New Delhi: Electioneering in India is certainly getting more combative, and a lot more divisive. If Bihar saw a fresh benchmark of ultra-aggressiveness, it looks like the scenario will be the same in Assam when it goes to the polls in April 2016.
In fact, the ‘Bihar effect’ has already added a certain edge to the impending election for 126 assembly seats in the north-eastern state. Just after the impressive win of the Grand Alliance in Bihar, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi suggested creating a similar alliance by “secular forces” to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state. The BJP responded to it two days later – with what looked like a post-Bihar course correction for Assam.
Minister of State for Home Kiren Rjiju called an off-camera meeting with New Delhi-based North Eastern correspondents to reveal a slew of measures that the Centre was mulling over for the Assam elections.
On top of the Modi Government’s list of poll sops for Assam is the granting of Scheduled Tribe status for six communities of the state – a demand the pro-talks section of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has been making to the Centre. These communities are the Motok, Moran, Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbonshi, Sootea and Tea tribes, which comprise over 40% of the state’s population. According to Rijiju, “The file is now with the Prime Minister. After his approval, the proposal will be placed before the Union cabinet and then parliament.” He hinted that the government was tabling the move in the coming winter session.
So what has led the BJP to change its strategy in Assam? It is undoubtedly to stem its plunging popularity among voters since September this year. On September 7, the Modi government issued a notification to the Assam government stating its decision to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis residing in the state and elsewhere in the country. The powerful student bodies – All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Satra Parishad (AJYCP) – responded to it by launching a protest against “the BJP’s attempt to shelter illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”, an issue against which they launched a popular, six-year-long agitation in the state in the 1980s. Their contention has been that the Centre’s decision “is in complete disregard of the Assam Accord for which many Assamese gave their lives”. The AASU rallies saw participation of a large number of people from across the state.
A senior Assam BJP leader, who doesn’t want to be named, admits that the government’s announcement went against the party. “A lot of irresponsible statements were also made at that time against the Assam Accord, also by the governor. These could have been avoided,” he remarked.
After the Bihar debacle, the BJP brass is certainly not taking any risk with a state which they think they have a good chance of otherwise winning. Though soon after the Bihar results, Assam BJP President Siddhartha Bhattacharjee admitted to local media that “the Bihar failure gives us an opportunity to revise and redraw our strategy” – thus hinting at the fresh measures that Rijiju spoke about on November 10 in Delhi – state BJP spokesperson Hiten Goswami played it down while talking to The Wire. “The timing (for the reservation announcement) is just a co-incidence. This was a promise the Prime Minister made some time ago to the people. These things take time; that is why it is coming now,” says Goswami.
Granting ST status to these communities – now listed as OBCs – will make a large swathe of Assamese people tribal. However, this will also mean equating this huge chunk with the state’s Scheduled Castes, who have been poorer than these communities and less in number but also enjoying certain advantages over them including reservation in seven assembly constituencies. At present, 16 seats are reserved for STs. If these six communities are also granted ST status, 80 of the 126 constituencies will be reserved for STs whenever the next delimitation exercise takes place. In a state where a party needs 84 seats to have a simple majority, this move could make the SCs lose their electoral importance. Sources say that the SCs are worried and could soon launch an agitation to safeguard their rights.
The caste Hindus of Assam, who comprise about 18-20% of the population, are also nervous about their status if the majority of the population is classified as tribal. Sources in the state BJP say this is not a worry: “All Assamese people will finally come around as this move will safeguard the ethnic identity of Assamese people. Nobody wants Assam to become a Tripura. People know that the Hindu refugees from Bangladesh became the rulers of the Tripuris.”
Senior journalist and Editor of Asam Bani, Dilip Chandan, suggests, “Perhaps a better thing would have been to give the entire state a tribal status. Assam is a backward state; tribal status would have brought certain advantages to all ethnic Assamese.”
AASU President Dipankar Nath says the Centre’s move to grant reservation to these communities has come a bit late. “The momentum is lost. Why did the government not spell it out when people were on the streets against the decision to grant citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis of Assam? Why has it come after the Bihar debacle? The BJP is looking at only short term goals. If it really cared for our people, it would never have decided to make illegal Bangladeshis Indian citizens. It means they disregard the Assam Accord which clearly says 1971 is the cut-off year for immigrants while the Modi government has suggested 2004.”
BJP realises importance of the Accord
It now looks like the BJP has woken up to the importance of the Accord. Yet another move of the Modi government, according to Rijiju, will be to engage with AASU on implementing the clauses of the Accord, signed between AASU, AJYCP and the Centre in 1985 to put an end to the anti-immigration agitation.
Nath responds, “The main issues for us are sealing of the border, installing a transparent mechanism to identify illegal immigrants, and also that no illegal immigrant – Hindu or Muslim – be granted citizenship to help him or her become a permanent resident of Assam.” Though AASU earlier said it would have no problem if other states bear the burden of Hindu Bangladeshis, Nath now asks, “The Centre has already said yes to it but will it actually happen in reality is the question.”
However, by speeding up the reservation process and also by bringing home – before the elections – ULFA leader Anup Chetia from Bangladesh to possibly join the ongoing Centre-ULFA peace process, the BJP is certainly sending out a message to the people of the state that it cares about their ethnic concerns. Though Arabinda Rajkhowa, who leads ULFA’s pro-talks group, threatened some time ago to walk out if the talks were delayed any further, he is reportedly engaging in hectic parleys “almost on a weekly basis” these days with the government interlocutor, P.C. Halder. Expectedly, Rijiju said, “Efforts are on to achieve a breakthrough soon.”
These measures underline the fact that winning Assam has become even more crucial for the BJP. Among the four states going to the polls in 2016 – West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – Assam is also the only one the party has a chance of winning.
The state Congress – no matter how buoyant Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi sounds to the media – is certainly worried about its prospects. Not for nothing did his government take so much interest recently to complete the updating process of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC), 1951. It is alleged that the party used the process to keep even genuine Bengali voters out of the electoral list to play the ethnicity card with the majority Assamese. It apparently did this to counter the BJP which was reportedly wooing the state’s Bengali Hindus at that time.
Another mounting worry for the Congress is that the BJP has been weaning away its MLAs for some time now. After former Congress minister and popular leader Himanta Bishwa Sarma joined the party this August following a murky fallout with Gogoi, nine Congress MLAs have defected.
Also, the BJP sweeping the state municipal polls in February this year has given the impression that the party has been able to maintain its vote share in the 2014 LS polls, when it won 7 of the 14 Parliamentary seats of the State. In the last assembly polls, it wrested only four.
Now with Gogoi talking about a pre-poll alliance, it is likely that Congress will find support from Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), besides its ally, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). However, the BJP has recently weaned away two “winnable” senior AGP leaders too.
Delhi-based north-east commentator Sanjoy Hazarika points out that elections in Bihar are different from that of Assam. “A wide range of ethnic, religious and other groups make Assam a complex state. Elections there are fought mostly over religious and ethnic issues. At times, ethnicity also works like caste does. Besides, unlike in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, elections are fought booth-wise in Assam because it has many small communities. Voting patterns in different booths within a constituency may differ.”
Even though the Assam elections may not attract Bihar-like media frenzy, each win, however small, matters to BJP after Bihar. It is also an important election for the Congress as it not only wants to keep secure whichever state it has but badly needs to take forward its rising graph in Bihar (from 4 to 27 seats) so as to keep the party’s morale high after its pathetic show in the 2014 elections.