Election in Assam: After the Bubbly, Bites of Reality

Warteschlagen vor dem Wahllokal in Guwahati, Assam.

“Exotic, awe-inspiring and a metaphor for poverty, economic neglect and institutional decay” - The first two words describe Assam, in fact, the North-East of India, as seen by casual visitors; the rest underlines the morbid state of the region. But its politics never ceases to excite. Insurgency was once the only thriving industry in the region. Some of the states in the North-East became a model of governance that no democracy could ever be proud of. Manipur, in particular, in the 1980s and 1990s saw horse trading and political blackmail scaling new heights. Manipur, for example, has had several phases of legislative instability. During 1967-75 Manipur saw as many as five successive governments. In the 1996-2002 period it had four governments. What was once considered as an act of political aberration in Manipur became a North-Eastern phenomenon.

For long, the North-Eastern States either voted for the governing party at the Centre (mostly Congress) or aligned with the Central dispensation in order to ensure continued flow of funds which often lined the pockets of leaders. Today, BJP has made important political gains in Assam. BJP’s victory in Assam in the recent elections – together with its allies, it won 86 out of 126 seats – is a testimony of the party’s appeal among all sections. BJP cobbled together a rainbow alliance roping in practically all social groups—Ahom, Bodo, Rabha, Mishing, Bengalis and North Indians.

A smart strategic alliance

Reasons for BJP’s success are not hard to find. First and foremost, the credit for BJP’s spectacular performance in Assam goes to its alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Party (BPP). All these years, the two were antagonistic towards each other because while AGP represented sub- nationalist Assamese, the BPP is a tribal grouping which opposed AGP and demanded autonomous council for Bodos. BJP leaders were prudent enough to stitch a strategic alliance with these two formidable regional parties. This ensured votes for the BJP from two different sections, often pitted against each other--the sub-nationalist Assamese and the Bodo people who are known to be the earliest settlers in Assam. While the BJP won 60 seats, AGP and BPP bagged 14 and 12 seats respectively.

No less important was the BJP’s decision to project a fresh and popular face as Chief Ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal; the party had missed such opportunity in earlier elections in Delhi (too late) and Bihar (not at all). By pitching 53-year-old Sonowal against the Congress old war horse Tarun Gogoi, the BJP was able to connect the party with the youth. It was a master stroke. For BJP, Sonowal was a big catch. He is an important face of the Assam Movement having served as president of the All Assam Students Union from 1992 to 1999. The Assam Movement from 1979-1985 revolved around the detection and deportation of illegal migrants but it also opposed the perceived step-motherly attitude of the central government towards what Prof. Tilottoma Mishra called the “colonial hinterland”. He later joined the AGP and was elected to the State Assembly in 2001. In 2004, Sonowal was elected to the Lok Sabha. Following differences with the AGP, he quit the party and joined the BJP and was appointed as BJP President of the Assam unit. Since Sonowal fought relentlessly against the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, which was an Act of Parliament passed in 1983 to identify illegal migrants. Sonowal had challenged the Act in the Supreme Court which was scrapped by the apex court. Hence he became the darling of the Assamese middle class. The real hero for the BJP’s victory is thus Sonowal who has rightly been made the Chief Minister.

The BJP’s victory is also seen by many as an outcome of Hindu nationalist consolidation even though some Muslims, particularly those residing in Assam for long, also voted for the BJP-AGP alliance. This polarization may create some difficulties for expanding the base of BJP in other North-Eastern states. BJP’s victory in Assam is also the outcome of its long-term strategic plan in the State and in the rest of the North-East. The RSS and RSS-affiliated organizations have set up a chain of cheap schools all over the state. While these schools are functioning efficiently for the poor and the marginalized, State schools are in a poor condition. As one seasoned commentator from the North-East says, the products of such schools are susceptible to “the vicious propaganda of the Hindutva brigade.” The media too has helped these forces to nurture through mass propaganda.

The loser loses all.

Politics in India is becoming a hard game where the loser loses all. That seems to be the case for the Congress Party. The party is in constant decline and is facing electoral reverses regularly. First it lost base in the Hindi-speaking heartland, then in the South and now in the North-East. After its defeat in Assam, Congress is like a deer in the headlights that doesn’t really know what to do. The Congress must realize that the larger the  gap between it and the BJP becomes, the  steeper would be its road to power in future.

Some of BJP’s advantages turned out to be Congress’s disadvantages in Assam. At one stage, Congress looked all set to stitch an electoral alliance with AGP and the BPP. Tarun Gogoi’s decision to play dynastic politics and induct his son into the party alienated large sections of party and its followers. Congress paid a big price for not retaining Himanta Biswa Sarma, a dynamic leader, whose defection to BJP strengthened its hand. This was perhaps the most important factor in the Congress  party’s poor performance. Since Tarun Gogoi was facing anti-incumbency, it was all the more important for Congress leaders to rope in electoral partners. Gogoi was perhaps over confident about his acclaim among the Assamese voters and his track record of winning three consecutive elections. However his inability to cobble an electoral alliance with regional parties proved detrimental. But the price has been heavy. Victory in Assam for the Congress would have lifted its morale. Even a credible performance would have helped. But being reduced from 78 to 24 seats was humiliating.

Ignoring the writing on the wall

The Congress had dominated the political scene in Assam for over two decades thanks to its powerful local leaders—Hiteswar Saikia and Tarun Gogoi. However, the party lost the elections in 2016 because of the central leaders’ refusal to see the writing on the wall. Only Gegong Apang in Arunachal Pradesh and Pawan Chamling of Sikkim have ruled longer than Gogoi. In fact, Chamling is now serving his fifth term in a row.

Has the Congress performed too poorly? Well, in terms of number of seats yes. But Congress has improved its percentage of votes compared to the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. During the parliamentary elections in 2014, the Congress got 29.5% vote. And despite incumbency, it has received 31% votes in the Assembly polls. But then the pitfalls of the first-past-the-post system are not unfamiliar.
The imminent death of Congress is a favourite horror story in the media today. Is it so bad? The BJP has made dramatic gains but it would be premature to trumpet its triumph too loudly. The Congress needs to re-invent itself in order to recapture the imaginations of the people. As a Chinese proverb says “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”

BJP has reasons to be happy about its success in Assam. But it has a formidable task ahead. If it doesn’t deliver on its promises, it might become a victim of its own success. Here the AGP’s experiences are quite handy. When the AGP first came to power in 1986, it came riding on the promise of a “Bangladeshi-free Assam”. Three decades later, the BJP-AGP combine has captured power with the same promise.

Migration as a unsolved issue

There is an economics of migration. Migration from Bengal into the Northeast has been taking place for more than a century, and it accelerated since the 1970s. Illegal migrants from Bangladesh swim, row, climb or walk over some stretches of the land and riverine borders. As they say, bad borders make bad neighbours. Partition border was drawn over the hearts and minds of inhabitants of undivided Bengal without their knowledge. Long before the Supreme Court, in 2005, struck down the IMDT Act which had made it difficult to deport illegal migrants, successive governments at the Centre and in Assam gave assurances that they would repeal it, but did not do so. The identity politics is the crux of the problem in Assam. AGP suffered huge loss for its failure to act against illegal migrants. It remained bogged down in clamoring for a distinct definition of who is an Assamese without bothering to define the “illegal other.”

The Supreme Court’s judgement of 2012 creates its own problem for the present government to redeem its pledges on deporting the illegal Bangladeshis. The apex court has maintained that “the demand for identifying and deleting the names of alleged 410,000 doubtful voters from the list of 2006 on the basis of religious and linguistic profiling would prima facie be illegal, arbitrary and violated secular and democratic credentials of India.”

Assam has witnessed the false dawn earlier. In 1986 when the AGP came to power, it inaugurated an exceptionally youthful ministry, full of promises. The swearing-in of Prafulla Kumar Mohanta was witnessed by 200,000 people. But it failed on all fronts. The AGP government said it would deport hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants but it did not. Much worse, its failure to resolve the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants resulted in the radicalization of Assamese sub-nationals. The rise of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was the outcome of such identity politics.

AGP and BJP leaders raked up the issue of Bangladeshi migrants so much that it will be difficult to dismount the high horses of rhetoric. During the election campaign Sonowal said illegal migrants across the border “will be stopped and border will be sealed”. Modi himself during the 2014 election campaign had said that all Bangladeshis will have to pack up the day he took charge as Prime Minister. This is where the Sonowal government is likely to face its biggest challenge. Over-hyping this issue and its aggressive policy on deportation may undermine Prime Minister Modi’s policy towards Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladeshi government.

During the Indira Gandhi era in the 1970s, political destabilization of opposition-ruled states in the North-East became a norm. But things had settled down during the 10-year rule by the UPA where governments of various political hues were tolerated. That may change now. The BJP may attempt to persuade, cajole, inveigle and trick vulnerable parties and members of various State Assemblies in the North-East to capture power. Such a destabilization game will be fraught with serious repercussions.

All said, the Sonowal government has many mountains to climb, job creation being perhaps the most challenging. BJP’s success is by all means credible. But the media has overegged the party’s performance; it has by no means been what Assamese language daily Asomiya Pratidin described as “BJP’s Tsunami”.