Assam poses a tough challenge for the BJP. A lot will depend on how and to what extent the party leadership is able to mobilise its cadres to beat anti-incumbency and neutralise the latent anger over the Citizenship Bill.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is fighting strong anti-incumbency in Assam, as is evident from the fact that it has denied re-nomination to five of its seven incumbent Lok Sabha MPs from the state this time. Even in the three other constituencies where the BJP secured second position in the 2014 polls, it has replaced the candidates it fielded the last time.
Of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam, the BJP is contesting 10, while its allies – the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) – are contesting three seats and one seat respectively. Only two incumbent BJP MPs – Rameshwar Teli from Dibrugarh and Pradan Barua from Lakhimpur – have been re-nominated. Even a veteran BJP leader like Bijoya Chakraborty who won the Guwahati Lok Sabha seat in 1999, 2009 and 2014, has been axed this time. Ramen Deka, another heavyweight who is also one of the national secretaries of the BJP and has represented the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat for two terms since 2009, has been replaced.
BJP leaders from Assam concede that the party is facing strong anti-incumbency. There are two primary reasons for that. One is the lacklustre performance of most of its sitting MPs. Also, though the party has been in power in the state for nearly three years now since 2016, it has not been able to live up to the heightened expectations of the people of the state. After decades of Congress rule that had been marked by large scale corruption, lack of development, economic decline, joblessness, farm distress and unchecked illegal migration of Bangaldeshis into the state, the people of Assam had very high expectations from the BJP.
However, such expectations have been difficult to meet. And not because the BJP-led coalition government is not performing, but because the expectations of the people have been very high and even, often, unrealistic. “The most important and highly emotive issue in Assam is that of illegal influx from Bangladesh. People expect us to detect and deport all illegal infiltrators, but that cannot be done overnight. It takes time because due processes need to be followed. So people are impatient now. We have ushered in development, but we don’t have the magic wand that many people expect us to have to bring about a dramatic transformation in the state’s infrastructure, economy and governance,” explained a senior BJP functionary from Assam.
A senior minister pointed out that many infrastructure development schemes have been initiated. “But these projects need time to fructify and three years is too short a time to judge the performance of the government. However, since Assam has been deprived of development by the Congress in the past, people have become very impatient and want to see major changes very fast. Such expectations can often be unrealistic and we have to explain that to the people. But we have brought about major changes in governance and have provided a corruption-free administration. What we probably could have done better is to convey all these to the people in a much better way. Maybe we have not evolved an effective communication strategy. But we are confident that the people of Assam will realise the changes we are bringing about and the development that is happening now,” said the minister.
What has not helped is the poor performance of most of the BJP parliamentarians. Leave alone getting central funds for the development of their constituencies, most of them have failed to put their MP Local Area Development (MPLAD) funds to judicious use for the benefit of the people. “Unfortunately, the popular perception in many of the constituencies is that our MPs have not been able to deliver. People of these constituencies feel their MPs have failed them. Thus, it became imperative to change them,” said the BJP office-bearer who did not wish to be named for obvious reasons. The two MPs who have been retained – Rameshwar Teli and Pradan Barua – have, however, nurtured their constituencies well and have very good chances of retaining their seats.
But it is not just anti-incumbency that the BJP is fighting in Assam. Popular anger against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that the BJP advocated is still latent in many parts of the state. Assam had witnessed massive agitations over the past one year and its ally, the AGP, had severed ties with it in protest. The BJP had lost a lot of ground and goodwill due to its advocacy of the bill, which the Assamese felt would open the floodgates for entry of more Bangladeshi Hindus into the state. Though the agitations subsided after the bill was taken up for approval in the Rajya Sabha last month, the anger against the BJP still remains. The BJP’s assertion that it will take up the lapsed bill again when it returns to power has kept the embers of anger alive.
The BJP, thus, is relying on its organisational strength in the state to ensure wins against the odds for its ten candidates in Assam. Over the years, and particularly over the past five years, the BJP has built up a strong organisational base in Assam. It has branches even in the remotest of villages and down to the booth level in the gram panchayats and urban civic bodies. Most of the BJP’s branches are backed by RSS shakhas. The RSS has been growing steadily, but silently, in the state for the past couple of decades.
The state BJP leadership has, thus, activated its cadres to ensure victory for its candidates. The cadres are being coached in effective communication strategies to convince the electorate that a win for the BJP at the Centre would translate into more development for the state. The cadres are being asked to explain to the people that the BJP would move an amended version of the Citizenship Bill incorporating provisions to protect the identity and demography of Assam if it comes to power. State and district level leaders of the party are holding meetings every day with the cadres to enthuse and train them. The state budget presented in early February that has many doles and sops for the poor and marginalised as well as for the middle class citizenry is being highlighted.
But that is not to say that it will be smooth sailing for the BJP. The fights in at least six of the 10 constituencies will be very tough. Dibrugarh and Lakimpur, where the sitting BJP MPs are contesting again, should be comparatively easy to win. Tezpur, where the incumbent MP, Ram Prasad Sarmah, has been replaced by Pallab Lochan Das, is also being viewed by the state BJP leadership as a sure seat. Das is a loyalist of Assam Finance Minister and regional strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma. The latter is expected to ensure Das’ victory from Tezpur.
The two seats in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley – Silchar and Karimganj – are tough ones for the BJP. In 2014, Radheshyam Biswas of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Badruddin Ajmal won Karimganj and polled nearly 41 per cent votes while Krishna Das of the BJP came second with 29.4 per cent of the votes. This time, though the AIUDF is facing anti-incumbency, the Congress has gained at the cost of the AIUDF. The BJP has replaced Das with Kripanath Malla, a more popular leader. The BJP hopes that the Bengali Hindus, who form a majority, will translate their support for the Citizenship Bill into votes for Malla.
Sushmita Dev of the Congress won from Silchar in 2014 by polling 42.07 per cent of votes while the BJP veteran Kabindra Purakayastha polled 37.66 per cent and was the runner-up. Purakayastha won this seat in 1991, 1998 and 2009. He has been replaced by Rajdeep Roy, a young face. But Dev presents a formidable challenge. She had supported the Citizenship Bill even after being reprimanded by her party leadership and this has endeared her to the Bengali Hindus. The Bengali Muslims, who form a large chunk of the electorate, have been traditional Congress supporters and are expected to vote for her. But the BJP feels that the massive development works initiated by the BJP-led state government in Silchar will win the day for Roy. More so since Dev has not been able to do anything much for her constituency.
The Guwahati Lok Sabha seat is a tough one to win for the BJP. Though party veteran Bijoya Chakraborty, who was a junior minister in the Vajpayee cabinet, has been replaced by Queen Ojha, anti-incumbency runs strong in the state capital. Ojha, who hails from an old and renowned family of Guwahati, was embroiled in a controversy over her educational qualifications and the predominantly Assamese middle class electorate of this constituency thus have a dim view of her. Also, there exists a lot of latent anger against the BJP over the Citizenship Bill.
The Mangaldoi seat, which was won by Ramen Deka in 2009 and 2014, also presents a similar picture. Deka has been replaced by Dilip Saikia, but the Congress presents a tough challenge to Saikia. Jorhat has been a Congress stronghold for decades and the BJP’s Kamakhya Prasad Tasa wrested the seat from veteran Congressman Bijoy Krishna Handique (who had been representing Jorhat since 1991) in 2014. But Tasa has been a non-performer and though he has been replaced by Tapan Gogoi, a popular leader, anger against Tasa’s non-performance and over the Citizenship Bill are strong and makes the going tough for Gogoi. The BJP has a fair chance of winning the Autonomous District Lok Sabha seat (the KarbI Anglong and North Cachar Hills).
The Nagaon Lok Sabha seat poses a challenge for the BJP. The sitting MP, Rajen Gohain, opted out earlier due to allegations of rape and sexual molestation against him. He vowed to stay away from politics until his name is cleared and was pressuring the party leadership to nominate his wife. But the BJP leadership announced the name of Rupak Sharma, MLA of Nagaon Sadar constituency that is a part of Nagaon Lok Sabha seat, as the party candidate, on Monday evening. However, earlier on Monday, the Gauhati High Court gave a to Gohain and dismissed the charges against him. An angry Gohain could play spoilsport and harm Sharma’s prospects. Gohain is popular in Nagaon, where Bengali Hindus are a deciding factor. He has won from this seat four times since 1999 and was a junior Railway Minister in the Modi government.
The AGP is contesting the Dhubri, Barpeta and Kaliabor seats. Muslim-majority Dhubri and Barpeta are the strongholds of the AIUDF and the AGP’s chances of winning these seats is slim. It has a better chance in Kaliabor, which has however never elected a non-Congress candidate. Former Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav Gogoi won this seat in 2014 and is contesting again from Kaliabor. But he faces a fair amount of anti-incumbency and the AGP has launched an aggressive campaign accusing the Congress of having neglected this constituency.
The AIUDF’s announcement on Monday evening that it would contest only from Dhubri, Karimganj and Barpeta and leave the rest of the seats to the Congress in order to avoid triangular contests presents another challenge for the BJP. Triangular contests between the BJP, Congress and the AIUDF would have led to the division of anti-BJP and minority votes and thus improved the BJP’s chances at the hustings.
Another BJP ally, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), has been given the Kokrajhar seat. The BJP has made strong inroads in this constituency over the past decade and is a strong force there now. The local BJP leadership was unhappy over the party leadership’s decision to award this seat to the BPF. The BPF has nominated its veteran leader, Pramila Rani Brahma, from this seat. But she is a Christian and many Bodo Hindus who are now BJP supporters, as well as Hindus belonging to other communities, are unhappy over her candidature. Convincing the BJP cadres to garner support for Brahma is a considerable challenge for the BPF leadership. Kokrajhar also has a substantial Bengali Muslim population who are unlikely to vote for the BPF.
Assam, thus, poses a tough challenge for the BJP. A lot will depend on how and to what extent the party leadership is able to mobilise its cadres to beat anti-incumbency and neutralise the latent anger over the Citizenship Bill.