BJP’s Emergence In Assam: A Short History
From being, at best, a marginal player even less than two decades ago, the BJP has emerged as the biggest political player in Assam today and, if poll pundits are to be believed, could banish the Congress to the sidelines.
According to development indicators, Assam was fast sliding down the index and the Gogoi government came to be seen as inefficient, uncaring and corrupt.
The RSS successfully appropriated Assamese sub-nationalism, which had found wildly popular expression in the Assam agitation of the early 1980s, into its fold.
It is quite likely that the BJP will form the government in Assam after the Assembly poll results are announced on 19 May. How did a party which had hardly any presence in the state till the end of the 1980s come so far?
Fifteen years ago, senior BJP leader and then Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani flew down to Guwahati, the capital of Assam, to stitch an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) before the Assembly polls that year. After protracted negotiations, in a take-it-or-leave-it deal, the AGP allotted 46 seats to the BJP to contest in the 126-member House. Advani, who termed the AGP the “elder brother” in the alliance, had to rest content with the AGP’s offer even though his party had wanted to contest at least 60 seats.
Last month, it was the AGP which was very keen on stitching an alliance with the BJP, and the latter allotted just 24 seats to the party. The AGP protested, fumed, sulked and even threatened to walk out of the alliance, but the BJP remained firm and, ultimately, the AGP had to accept what it was offered. If the BJP forms the government in Assam next month, the AGP will have to stay satisfied with just a few portfolios, in all probability not very significant ones.
This reversal of fortunes of the AGP is but a subtext in the bigger story of the fascinating rise of the BJP in Assam. From being, at best, a marginal player even less than two decades ago, the BJP has emerged as the biggest political player in Assam and if poll pundits are to be believed, could banish the Congress to the sidelines. This, by no means, has been an easy feat. For 50 of the 69 years since Independence, the Congress has ruled Assam. Tarun Gogoi has presided over the Congress regime in the state for the past 15 years.
The AGP, which was born out of the protracted anti-foreigner movement led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and rode to victory to form the government in 1985, ruled the state for from 1996 to 2001. Since the 1980s, politics in Assam devolved around the AGP and the Congress and all other players like the Communists and the remnants of the Janata Party (which ruled Assam for 21 months from March 1978) were peripheral players.
Till 1985, barring the brief interregnum of a Janata Party rule, the Congress had been winning elections in Assam by an overwhelming majority. It was only in the 1985 polls that its strength was reduced to just 25 seats while the AGP (all candidates contested as Independents because the party was not registered with the Election Commission then) posted a landslide win of 92 seats.
The BJP made its poll debut in 1991, winning a not very unimpressive 10 seats. But all these seats (save one in lower Assam’s Dhubri) were in the Barak Valley of the state that has a large number of Bengali Hindus and Muslims, most of them migrants from Bangladesh. This victory can be attributed to the Ram Mandir wave that swept across the country then. The wave, however, did not affect the rest of Assam and the Congress won a wafer-thin majority and formed the government.
In the next elections in 1996 that brought the AGP back to power, the BJP won just four seats, all in the Barak Valley. It was the next elections in 2001 that was significant for the BJP since it could break out of its stronghold in the Barak Valley and spread, a tad tentatively, to other parts of Assam. That year, the BJP picked up seats in Upper Assam (Duliajan) and the north bank of the Brahmaputra (Sonitpur), which had been traditional Congress strongholds inhabited by Assamese Hindus.
The BJP improved its tally to 10 in the 2006 polls and this time, too, it picked up additional seats in the north bank and Upper Assam. The BJP won the crucial Dibrugarh seat in Upper Assam and also two seats in Sonitpur, besides retaining its base in Barak Valley. The AGP won 24 seats, and though the Congress did not win a majority, it formed the government by stitching an alliance with other parties. The present BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was with the Congress then, was instrumental in winning over Independents and other parties to support a Congress government.
The 2011 election results came as quite a surprise for the BJP. Once again, it could manage to win just five seats. It did not win any seats in the Barak Valley, where the newly-formed All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of ‘atar’ (perfume) baron Badruddin Ajmal did very well. Instead, the BJP won two seats in Lower Assam’s Barpeta district, one in Kamrup in Central Assam and two seats in Upper Assam. This signified the party’s growing acceptance among the Assamese as well as non-Assamese Hindus. The AGP won 10 seats, the AIUDF 18 and the Congress 78.
But infighting and dissidence within the Congress, coupled with the continuing dismal performance of the Tarun Gogoi government on all fronts fuelled disillusionment among the people. According to development indicators, Assam is fast sliding down the index and the Gogoi government has been seen as inefficient, uncaring and corrupt.
Thus, in 2014, with the Modi wave sweeping across the country, the BJP picked up seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress could bag only three seats, the same number as the AIUDF, while the AGP drew a blank. The BJP kept up this tempo by winning a large majority of municipal bodies in the civic polls held in the state a few months ago. The party had won just two Lok Sabha seats in 2004 (Congress won nine, and the AGP two), and four in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls (Congress won seven and the AGP just one).
But beyond these numbers is the story of the selfless hard work and perseverance of hundreds of low-key and even faceless RSS workers and leaders. The RSS strategy of making the BJP an acceptable party in entire Assam, consolidating the Hindu vote in the state, winning over tea garden labourers and also a large section of the Ahoms (the original inhabitants of the state, though they too migrated into Assam from southern China in the early 13th century).
But most importantly, the RSS successfully appropriated Assamese sub-nationalism, which had found wildly popular expression in the Assam agitation of the early 1980s, into its fold. The two most prominent and popular faces of the BJP in Assam—its chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal and master strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma (even Tarun Gogoi rues losing Sarma to the BJP)—are products of the AASU-led Assam movement. Sonowal was president of the powerful AASU and then joined the AGP. He was an MLA and then a Lok Sabha MP of the AGP before he joined the BJP in early 2011.
Sarma also cut his teeth as a young AASU activist and even flirted with the ULFA before joining the Congress. He was a very powerful and highly efficient minister till he quit in protest against Gogoi’s style of functioning and the latter’s attempt to foist his novice son in a leadership role over the heads of other deserving Congress leaders. Sarma formally joined the BJP in August 2015. Since then, he has been relentlessly campaigning for the party all over the state and had a major role in crafting the BJP’s election strategy. Both Sonowal and Sarma are priceless assets for the BJP.
The RSS has also been inducting popular politicians from other parties into the BJP. Bijoya Chakraborty, BJP MP from Guwahati (she was also a minister of state in the Vajpayee cabinet), was with the Janata Party and then with the AGP. BJP Lok Sabha MP from Dibrugarh Rameshwar Teli was with the AASU, as was Ramen Deka, the MP from Mangaldoi. In fact, a majority of the 84 candidates who contested on the BJP ticket in the Assembly polls held earlier this month have never been members of the RSS or even attended a ‘shakha’.
If the BJP forms the next government in Assam, it will be a victory not only for the party, but also for the RSS. In fact, most of the credit for such a victory would be richly deserved by the RSS. And once the BJP comes to power in Assam, it would only be a matter of time before the party gains power in some other states in the North-East.
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