Split in Assam’s Muslim Votes May Have Favoured the BJP

An analysis of the voting pattern of the Muslims in Assam reveals a confusing picture.

A fraction among them also opted in favour of the BJP which was primarily due to the influence of local issues and candidates. Credit: PTI

A fraction among them also opted in favour of the BJP which was primarily due to the influence of local issues and candidates. Credit: PTI

Guwahati: The high tally of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies in the assembly elections in Assam resulted from the interplay of many factors, including a split among the Muslim votes in the state.

An analysis of the voting pattern of the Muslims in Assam reveals a confusing picture – while the majority among them decided to remain loyal to the Congress, a significant percentage from the traditional bastions of the old party have shifted to the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal and the BJP-Asom Gana Parishad  (AGP)-Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) alliance.

Contrary to the expectation of most poll observers, the AIUDF has not performed as poorly as it was predicted. It won 13 seats and 13% of the popular vote – and managed to swing a large number of Muslim votes away from the Congress in several constituencies in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley. This was primarily due to the anti-Congress wave in Hailakandi and south Karimganj, where the party’s candidates were facing allegations of corruption.

But a different scenario emerged in western and central Assam, which have many seats dominated by Bengali Muslims and immigrants. The bulk of the votes there got transferred to the Congress, including in South Salmara from where Ajmal lost.

In the western and central regions, the Bengali Muslims have always despised being clubbed with immigrants from Bangladesh. They were alarmed when Ajmal gave a call for all Muslims to unite ahead of the polls against what he felt was polarisation of the Hindus by the BJP. Not only did they reject the AIUDF’s appeal but they voted en masse for the Congress in many seats.

A fraction among them also appear to have voted in favour of the BJP, which was primarily due to the influence of local issues and candidates. For instance, BJP candidate Ashok Singhi’s win from the Muslim-dominated East Bilasipara is attributed to his network among the Muslims which came about from the wholesale business he had established decades ago and a split of the votes between the Congress and AIUDF. Division of votes between the two parties also helped Aminul Haque Laskar, the lone Muslim MLA from the BJP, win from Sonai in the Barak Valley. A fraction of Bengali Muslims also voted for the BJP in Barkhetri, Sipajhar and Sarbhog to defeat the Congress.

“Muslims have voted in different ways during this election in Assam,” said former vice president of AIUDF Hafiz Rashid Choudhury. “They felt betrayed by Ajmal and they voted for Congress but the party failed to get the huge chunk of Muslim votes. In Barak Valley, there was a wave against the Congress and which helped the AIUDF’s win. In addition, it must be noted that development issues were paramount in many constituencies and there was hardly any communal angle.”

Choudhury’s views also explain why the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance came to be viewed as a viable alternative by a large section of Assamese Muslims or gorias, whose votes have traditionally swung between the Congress and the AGP and have always kept themselves at a safe distance from AIUDF.

Professor Monirul Hussain of Gauhati University was of the view that the alliance between the BJP and the AGP might have convinced a small percentage among the Assamese Muslims to vote for the BJP. “Muslims in Assam hail from different communities and backgrounds. Muslims of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) origin in lower and central Assam are always in fear of being deported to Bangladesh, which is not the case with Assamese Muslims. On the other hand, there was a Congress government that was absolutely inefficient and corrupt and there was a search for an alternative,” he explained.

A total of six Muslim candidates were nominated by the BJP in the elections, all of whom were Bengali Muslims. But at least 11 constituencies can be identified in the Brahmaputra Valley where the BJP secured votes from the Assamese Muslims. In Guwahati East, BJP candidate and former state president Siddhartha Bhattacharya won by a huge margin of 96,637 votes and which could not have happened without Muslim support. The other seats were mostly either contiguous to or located near Guwahati but there have also been instances in Barpeta, Morigaon and Nagaon where the saffron party had an appeal among the indigenous minority voters.

The end result was a split in the Muslim votes resulting in the reduction of seats for the Congress and AIUDF. The voting percentage had always been high among Bengali Muslims and immigrants since the ballot is supposed to put the seal of citizenship on the voter. Some poll observers claim that the turnout of non-Muslim voters was even higher during the elections which was never witnessed before. Therefore, the landslide victory of the BJP and its allies can also be attributed to the consolidation of the non-Muslim votes in their favour while the Muslim votes split among various parties. The Congress’s decades-old strategy of winning elections in Assam on the “ali-kuli” (Muslims-tea tribes) factor has received a severe jolt.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a Guwahati based journalist and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men