In Northeast India, all roads lead through Guwahati, the de facto capital of Assam, the most populous and politically significant state in the region. It’s the largest city around by some margin; its population of close to a million is massive compared to barely 1.5 lakh of its neighbour and sometime rival Shillong, its predecessor as capital of Assam in the years before 1973.
Today, Guwahati is a pulsing metropolis on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Its importance as a thoroughfare for prosperous travellers can be seen in its growing number of five-star hotels, none more than five years old. Swanky stores abound. Every brand worth its salt is here for a share of the action. Its location as the prosperous hub of a region in transformation marks Guwahati city, and its Lok Sabha seat, as arguably the most prestigious one in the entire region.
It’s also a seat of unpredictable outcomes. The greatest cultural icon of modern Assam, singer Bhupen Hazarika, stood as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Guwahati in 2004, reputedly on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s urging. Astonishingly, he lost to Kirip Chaliha of the Congress by a margin of over 61,000 votes. The next time, in 2009, the BJP gave the ticket to Bijoya Chakravarty, the former MP from the constituency who had been forced to make way for Hazarika. She won, and went on to retain the seat—a rare feat, because Guwahati has a reputation for ousting its incumbent MPs.
This time, sitting MP Chakravarty is not in the fray. She was not given a ticket despite publicly expressing her desire to contest. Up until the middle of March, there were strong rumours among BJP circles in Guwahati that she might have to make way for Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Assam state Finance Minister and North East Democratic Alliance leader who was expected to get a ticket to contest for the Lok Sabha. The announcement of the list shocked almost everyone including Sarma; he did not get a ticket to contest. Neither did Chakravarty who, at 79, was sent into retirement.
Instead, the BJP candidate for the seat is 67-year-old Queen Oja. Her principal rival is the Congress candidate, former actress Bobbeeta Sharma. The third notable candidate in the fray is an independent: lawyer Upamanyu Hazarika of the Prabajan Virodhi Manch, an organisation that according to its website is dedicated exclusively to identifying Bangladeshis and other foreign nations in Assam and stripping them of citizenship.
Migration is central to much of the politics in Assam in these elections, as it has been for decades. A core issue in these elections, according to the Congress candidate Sharma, is the Citizenship Amendment Bill that proposes to give relatively easy citizenship to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who have migrated to India before December 31, 2014. “I hope the people of Assam realise that the BJP is going to bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB),” she says. “Everyone had accepted the Assam Accord. Why did they bring CAB and disturb a peaceful community?”
She offers an answer: the BJP is not concerned about the Northeast. “This is vote-bank politics with an eye on West Bengal’s 42 seats. The Bengali community here did not ask for it … the BJP did it to bring mistrust between communities”.
There is a long and complex history of politics around the migration of Bengali-speakers—both Hindu and Muslim—into Assam that dates back to well before Independence. The anxieties of the local Assamese at prospects of being dominated by the Bengalis, Hindu or Muslim, drove agitations and riots over decades. The CAB is seen as a ploy to give citizenship to Bengali Hindus who, coincidentally, have by and large been solidly behind the BJP in Assam, while eventually disenfranchising the Bengali Muslims, who have in recent years been largely in support of the Congress or the All India United Democratic Front, a party led by millionaire maulana Badruddin Ajmal.
Sharma describes these politics as “very harmful and communal”. The Congress, she says, stands by the Assam Accord of 1985 that was signed between the leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Rajiv Gandhi government. It was an accord that brought to an end a strong and often violent agitation whose genesis lay in concerns over migrants from Bangladesh getting their names into electoral rolls. The spark was lit in March 1979 in the run-up to a bye-election for Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency, and the agitation continued until 1985 when the Accord was signed.
The thrust of the Accord was on the detection and expulsion of “foreigners” from Assam. The updating of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) was not part of the Accord, but the demand, according to an article by former senior IAS officer MP Bezbaruah, was one of six placed before Rajiv Gandhi when he was PM, and remained a persistent demand that was brought to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by AASU during his tenure many years later.
Assam’s former chief minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress had written to Manmohan Singh in 2008 to request his personal intervention in starting the updating of the NRC. When the NRC process finally started in Assam, Gogoi had claimed credit for it. However, the process has been controversial. Four million people have been excluded from the lists published so far. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those people are Indians, not Bangladeshis, whose names have been left out due to difficulties in documentation, clerical errors, or other such reasons.
Gogoi subsequently became rather more circumspect in claiming the NRC was his baby.
Sharma says: “Forty lakh people were left out of NRC. Amit Shah said they are ghuspetiyas (infiltrators). That was incorrect. A lot of tea tribe people, Bengalis, Nepalis, Dalits, poor people … they didn’t have papers, and different states didn’t respond to queries in time. Even a lot of Assamese didn’t have papers. All 40 lakh are not infiltrators or foreigners as claimed by Mr Shah.”
The process was indeed started by the Congress under Gogoi, she says, but “if you allow Bangladeshi migrants who came up to 2014 through CAB then what’s the point of NRC?”
This has been a very controversial matter in Assam and across the Northeast, and remains a fundamental question in the politics. A stout defence of the CAB has been mounted by the BJP with Himanta Biswa Sarma leading the charge. Sarma’s argument in favour of the CAB—which he has repeated publicly and often—is that approximately 8 lakh Bengali Hindus will be excluded from the final NRC list, and without their votes, 17 Assembly constituencies will go the “Jinnah way”.
Although there have been serious protests against the Bill, BJP Assam General Secretary Dilip Saikia is confident it will not impact the party’s electoral fortunes in the state. “People of Assam have understood the issue,” he says. As for the NRC process, “it is going on under Supreme Court supervision and we are fully supporting it”.
Saikia reiterate the party stand that the CAB was meant to help religious minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan escaping persecution, and the party was committed to it. “We will bring it again”. His position is maintained by party chief Amit Shah, who invoked both the Citizenship Bill and the NRC in his speeches in and outside Assam.
This is a position that places the BJP squarely against the AASU and the considerable history of “jatiyobadi” politics in Assam which was constituted on linguistic rather than religious identity. AASU advisor Sumujjal Bhattacharya, however, refuses to comment on the state’s politics or on any political party, saying he would only speak on issues. On the issue of CAB, he is clear that the BJP has “alienated the people of the Northeast”. He notes that Amit Shah had repeatedly stated that the BJP would bring back the Bill, which had lapsed after it could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha. Bhattacharya and AASU have been busy building a campaign to oppose the CAB – and thus, indirectly, the BJP – and networking with political parties and civil society organisations for this purpose.
The person most strongly representing the fight against CAB in the Guwahati electoral battle is independent candidate Hazarika of the Prabajan Virodhi Manch. Hazarika has accused the state’s BJP leaders of betraying the indigenous people of the state for their own opportunistic politics. He also pointed to the denial of party tickets to heavyweights and said it pointed to the BJP’s poor prospects in the forthcoming polls.
The BJP’s Dilip Saikia, however, predicts that the BJP and its allies would win 21 out of 25 seats in Northeast India. The party is contesting 10 seats in Assam, with the remaining four being fought by allies Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front. The AGP, which had walked out of its alliance with the BJP over the Citizenship Bill, has walked back in. Its capitulation has not gone down well with many, including its founding member and former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who said he would not be campaigning this time.
Nonetheless, BJP leaders remain confident that the party will do at least as well in Assam as it did last time.
They may be on to something. Despite the strong sentiments over the Citizenship Bill and the NRC, voters seem to have other criteria when it comes to deciding their electoral choices.
Sandeep Khaitan, a chartered accountant from Digboi in upper Assam, who has been in Guwahati since 1984, says he will vote for BJP. “I have seen what five years of Modi rule has done to uplift Assam as an investment destination,” he says. “What is happening in connectivity—road, rail, air, Internet—is phenomenal”. His vote, he says, is for Narendra Modi. He knows both the Congress and BJP candidates personally and has nothing against either of them, but he will vote for Modi’s party. Khaitan says the law and order situation was already improving under Tarun Gogoi and has improved markedly under Sarbananda Sonowal. “There’s a sense of security,” he says.
Murtaza Hazarika, who works for a private firm in Guwahati, has a very different sense of things. “Whatever development is happening is by default. It would have happened anyway. Yes, there are some strategic projects such as roads and bridges to help the armed forces in case of trouble with China,” he says. He feels the “BJP is not doing any real development work. They are getting into hate politics.”
Assam, he says, is sitting on a time bomb. “If you want rapid development … no development can take place without peace and security.” Hazarika’s mother is Hindu and father Muslim. He feels the divisive politics taking hold strongly. “There will be riots, I fear … even after BJP wins”. He suspects that the BJP will win, because that’s what he is hearing from his friends and colleagues.
Politics is about using groups against one another, says artist and IIT Guwahati faculty member Mriganka Madhukaillya. The BJP, he says, is using Hindu versus Muslim politics and this is dangerous, especially in the volatile Northeast. Its position on the Citizenship Amendment Bill has also rekindled the Assamese versus Bengali politics. “There’s a Right-wing vibe in Guwahati now”, he says.
However, Madhukaillya is no admirer of the Congress either. “India has an option between fascism and feudalism,” he says. The Congress candidates, he says, typically tend to come from elite families. They are men and women of privilege who fail to connect with the common masses.
Political correctness doesn’t win elections, Madhukaillya points out. The BJP has the things that do: money, muscle, and organisation. “BJP has thrown money and bought over indigenous leaders.” Ultimately, there’s also an issue of image, according to Madhukaillya. “There are so many protests, but there is no substitute. Where’s the counter-image?”
Madhukaillya’s most telling question is on security. “Everybody is insecure now. Bengali Muslim, Bengali Hindu, indigenous … tell me, which group is feeling secure?”
All the groups have their own reasons for feeling insecure, and perhaps none more than the Muslims. Recently in Biswanath district not far from Tezpur, a Muslim man named Shaukat Ali was beaten up by a mob for selling beef, and allegedly forced to eat pork as punishment.
The polarisation along religious and linguistic lines now runs deep in Guwahati constituency and across Assam. The All India United Democratic Front, which has a mainly Muslim voter base, has not fielded a candidate from the seat, leaving the opposition space to the Congress. The constituency itself has three Assembly segments that are almost wholly urban, and constitute the heart of Guwahati city—Guwahati East, Guwahati West, and Dispur, which is officially the capital of Assam. These three urban centres, with their mixed populations and large middle class, are the BJP’s strongholds; it was from these areas that Bijoya Chakravarty won the bulk of her votes in 2014.
There are also more rural constituencies that are part of the Guwahati Lok Sabha area. In one of these, Chaygaon, which has a large Muslim population, the Congress had polled about twice as many votes as BJP in the last Lok Sabha polls. It was also ahead of BJP in another Assembly segment, Boko, which similarly has a significant Muslim population. However, there are fewer voters in those segments, and eventually the weight of the city centre carried the day quite comfortably.
The city is a place where people watch television news, receive forwards on WhatsApp, and aspire to rapid development—whatever that means to them. It is a place in a hurry to catch up with the country and the world. Guwahati is an unpredictable seat from where even Bhupen Hazarika, the bard of Assam, lost on a BJP ticket. This time too, there is an undercurrent of unhappiness against the BJP, both over ticket distribution and over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
Queen Oja, who comes from a business family, is campaigning on a development ticket. On Rongali Bihu earlier this month, her campaign song—naturally set to Bihu tunes—was released. It is all about bijli, sadak and pani, pragati (progress) and unnayan (development). The other campaign song this Bihu season, to which Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose constituency and stronghold of Jalukbari is part of the Guwahati Lok Sabha area, has been dancing, is “aakou ebar, Modi Sarkar”, meaning “once again, Modi Sarkar”.
The BJP will be hoping that the Guwahati public will join them in dancing to these tunes.