The day after Assam voted in the first phase of the assembly election on March 27, several newspapers in the region ran a projecting a BJP victory on all 47 seats of Upper Assam. It led to the Congress filing chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and BJP president JP Nadda for camouflaging publicity as news in violation of the model code.
But political observers and BJP insiders anonymously admit that the first phase may spring surprises. Contrary to the claims made in the surrogate ad the BJP may end up struggling on most seats. So how did the pre-poll math showing an easy victory for the BJP suddenly change to an ominous “struggle”?
The Congress’s alliances and consolidation and the emergence of disruptive new parties – the Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dol – seem to have wrinkled the otherwise smooth BJP campaign riding on monetary sops like to overcome the setbacks of the agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The anti-CAA sentiment is too potent not to be exploited by the new entrants. In fact, it is an eternal low-hanging fruit for any political ambition in Assam. BJP insiders say this combination may impact the results on up to 15 seats. The party, however, is hoping that friendly fights between the two new parties will actually help it.
It’s mere coincidence that the leaders of the three key opposition parties bear the surname Gogoi – Akhil Gogoi, founder of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti who is fighting from jail; Lurinjyoti Gogoi, a prominent anti-CAA crusader; Gaurav Gogoi, son of late chief minister Tarun Gogoi whose entry in politics upset the Congress loyalist Himanta Biswa Sarma, thus likely paving the way for the BJP to take power in 2016. And what does a Gogoi family name mean in Assam? Ujoni Asom or Upper Assam was the bastion of the Ahom dynasty for 600 years, with Sibsagar as its capital. By the current Assamese definition, Ahoms were “outsiders” who adapted and assimilated into the Hindu fold, ruled over a large empire, and defeated the Mughal army at Saraighat, which the BJP used as a metaphor in the last election.
Akhil Gogoi is contesting the erstwhile capital seat, symbolic of Ahom heritage. Gogois are Ahoms and, according to the political folklore, the chief ministership is reserved for either an Ahom or an Ahom-backed candidate. Himanta’s Brahmin and Lower Assam lineage are both disadvantageous to fulfil this ambition.
That is not all. The BJP’s high-pitched divisive campaign may not have gone down too well with the privileged Assamese who, like the Bengali bhadralok, refuse to be seen as communal. This is so pronounced that after the BJP’s 2015 victory, even the most clear-sighted political commentator on Assam, Udayon Misra, wrote in the that there was no Hindutva agenda in Assam: “There was no Hindutva agenda as such in these elections and the emphasis was clearly on preserving the identity and culture of the indigenous people of the state in the face of swift demographic change triggered by ‘infiltration’ from neighbouring Bangladesh.”
Misra argued that it was the BJP’s “masterstroke” of forging secular alliances with the Asom Gana Parishad and garnering support from the Bodoland People’s Front, and Rabha, Tiwa and other plains tribal organisations that helped the party win. If that was true, then this time the realignment of forces may cost the BJP. They dumped the BPF and created a new Bodo party to ally with, while the flailing AGP’s Assamese identity agenda has been usurped by the more energetic AJP and Raijor Dol.
Misra also observed that the Congress lost because of the erosion of its tea garden votes, and that rings true this time round for the BJP. While conceding to history about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s activities in the region going back to the 1940s, Misra asserted that the Assam was too syncretic for an RSS invasion: “Role of the RSS has been exaggerated to strengthen the impression that the Assamese have finally succumbed to the ideology of Hindu nationalism.” Or have they?
The BJP sensed this discomfort among its voters this time, but it might have come to the realisation too late. This is why the party tried to do some damage control through the media. The morning of the polling day, the chief minister stopped at the Boga Baba Mazaar, Dibrugarh, to offer prayers enroute to casting his vote. The reporter of the state-backed satellite TV channel Newslive accompanying him repeated “mazaar” numerous times in the first minute of his live broadcast to hammer home the point that it was a Muslim tomb.
The messaging was clear. And it almost contradicted what the TV channel’s de facto owner and BJP’s field commander, Himanta Biswa Sarma, had said earlier: that his party did not need .
Muslims in Assam are differentiated as Gorias (Assamese Muslims) and Miyas (Bengali Muslims). Gorias prefer the Assamese identity lest they are grouped as “migrant Muslims”. Sonowal, in damage control mode, told the media, “Sabka saath, sabka vikaas, sabka vishwas.”
The next two phases of polling, on April 1 and April 6 and covering the remaining 79 of the 126 constituencies, are in areas populated by “miyas” who are unlikely to vote for the Hindutva party, Bengali Hindus who feel harassed over the NRC but hope that the CAA will save them, and Bodos whose support will not come easy. Clearly, the BJP will need more than prayers to make it past the halfway mark.
The BJP is also not comfortable in Lower Assam and the Barak Valley, which will vote in the impending phases. The party has already conceded the Bodoland seats after losing the BPF as an ally. In 2016, the NDA included the BJP (60 seats), BPF (12), and AGP (14). This time the BJP wanted more control in Bodoland, but the BPF chief, former warlord Hagrama Mohilary, was not willing to concede territory, and so the alliance broke up. The BJP’s new ally is the UPPF led by Pramod Boro, a product of the January 2020 accord engineered by the Indian government where the demand for a separate state was traded for more money and power.
Delhi and Dispur both wanted a new Bodo dispensation. That may prove expensive given Hagrama’s new ally, the Congress, appears buoyed by hope.
In a recent interview with , Rahul Gandhi described Assam as a “genius state”. “Assam is the state of balancing. It’s not UP,” the Congress leader said. “If you want to run Assam, embrace all and understand the complexities.”
Right now, the complexity is in the numbers, and the math indicates the opposition alliance is within striking distance.
But as election watchers often warn, the Indian voter is far from predictable. A young singer from a Lower Assam char, sandbanks largely inhabited by Bengali Muslims, told me recently that their MLA, Nandita Das from the Congress, had visited them just once in the last five years, during the 2020 floods. She brought along a couple of boxes of drinking water, her gift to the flood-affected people. She is contesting this time as well, but the singer wouldn’t reveal how the char would vote. They know the people they vote for rarely, if ever, deliver on their promises. Still, they must vote, for that’s proof of their citizenship.