Politics

BJP Becomes the King Sans Kingmaker in Assam

The political reality of the collective bargaining power wielded by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s two regional allies in the state will always keep it in check.

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Guwahati: Riding a strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) have swept the assembly polls in Assam, securing 86 of the total 126 seats, paving the way for the installation of a non-Congress government in the northeastern state after 15 years. Of the five states in which assembly polls were held, the BJP had the highest stakes in Assam and the landslide victory has helped the BJP spread its influence in the strategically located northeastern part of the country.

The verdict is a clear indication that the BJP has been able to spread its base in the entire state – the Brahmaputra valley, the Barak valley and the two hills of the state – Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Of the 60 seats won by the party, 49 came from the Brahmaputra valley, eight from the Barak valley and three from the hills. State BJP president and Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs Sarbananda Sonowal, is now poised to take oath as the chief minister of the state. However, former Congress minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who played a key role in BJP forging the pre-poll alliance with the AGP and the BJP and also in electioneering is also expected to play a deciding role in the ministry formation.

The ruling Congress bites the dust as it managed to get only 25 seats, and only 31% votes. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress vote share was 29.90. While Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi retained his seat, 11 of his ministers and several of his former ministers were defeated.

The results shattered the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)’s chief Badruddin Ajmal’s dream to become a “kingmaker” and his party’s tally was reduced to 13 seats, down from from the 18 won by it in 2011. Maulana Ajmal, who represents the Dhubri Lok Sabha constituency, lost to his nearest Congress rival Wazed Ali Choudhury in the Salmara South constituency.

The final party position in the new assembly is: BJP – 60, AGP – 14, BPF – 12, Congress -25, AIUDF – 13 and independent – 1. In 2011, the Congress won 78 seats and retained power for the third consecutive term while the BJP managed to win just five seats. The other party positions for the 2011 elections were as follows: AGP – 10, BPF – 12, AIUDF – 18, Trinamool Congress -1 and independent – 2. However, BJP candidates polled the highest votes in 69 assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In this election, the BJP-led alliance has secured 41.5% votes (BJP – 29.5, AGP – 8.1, BPF -3.9). In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP secured 36.86%, the AGP secured 3.87% and the BPF secured 2.21% votes.

The verdict shows that the AGP has gained from its pre-poll alliance with the BJP. The regional party, which ruled the state for two terms in the past, won 14 of the 24 seats it contested. However, the AGP has lost its bargaining power, as the BJP will not be dependent on it for government formation, because the BPF too has won 12 seats.

The BPF, which rules the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), achieved over a 90% strike rate as the pre-poll alliance helped the party win 12 of the 13 seats contested by it. However, BPF chief Hagrama Mahliary’s dream to become the kingmaker was shattered, and like the AGP, the Bodo political party too will not have any bargaining power as the BJP will not be dependent on it for government formation.

Yet, the BJP will always run the risk of offending the two allies at the same time, as the AGP and the BPF together would have strong bargaining power. This political reality will always keep the BJP in check and prompt it to devise strategies to prevent the two regional parties from becoming too close.

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The BJP formed a “rainbow” alliance with the AGP, the BPF, and the political organisations of the Tiwas and the Rabhas. It also played on the perceived fear of Muslims who originate from erstwhile East Bengal among the so called ‘indigenous Assamese’, invoking the historic battle of Saraighat in which the Ahoms, who ruled over Assam for over 600 years, defeated the Mughals.

The AGP, which champions the cause of ‘indigenous Assamese’ will seek to bring the issues of implementation of the Assam Accord and various clauses of the accord such as the identification and expulsion of ‘Bangladeshis,’ sealing the India-Bangladesh border and most importantly, clause six of the accord which promises that “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

For the implementation of clause six of the Assam Accord, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has been demanding 100% reservation in the assembly, barring the seats reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates, and land rights for Assamese people. It believes that only such a step can allay the fears of Assamese people losing political power to “infiltrators.”

However, a consensus on the definition of Assamese people could not be found in the 30 years since the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 at the culmination of a vigorous anti-foreigner agitation spearheaded by the AASU and the formation of the AGP by the student body. Of these 30 years, the Congress was in power for 15 years, the AGP was in power for 14 years and the state was under president’s rule for one year.

The people of Assam punished the AGP by keeping it out of power for all these years for its failure to implement the accord. This provided the BJP the much needed political space to strengthen its base in Assam. The AGP cannot afford to evade its role in the implementation of the accord this time as it would then allow the BJP to annihilate the regional party completely. As long as AGP’s alliance with the BJP remains a compulsion than an option, the party will not be able bargain with the BJP on the rights of the “indigenous Assamese.” The AGP opposed the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government’s notification to provide shelter to “Hindu Bangladeshis” but diluted its stand when it understood that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar had already influenced the majority of the Assamese people, including those in its traditional stronghold. A key shift was made in their perception of the Assamese as a nation (jati) of not merely linguistic and cultural identities, but also a religious identity, which made them believe that it is only Bangladeshi Muslims and not the Bengali-speaking Hindu Bangladeshis who pose a grave threat to the identity of the “Assamese.”

For the BPF to remain the most influential political force in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), the implementation of the Bodo Accord which led to the formation of the BTC, a tribal autonomous council under the provisions of the sixth schedule of the Constitution will remain the key issue. This Bodo Accord was signed on February 20, 2003 after Bodo groups rejected the first Bodo Accord signed by the All Bodo Students Union and the erstwhile militant outfit Bodo Liberation Tigers. Current BTC Chief Hagrama Mahilary led an armed campaign to revive the movement for a separate state of Bodoland on the grounds that the accord failed to fulfil the aspirations of the Bodo people. Even though anti-incumbency was high against the BPF for the very reason that it shared power with the Congress from 2006 to 2014, the BPF fueled fresh hopes among the Bodos by showing them the “kingmaker” dream and by severing ties with the Congress well ahead of the assembly polls. Its alliance with the BJP and AGP helped to retain the support of non-Bodos as well.

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The results clearly indicate that the BJP has caused a permanent dent in the traditional Congress stronghold among the tea-tribes, and the saffron party’s inroads into this Congress bastion in 2014 was not a temporary phenomenon attributable only to dissidence against the outgoing chief minister Gogoi by Congress legislators who were representing the tea tribes. Although Gogoi could retain his Titabor constituency, defeating Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, the BJP’s Lok Sabha MP from Jorhat, most of his former cabinet colleagues lost the poll this time.

A shift among the Muslim voters of East Bengal origin in favour of the Congress reduced the AIUDF’s strength in the Brahmaputra valley. Of the total 13 seats won by the party, nine came from the Brahmaputra valley and four came from the Barak valley. In 2011, of the total 18 seats won by the party, 17 came from the Brahmaputra valley and only one from the Barak valley. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, a sharp polarisation of votes on religious lines helped the party poll the highest votes in 25 assembly segments. The BJP and its allies played up the rise of AIUDF to reinforce the fear of the “indigenous Assamese” losing political power to a possible AIUDF-Congress combination. The BJP projected this combination as the ‘protector’ of ‘infiltrators’ (Bangladeshi Muslims).

The return of the BJP in the Barak valley is likely to mount pressure on the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre to fulfil its poll promise of granting citizenship to “Hindu Bangladeshis.” In 2011, the BJP failed to win a single seat in the Bengali-dominated Barak valley and in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls too, the BJP managed to poll the highest votes in only three of the total 15 assembly segments under the two Lok Sabha seats – Silchar and Karimganj of the Barak Valley, even as the Modi wave swept the Brahmaputra valley. In this election the BJP has won eight seats, the AIUDF has won four and the Congress, only three seats.

Note: This article was originally published on nezine.com. Minor edits have been made to the original article to reflect stylistic changes.