It's ‘identity’ vs ‘development’ in 2021 Assam polls

It's ‘identity’ vs ‘development’ in the 2021 Assam polls

The BJP seems to have managed to counter the negative perception around the CAA by launching a slew of 'damage control measures'

BJP leaders and supporters celebrate their victory during counting day of Tiwa Autonomous Council (TAC) elections, in Guwahati. Credit: PTI Photo
The agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Assam that turned violent in December last year raised serious doubts about the BJP's prospects of retaining power in the upcoming Assembly elections. But one year down the line, the Saffron party seems to be back in the reckoning, although it’s unlikely to be a walkover for it in the April-May 2021 elections.

What seems to have gone in the BJP’s favour are several "damage-control measures'' initiated by the government it heads. With allies, it is now eyeing over a 100 seats in the 126-member Assembly, BJP spokesperson Rupam Goswami said. 

Earlier, the BJP drew a lot of anger from Assamese nationalists over the CAA, which seeks to allow non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan till 2014 to apply for Indian citizenship after a stay of five years. They fear that the CAA will reduce the "indigenous people" into minorities by giving citizenship to a large number of post-1971 migrants. 

To counter this, the BJP-led government initiated the compulsory study of Assamese language upto class X in all schools, except in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley and in the Bodoland area; it exempted three autonomous councils set up under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, the Bodoland Territorial Council, the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council and the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council from the purview of the CAA and formed three new autonomous councils for Koch Rajbongshis, Moran and Motor, communities whose support will be  crucial in several constituencies. 

"This helped BJP regain faith of the ethnic communities to a large extent," said Akhil Ranjan Datta, a political analyst. He added that the sops announced in the 2020-2021 state budget such as free sugar, free rice and cash transfer helped BJP consolidate its vote banks among the tea garden communities. Then the 'Orunodoi Scheme', launched on December 1, under which Rs. 830 per month is being transferred to bank accounts of 22 lakh families is also seen as a "game changer" for the BJP.

Datta pointed out that along with this the BJP was also trying to build solid vote banks among Hindu Bengalis by promising citizenship through CAA to those who are ineligible to get their names included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Hindu Bengalis and tea garden communities constitute about 30 to 35% votes.

However, Ripun Bora, state unit president of Congress, claims that indigenous people and the minorities were "silently waiting" and will give a "fitting reply" to BJP over the CAA and failure to give Assam an error-free NRC. BJP has refused to accept the NRC final list saying many foreigners made it to it while genuine citizens were left out. The NRC seeks to segregate post-1971 migrants in Assam. 

Post the anti-CAA agitation,the state now has new outfits like the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) of Lurinjyoti Gogoi, which is planning to contest all seats on the plank of Assamese identity. "BJP imposed the CAA despite democratic protest. The Assamese people will now reply with their votes in 2021," Gogoi  said. Along with the AJP, there is the Raijor Dal, led by peasants' rights leader, Akhil Gogoi, in jail currently, facing sedition charge for his role in the anti-CAA agitation, and the Anchalik Gana Morcha of Ajit Kumar Bhuyan. 

Although Congress wants these new outfits to be part of the ‘grand alliance’ it plans along with the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Left parties and smaller anti-BJP forces, the three Assamese outfits want to oust the national parties in 2021 on their own. However, political observers feel this is an impossible target for now.   

BJP is likely to field Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial face again while finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is aggressively handling the crisis, is seen as the party's main strategist for elections. The Congress is yet to project someone as strong as Sonowal-Sarma after the demise of former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

The Saffron party is also set to continue its pre-poll alliance with AGP. It has recently joined hands with United People's Party Liberal (UPPL), another regional force in the Bodoland region having 14 Assembly seats, while sidelining Bodoland People’s Front. "While the BJP has become more organised, Congress and AIUDF are still undecided over the alliance. But the AJP may take some anti-CAA votes, which went to BJP in the last elections. Until and unless the opposition parties unite, the anti-BJP votes will get fragmented," Datta said.