Lok Sabha Elections 2024: CAA, development debates keep Assam poll pot boiling

This is the first Lok Sabha polls since the CAA was passed in December 2019.
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 12:30 IST
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 12:30 IST

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Guwahati: As soon as the Centre announced the framing of rules for the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act in March, a bitter battle of narratives commenced in Assam, setting the stage for the ensuing Lok Sabha elections.

The anti-CAA agitators roared in protest as Union Home Minister Amit Shah told in public that the CAA is a law of the land and no one can stop it.

"The CAA is not acceptable, will never be accepted," leaders of anti-CAA organisations including the influential All Assam Students' Union (AASU), announced.

The agitation, this time, however, was not as vigorous as in 2019 when the protests took a violent turn resulting in the death of five agitators. The anti-CAA protests then spread across the country.

Fearing a similar backlash ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP-led government in Assam led by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was quick to ask the police to act tough against the protesters given Assam's history of strong anti-foreigner sentiments leading to victory and defeat of political parties.

In fact, the anti-CAA protests pushed the Congress to forge the United Opposition Forum, an alliance of 16 parties including the Left and two regional political parties — Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Akhil Gogoi-led Raijor Dal, which were born out of the anti-CAA agitation in 2019-2020.

The forum has decided to support Congress candidates in 13 out of the 14 LS seats and fielded AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi as their candidate in the Dibrugarh LS constituency, where Union minister and former CM Sarbananda Sonowal is the BJP candidate.

Both Sarbananda and Lurinjyoti were top leaders of AASU, which led the six-year-long anti-foreigners movement in Assam (1979-1985). Lurinjyoti formed AJP and pledged to defeat the BJP with an anti-CAA stand but three other senior AASU leaders Topon Kumar Gogoi, Dipanka Kumar Nath and Shankar Prasad Ray have joined the saffron party since the anti-CAA agitation began.

BJP has fielded candidates in 11 seats and given two seats to its regional ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and one to the United People's Party Liberal (UPPL) in the Bodo heartland. In fact, the AGP, riding on the strong anti-foreigners movement, had defeated Congress and won the Assembly elections twice — first in 1985 and then in 1996.


As the Opposition made CAA and alleged corruption as their biggest poll planks, Chief Minister Sarma repeatedly stressed that the former is a "non-issue" as the Act would only allow those left out of the "final draft" of the NRC to apply for Indian citizenship.

"I will be the first person to resign if the CAA gives citizenship to a single person out of those who were left out of the NRC," Sarma told reporters repeatedly in March. Over 19.06 lakh applicants were left out of the NRC, which was being updated only in Assam to solve the long-standing problem of illegal migrants.

The Opposition, however, stepped up attacks on the ruling party saying the CAA would destroy the identity and culture of the indigenous Assamese by giving citizenship to lakhs of Hindu Bengalis from neighbouring Bangladesh. The CAA seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim and persecuted migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, till 2014.

Lurinjyoti Gogoi has said that this time's election is a fight for the future of the Assamese and his victory against Sonowal in Dibrugarh would bring "a dawn against anti-Assamese BJP".

Fight over culture and identity

Meanwhile, the BJP says people have realised the wrong messages spread by the Congress and the anti-CAA organisations and are happy with the development works and the steps taken by the BJP-led government for the protection of the identity and culture of the Assamese.

"This is the reason why people voted for us again in the 2021 Assembly elections despite the passage of the CAA in 2019. We (BJP and allies) will win 13 seats this time," Sarma told reporters.

This is the first Lok Sabha polls since the CAA was passed in December 2019.

Sarma claimed the BJP protected the political future of the Assamese by making the Assembly and LS constituencies Assamese-dominant through the delimitation exercise, which was carried out only in Assam in 2023.

The delimitation forced the Congress to shift its three candidates (including Gaurav Gogoi) to other constituencies.

"The Bengali Hindu citizens who were left out of the NRC draft are very unhappy and angry with the BJP. Instead of completing the NRC process, the party is asking them to declare themselves as illegal migrants and apply for citizenship through the CAA," Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi told DH during a campaign meeting at Dimow in Sivasagar district, where anti-CAA sentiments are believed to be strongest.

Niru Saikia, a farmer and a BJP worker DH spoke to at Dewanbari in a village in Dibrugarh district, said people are more concerned about development works such as roads, houses and cash incentives given by the BJP-led government instead of the "wrong messages" spread by the Opposition regarding the CAA. Saikia had attended a rally addressed by Sonowal at Dewanbari village.

Exodus from Congress to BJP

Amid the poll race, several Congress leaders, including MLAs, former ministers, MPs, and former state unit presidents, have switched sides to BJP, prompting CM Sarma to claim that Congress would disappear from Assam by the next Assembly election in 2026. 

The party lost at least six MLAs since the 2021 Assembly polls. Of the remaining 23 Congress MLAs, 16 are Muslims. "Only a few Muslim MLAs will remain in Congress," Sarma again said.

Polarisation tactics

As Sarma continuously tried to dub Congress and Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF as a threat to the identity and culture of indigenous communities, Opposition parties said he was trying to polarise voters ahead of the elections as the indigenous people are angry with the ruling party over the CAA.

Vikash Tripathi, who teaches political science at Gauhati University, said religious polarisation has overtaken ethnic mobilisation in Assam resulting in the downfall of Congress among its traditional caste-Hindu voters, both in Assamese-majority Brahmaputra Valley and Bengali-dominated Barak Valley.

"It became apparent in the 2021 Assembly elections when the Congress-led alliance could perform better only in minority-dominated constituencies. The inability of Congress to wrest back its traditional caste-Hindu votes and deep organisational challenges marking the party have led to the BJP's dominance in the state," said Tripathi. 

The BJP's ability to project itself as being the "protector of Hindu civilisation" in the state comes at a moment when AIUDF has maintained a decisive hold over Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam, said Tripathi. "This has triggered a perception about the dispersion of the traditional social base of the Congress and thus, the switch over to the BJP which at the moment remains electorally dominant," he said.

Published 14 April 2024, 12:30 IST

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