Winds Of Change

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The BJP sweep in Assam underscores the consolidation of the Hindu vote across tribal and non-tribal barriers. The defection of Hemanta Biswa Sarma brought the party the services of a wily strategist. BY RAJEEV BHATTACHARYA

The defeat of the Congress in Assam after a long spell of three consecutive terms is not surprising given the situation that had developed in the last couple of years. But what is startling is the massive mandate received by the BJP and its allies, which was beyond the expectation of party functionaries and poll pundits.

The Congress had been able to win the assembly polls repeatedly because the opposition was weak and divided. In 2001, the electorate was desperately yearning for an alternative after five years of misrule by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The government allegedly orchestrated the “secret killings,” which resulted in the murder of many innocent relatives of ULFA rebels. The BJP was discredited after it firmed up a pre-poll alliance with the AGP and both parties were defeated in the assembly election. After assuming power, the Congress government transferred a few police officials believed to have been responsible for the murders. The people heaved a sigh of relief.

The downhill journey for the BJP and AGP continued and the Congress romped home with bigger margins in the assembly polls of 2006 and 2011. With no opposition, the performance of the government deteriorated sharply with poor governance and graft reaching unprecedented levels. But 2016 turned out to be different and the early warning surfaced two years ago when a group of dissident legislators led by Himanta Biswa Sarma, began to camapaign for the removal of chief minister TarunGogoi. The party high command turned a deaf ear to the complaints with the result that all the 10 MLAs joined the BJP last year.

Sarma was a prize catch for the BJP - he is a shrewd strategist and known to be able to turn the tide even in the most adverse of situations. And within weeks of his defection, he was closeted with the BJP top brass to firm up a plan for the ouster of the Congress from Assam. His suggestion of a grand alliance with regional parties and indigenous organizations was accepted by the leadership in spite of opposition from certain quarters within the party. The rationale of the pacts – with the AGP, Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and two smaller tribal parties - was to unite the tribal and non-tribal populace and consolidate their votes on issues that were a common concern for every citizen in Assam.

Next, BJP and its allies cleverly focused on illegal immigration and identity at the macro level, which clicked since the Congress government had already invited the ire of the people for not doing enough to check infiltration from Bangladesh. That the population of illegal immigrants has gone up abnormally in Assam has been revealed in the census of 2001 and 2011. The update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was provided for in the Assam Accord, would not have taken off if the Supreme Court had not stepped in and issued a directive two years ago.

The spadework had already been done and all that the BJP needed to do was to pick up a symbol that would have a mass appeal. In no time, it underscored the “real danger” from the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and its supremo Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, since they drew their support also from large sections of illegal immigrants. This struck a chord with and unified the electorate cutting across communities and regions in Assam.

Ajmal’s behaviour in the run up to the polls was no less advantageous to the BJP and extremely confusing to his supporters. On Jan 23, he appealed at a rally in Rangia for all minorities in the state to unite against what he described as the consolidation of Hindus. By doing so, he played into the hands of the BJP as it only reinforced the fear from alien citizens. In addition, large sections of citizens among the Bengali Muslims who had voted for AIUDF, turned to the Congress as they did not want to be identified with the illegal immigrants. In the midst of all this, Ajmal was frenetically sending signals for a pre-poll pact with the Congress but to no effect. At the same time, he was also heard speaking in terms of a non-Congress, non-BJP government or a sort of Third Front. When that did not work out, he declared he would be the “Kingmaker” and forming the next government could be impossible without his support. He did not have the faintest idea about the ground reality and lost the elections by a margin of 16,723 votes to the Congress candidate.These macro issues combined with a range of local issues to produce the wave of “parivartan”in the elections that caused many surprises and resulting in the defeat of as many as 10 ministers.

“In Barak Valley,” says former vice president of AIUDF Hafiz Rashid Choudhury, “there was a wave of resentment against former Congress minister Gautam Roy and people cutting across communities joined hands to defeat him and his relatives.” In Margherita, locals claimed that the demolition of a bus stand to make way for a bakery by a close relative of former Congress minister PradyutBordoloi, snowballed into a major issue which finally led to the BJP’s victory.

The undercurrents were stronger but concealed and not even the BJP imagined that it would win so many seats. The expectation was around 75-80 seats including the allies. The total stands at 87 with BJP as the single largest party at 60 and AGP and BPF at 14 and 12 out of a total of 126 in the assembly. The Congress tally was 26 while the AIUDF won 13 seats. The BJP lost five seats that were expected to be won but the loss was more than made up by the astonishing win over six others.

It is a verdict that has come from every nook and corner of Assam and a historic chance for the parties and the government to put things in proper shape. The beleaguered state has suffered terribly as much at the hands of insurgents as with the government, its agencies and officials. Assam needs fresh air and a break from the mayhem that has marked its social life since the late 1970s.

Summary

  • The BJP victory rode on the backs of Congress misrule, corruption and unprecedented illegal immigration from Bangladesh
  • The defection of HemantaBiswaSarma, master Congress strategist, strengthened the BJP and helped it refine tactics for the elections
  • AIUDF chief BadruddinAjmal suffered the ignominy of losing his seat to the Congress, amid Hindu consolidation
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