Assam, a contest of regions

Assam, a contest of regions

Winds of change: The multi-ethnic state is experiencing a dynamic shift in electoral politics

Assam, a contest of regions
The battle for Assam is the most keenly watched contest this election season. A rainbow alliance led by the BJP has a realistic chance of snatching power from the ruling Congress and bringing an end to 15 years of Congress regime under Tarun Gogoi. While the BJP and its allies have campaigned hard, promising to safeguard the rights of the sons of the soil and drive away 'illegal migrants from Bangladesh', the Congress has focused on its achievement of 15 years. The stage is witnessing a tough political battle.

The first phase of the election for 65 of Assam’s 126 Assembly constituencies on April 4 saw a record 82% polling, which supersedes the earlier records. A higher turnout is generally considered as bad news for the incumbent party. However, there could always be an exception depending on the context and the level of political consciousness.

Undoubtedly, this election has a national significance as two major national parties are in direct competition. The BJP seems to be desperate to win in Assam after its defeat in Delhi and then Bihar. It set in motion the realignment process of political forces keeping in mind Assam’s multi-ethnic population pattern. It has also showed resilience and an ability to form alliances with regional forces like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) to ensure its ascendance in the state.

The Congress has made a seat adjustment with the United People’s Front representing indigenous communities in the state in four seats of tribal-dominated Kokrajhar. Although some may believe a ‘Maha understanding’ among the non-BJP parties would have been a plausible design to arrest the growth of the saffron party, it should be noted that the factors that made such an alliance a success in Bihar are not present in Assam. The electoral salience of “regions within the state” primarily restrains parties from forging alliances. The third major player, the AIUDF, has allied with the Janata Dal (U) and the Rashtriya Lokdal to cement its secular credentials. 

Assam has been a Congress stronghold for decades. However, the 2014 Lok Sabha election results marked a significant shift with the BJP making notable inroads. The trend continued with the two local elections held in the urban and tribal-dominated areas in early 2015. Though both the elections remain deeply embedded in local politics, a political shift is quite apparent. The anti-incumbency wave and the electoral stagnation of the regional parties, in particular, have helped the BJP.

Four major trends mark this political shift: First, challenging the Congress dominance; second, electoral stagnation of the leading regional party, the AGP; third, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) remains regionally concentrated; and finally, the increase in the BJP support base across the regions. Under these circumstances, it remains to be seen whether the Congress can revive its fortunes or the BJP emerges as a winner.

It goes without saying that the dynamics of Assembly elections are very different from Lok Sabha elections. The BJP definitely has reasons to be optimistic on account of its performance in the state. From a meagre 1% of votes in the 1985 Assembly elections, the party has steadily improved its position in Assam. In the last two Assembly elections of 2006 and 2011, the BJP’s vote share went up to around 12%, though the party won only 5 seats in 2011. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections witnessed a massive rise in the BJP’s vote share, to 36.51% with victory in 7 of 14 segments.
Geographically, the “regions within the state” — upper Assam, lower Assam and the Barak valley — shape the nature and pattern of electoral competition in Assam. Its ethnic demography impinges on electoral politics. It is difficult for a political party to win an election without a support base among dominant groups in any constituency.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP made electoral gains in all three regions compared to the 2009 results. However, its biggest gains came from upper Assam, where the party’s vote share went up from 13% to 45.2%, which is more than a three-fold rise. It won the 4 additional seats from the region. The BJP mainly attracted the Hindu votes, including those of the Assamese Hindus who had once constituted the AGP’s backbone throughout its consistent stand against Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants.
Multiple hurdles

The rising dominance of the BJP in the region has come at the cost of the Congress. The dissidence within the Congress government was partially responsible for the party’s debacle. The Congress tally went down from 4 to 1 in upper Assam, while its vote share fell from 41% to 34%. But the party that lost the most was the AGP. Upper Assam had been its bastion for long. The decimation of the AGP, in a way, led to the BJP's success.

But it is not going to be a smooth sail for the BJP. Although, the saffron party’s version of nationalism appears to have gained ground, there is no reason to ignore the rapid rise of ethnic nationalism in the state. As long as issues like security, social justice, poverty, uneven-development remain unaddressed, ethnic nationalism will thrive.

The central government’s notification granting citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh has already touched the nerve of the nationalist quarters of the state. It reveals the complexity the BJP faces in trying to propagate Hindu nationalism while accommodating ethnic nationalism. The electoral success of the BJP will definitely depend on how much it is able to appease the regional anxieties while pushing its own political agenda.

For the Congress, too, the road ahead is tough. Although some improvements are under way, the actual outcomes, based on growth and development indicators like unemployment, skilled education, health, rural poverty etc, certainly present a dismal picture. The party in power has failed to fully utilise the Centrally-sponsored schemes for rural and urban development, communication and infrastructure development.

The pro-poor schemes are hit by corruption and inept execution. It is a fact that there is no wave against any political party in this election. Yet, it is difficult to come to any conclusion about the revival of the Congress.

In a polarised contest, the AIUDF is expected to reap major electoral dividend and, therefore, it remains regionally concentrated. But the Assamese-speaking Muslims were not pleased with the recent intentions of the party and seemed to be distancing themselves from it.

Besides, the party has been hit by large-scale dissidence. It is likely that its vote-share and seats actually may come down in this election. The worse it gets for the AIUDF, the better it is for the Congress in terms of getting back much of the state’s share (35%) of Muslim votes. 

The upcoming election is another testimony moment for major political parties in the fray. Apparently, therefore, electoral outcome in the state will depend less on short term political exigencies but definitely more on the matters of good governance, accommodation and policy initiatives. The present political scenario is very fluid. One has to wait till May 19.

(The author is professor at the Department of Political Science, Guwahati University)
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