The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

State of Play: Elections in India’s Assam

While forecasts predict the BJP and its allies retaining power, things may not be that simple.

State of Play: Elections in India’s Assam
Credit: Flickr/Liji Jinaraj

The northeast Indian state of Assam, which is due to vote in state assembly elections over three days in March-April, is witnessing a three-cornered fight. Pitted against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led front in the state are the Congress-led Mahajot or “grand alliance,” and a regional combine comprising of two newly formed parties.

Opinion polls predict that the BJP and its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), an Assamese ethnic nationalist party, and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), a Bodo nativist party, will return to power. They are expected to corner 43.8 percent of the vote share and to secure around 72 seats in the 126-member Assam state assembly.

However, it is too early to call the race in Assam as the Congress-led alliance is putting up a strong fight.

Since India’s independence, the Congress party has been in power for several terms in Assam. In fact, it held the reins for 15 years between 2001 and 2016. Its dream run ended in May 2016 when the BJP stormed to power in the state for the first time.

From winning just five seats in the state assembly election in 2011, the BJP won 60 seats in 2016 and with its then allies, the AGP and the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), secured 86 seats to form the government. It continued its strong performance in the 2019 general elections when it won nine of the 14 constituencies from the state.

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The BJP is now eyeing a second term in power in Assam. It will be hoping to win the Hindu vote to return to power. This may not be easy given recent developments in the state, which have angered the Assamese people.

One is the BJP government’s implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a Supreme Court-mandated citizen counting exercise, which saw hundreds of thousands of people being pushed into “a state of limbo” in Assam. In addition, the BJP government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which many indigenous Assamese fear will reduce their cultural and ethnic influence by giving citizenship to a large number of post-1971 Hindu Bengali migrants.

The Assamese are apprehensive that this will destroy Assamese identity, culture and language. It triggered a tidal wave of apprehension, anger and violent agitation in the state in 2019-20.

Fearing that voters would punish it for the NRC and CAA, the BJP has been downplaying these issues in its election campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have studiously avoided mentioning it in their speeches in Assam in recent months. Instead, the BJP has been focusing its campaign in Assam on the economic and infrastructural development work its governments at the federal and state level have undertaken.

But much to the discomfort of the BJP front, the opposition alliances are keeping their guns focused on the CAA and the threat it poses to Assamese identity.

Addressing an election rally in Assam, Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra criticized the BJP for attacking Assam’s identity by bringing in the CAA. The Congress will bring in a law to nullify the CAA, she promised voters.

In addition to focusing its election campaign on protecting Assamese identity, the Congress has stitched up an alliance with six other parties to consolidate anti-BJP votes in the state. Besides the Congress, this alliance includes three Left parties, the All India United Democratic Party (AIUDF), the BPF and the Anchalik Gana Morcha.

In the 2016 election, the Congress lost not only because of an anti-incumbency wave but also because the Muslim vote in Assam – according to 2011 census figures, Muslims comprise 35 percent of Assam’s population, with unofficial estimates putting this figure at 40 percent – got divided. The Congress and the AIUDF, which has its support base among Assam’s Bengali-origin Muslim community, contested that election separately. It resulted in the Muslim vote dividing between them. The victory of the BJP in at least 25 constituencies was attributed to this division of votes.

To prevent this from recurring, the Congress has joined hands with the AIUDF this time around. While this could result in a consolidation of Muslim votes behind the Congress-led alliance, the strategy could boomerang.

Several Congress leaders in Assam are bitterly opposed to the party decision to align with the AIUDF and are threatening to quit the party. It could cost the Congress the votes of Assamese Hindus, who upset with the BJP’s enactment of CAA, were considering voting for the Congress. They may not vote for the Congress now as many in Assam see the AIUDF as a “communal” party.

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Incidentally, while the Congress is trying to project itself as guardian of the Assamese identity, its alliance with the AIUDF is undermining that image, as the AIUDF represents Muslims — not of Assamese origin but those with Bengali roots.

This, the Congress has sought to address by roping in the BPF. An ally of the BJP in the 2016 election, the BPF has its support base among the Bodo community and tea garden workers. Analysts say that by getting the BPF on board, the Congress has improved its credentials as a party supporting the indigenous community.

The Congress was hoping to rope in the regional front comprising the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal (RD) into the grand alliance as it is keen to avoid a divide in the anti-CAA voters. The two parties emerged last year out of the CAA protests. However, its hopes have been dashed with the two parties announcing their own candidates for the elections.

While the BJP was hoping for a three-cornered contest to divide opposition votes, the Congress worked hard to make it a two-cornered contest in Assam.

With the AJP-RD front staying away from the Congress alliance, the BJP has scored an early victory in the battle for power in Assam.