BJP Pins Its Hopes on Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Assam Polls

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With no traditional base in Assam, the BJP is cleverly wooing Assamese voters by reviving the strong anti-immigrant sentiments that marked the 1980s

BJP national president Amit Shah with the party's Assam president Sarbananda Sonowal during a party workers conference in Dibrugarh, Assam in November 2015. Credit: PTI

BJP national president Amit Shah with the party’s Assam president Sarbananda Sonowal during a party workers conference in Dibrugarh, Assam in November 2015. Credit: PTI

Garamur, Majuli (Assam): It’s dusk, and a group of young boys huddle around a hawker, talking feverishly. Some are members of the local unit of All Assam Students Union, some ex-AASU office bearers, and several local college boys. The hawker – possibly from Uttar Pradesh – tosses chana, a popular street snack in Assam made of peanuts, peas, green gram, and chopped onions, into paper cones for the boys.

In the semi-darkness, several heavily armed paramilitary force personnel can be spotted going up and down the road, most likely keeping a watch on the boys. Some distance away, a group of police personnel are hurriedly getting off a van and trooping into the office of the local superintendent of police.

No streetlights are on. The shutters of a few shops are already down.

Having witnessed the six-year long students’ agitation against illegal immigrants in the 1980s, this scene in Majuli was a moment of déjà vu for this correspondent.

It was reminiscent of the many unsettling godhulis (early evenings) in strife-torn Assam during that decade, when boys huddling in market places in a similar fashion had every chance of getting picked up by the army and CRPF personnel patrolling the streets.

Though the scene is strangely familiar, the context has changed. The security personnel seen this evening are a part of the arrangements for the assembly elections in Majuli.

Over three decades have passed since the anti-immigrant movement shook the state. Those disquieting memories must have faded from many minds. The party at the Centre then – Congress, seen as the common enemy of the people of the state – has long shed its reputation as a brutal external force crushing the ethnic identity of the people. Since 2001, the party has been ruling Assam for three consecutive terms. In the last assembly elections, it picked up 79 of the 126 seats.

Yet, this evening in Majuli, the conversation among the youth is about immigrants from Bangladesh “taking over almost every vacant area of the state.” Interestingly, their common enemy – just like in those heady days – is the Congress.

An AASU member standing in the group says in Majuli, “The Tarun Gogoi government has to go. People will have to come out this time if they want the Axomiya jati (the ethnic Assamese) to survive. Or else we will become foreigners in our own land. It wasn’t for nothing that Bhupen Hazarika sang long ago, ‘Aami axomiya nohou dukhia buli santona lobhile nohobo’ [‘It is not enough of a succour to believe that we Assamese will never be poor in our own land].”

BJP manipulating the people’s sentiments

Undocumented migration occurs constantly into Assam through an open border between India and Bangladesh, even after the Assam Accord was signed way back in 1985 to solve the issue. Frustration over this unresolved issue continues among the ethnic Assamese.

With the state facing an intense election, the issue is now being highlighted by the contenders with the seeming aim of toppling the present Congress government – which is certainly a new development from the previous three elections. That undocumented immigration has reared its head as an election issue sparks curiosity about the causes behind its reappearance.

A closer look at the election speeches by the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gives us some clues.

Be it Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, or the Union Ministers Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Smriti Zubin Irani, and Sarbananda Sonowal, or the state BJP leaders like Himanta Biswa Sarma – all have been heard, from every poll platform, highlighting the threat of illegal immigrants, their continuous influx into the state, and, crucially, the idea that if the Congress were to return to power, the trend would continue. So much so that the Assamese would become minority in their own land.

Addressing an election rally in Tinsukia on March 26, Modi set the tone. He reiterated the promise he made to the people during electioneering in the state for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls: “We are working to ensure that there will no influx in Assam. The new BJP government will ensure that those who are here are sent out.” His senior party leaders, however, completely omitted the issue in their campaign in Barak valley, which has a sizeable population of Bengali Hindus.

With no traditional voter base in the state, it is not easy for the BJP to wrest power in Assam from a Congress well-entrenched in several pocket boroughs.

Unlike in some states, the Congress – even though it is facing strong anti-incumbency after 15 years of rule in Assam – is unlikely to lose its base entirely in these elections. Many Assamese voters do see in Gogoi a powerful leader. Some of his government’s schemes are popular. This is a point of serious worry for the BJP, particularly in upper Assam, where the Congress got the most votes in 2014, and where it hopes to retain a good share of its popularity in the upcoming assembly polls.

It is no wonder, then, that the BJP’s poll strategists have devised this carefully crafted plan to hit the Assamese where it hurts the most, in order to drive them decisively away from choosing the Congress again.

In speech after speech, the party’s leaders have tried to foment the simmering anger of the people against the Bangladeshi influx. The party leaders have tried to stimulate the dormant sentiment of jati, mati, vati (ethnicity, land, existence).

The BJP’s propaganda songs are also an indicator of their intentions. They are sung not only by the most popular singer among the youth, Zubeen Garg, but the lyrics have also been carefully chosen to fit the party strategy. The songs present the party’s chief ministerial candidate Sonowal – a former AASU leader associated with the movement – as the carrier of “ananda” (joy) to the people. One song talks of “bon jui bonot he jole dekha puwa jai, monor jui monto he jole dekha to nepai he.” The line has been borrowed from a popular Bhupen Hazarika song and means – “a forest fire can be seen but a simmering fire within you cannot.” It articulates the nature of, and thus fuels, the immigration issue.

As expected, the party’s vision document, released by Union finance minister Arun Jaitley in Guwahati on March 25, highlighted the immigration topic. The document said the state government would work “closely with the central government to achieve complete sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border; scrutinising the citizenship of all suspected residents in accordance with the upgraded NRC.”

Factors in favour of the BJP

The BJP seems to have put a parallel strategy in action in upper Assam – of mobilising the youth through student bodies that concern themselves with the delicate issue of undocumented immigration. With former student leaders in the BJP like Sonowal, Sarma, and Kamakhya Prasad Tasa (former president of Assam Tea Students’ Union), it has not been very difficult for the party to put this strategy into practice.

From what is seen on the ground now, the strategy could achieve some success.

AASU’s top leadership took an official stand not to support the BJP in the upcoming polls because of the Centre’s decision to give citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis living in Assam, in violation of the Accord, and to give some of the state’s land to Bangladesh (as per the land swap deal with that country). Even so, it is not hard to find many members and office bearers of the student body openly canvassing for BJP candidates in upper Assam. The leader they support is Sonowal, popularly referred to as Sarba-da.

To connect with Sarba-da is easy for them. The popular reference points are predictable: besides being the former AASU president, it was Sonowal who knocked the doors of the Supreme Court to strike down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, which put the responsibility on the state to prove that a person was not an Indian citizen. Now, according to the National Register of Citizens in Assam and an SC directive, it is up to the voter to prove that he or she entered Assam before March 25, 1971, which is the cut-off date to distinguish citizens from foreigners residing in the state.

The acceptance on the part of the Assamese youth, of Sarba-da as “our leader” and “the only hope” of “saving their land from the miya” (Bangladeshis are colloquially – and pejoratively – referred to as miya), indicates that the BJP’s strategy is working.

The issue has certainly got traction from the party’s poll tie-up with Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which has many senior leaders associated with the anti-immigrant movement.

The regional party has also provided the BJP a much-needed shield in upper Assam. The decision of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre to give citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis in violation of the Accord made the BJP instantly unpopular among Assamese voters. The BJP knew it would not be easy to seek votes from them thereon. To fill that crucial gap, it had to rope in the AGP. At least from this perspective, it is the BJP which desperately needed the AGP, rather than the other way round.

What has helped the BJP is also a rapid rise in the population of Muslims in the state – reportedly a 24% jump from 2001 to 2011 as per the census. A commonly asked question in Assam is – “If most of them are not Bangladeshis, then who else can they be?” This perceived fear is fast contributing to Islamophobia among the Assamese.

This poll season, the party is certainly riding on the growing unease among the people.

In campaigns in upper Assam, the BJP has emphatically claimed that “the Bangladeshi party All India United Democratic Front” (AIUDF) has been making inroads in the political space of the state. AIUDF founder Badarruddin Ajmal has reportedly been telling the local media that he will certainly be either deputy chief minister or chief minister in the next government. Together, the BJP’s and Ajmal’s claims have added to the fears of many Assamese.

Strategy-wise, Congress trails behind

The Congress has clearly fallen behind the clever strategies of BJP.

Gogoi created poll planks out of his government’s development work and of ensuring public security post 2001 (after the erstwhile AGP government, accused of secretly killing many Assamese boys, was overthrown). Much later, in his rallies, he did ask questions like, “How many illegal immigrants did AGP send back to Bangladesh?” and “Why didn’t Modi keep the 2014 promise he gave to the people of Assam?” Gogoi also claimed that “the NRC update to detect illegal immigrants took place in my time.”

Meanwhile, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, addressing allies in upper Assam, ended her speech with “Joi Ai Asom” – the slogan popularised by the students’ agitation – just like Modi did in Majuli on March 26.

These steps, however, have been last-minute. It is doubtful how far they will take the Congress, which faces a strong anti-incumbency factor – driven, in part by its the inability to solve the unemployment problem among the youth.

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  • wisedesi

    BJP under modi is different creature than it was under Vajpai. Vajpai even though great statesman and human being was too soft to play against congress.