that game.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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