“The only way to safeguard our interests is to have a platform which believes in strong regionalism,” said Lurinjyoti Gogoi, the newly appointed president of the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), at its first political convention in Sivasagar.
The AJP was founded in December last year with the efforts of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Jatiytabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCF), which spearheaded the anti-foreigner Assam agitation of 1979-85, and was instrumental in the founding of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) after that.
Believing that the AGP has floundered its legacy of regionalism, especially after it continued to support the BJP led state government even in the aftermath of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, a section of AASU’s leadership decided to launch a new regional outfit. The aim was to uphold the legacy of sub-nationalist sentiment in Assam and claim the void left by the AGP.
However, AJP is not the only party that has sprung up in recent months to claim that political vacuum. Incarcerated activist Akhil Gogoi’s farmer organisation Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) has also launched a political party, Raijor Dal, which means people’s party. Rajya Sabha MP and journalist Ajit Bhuiyan has also launched a party last year in June called the Anchalik Gana Morcha. All of these parties emerged in the aftermath of the anti-CAA movement and all of them claim to defend and represent Assamese regionalism and interests-aspirations of the Assamese people, which, in the words of Lurinjyoti Gogoi, “aren’t safe with national parties.”
Both the Raijor Dal and AJP are already in talks for seat sharing and may decide to contest elections together.
But what is Assamese regionalism, and is it a big enough political issue that could alter the electoral fortunes of the state in the upcoming elections?
The political history of regionalism and sub-nationalism in Assam
Assamese regionalism or sub-nationalism could be understood as the peculiar nature of the demands and concerns of Assamese people, which in some cases run contrary to the “national concerns”. Political scientist Sanjib Baruah maintains that Assamese sub-nationalism has a diabolical relationship with “centrist nationalism” which New Delhi-based governments have tried to uphold. A classic example of this is from the time of Partition when central leadership of the Congress party seriously considered accepting the Cabinet Mission plan that would have clubbed Assam with a Muslim-dominated Bengal.
State Congress leader Gopinath Bordoloi opposed this demand and succeeded in eliciting support from Mahatma Gandhi, which ultimately lead to the cancellation of these plans. But even after partition, Nehru and Bordoloi continued to have debates over issues like the influx of illegal migrants from East Pakistan, and allocation of financial resources. The issue surrounding the influx of foreigners finally escalated into a massive movement in 1979 that lasted for almost six years during which time the Congress-led central government failed to suppress it. The 1985 Assam Accord between the movement’s leaders and Rajiv Gandhi government finally brought it to a conclusion but by that time regionalism had seeped into Assamese political culture. The AGP, formed after the accord, won the election and continued to remain a principal opponent of the Congress for long.
“The golden phase of regionalism in Assam could be said to be between 1985-2001,” said Professor Nani Gopal Mahanta from Gauhati University’s political science department, “after which the regional sentiment was on constant decline”. The AGP could not get a single Lok Sabha seat in 2014 elections. And after three successive governments of Congress, in 2016 BJP came to power with AGP as a mere junior partner.
The fissures within: communities, class and tribes
But Assam is a state with an extremely diverse socio-ethnic profile. The state is inhabited by caste Assamese and OBC groups, Ahoms, Koch Rajbonshis, Bengalis, Muslims of various origins – from Goriya-Moriya to Deshi and Bhatiyas – tea garden workers of Jharkhandi origin locally called tea tribes, Hindi speakers and a large number of tribes from Bodo to Rabha, Kachari, Dimasa, Karbi, Tiwa, Mising, Moran-Matak etc. All of them have their differences and conflicts.
So did the Assam movement actually win over these differences and bring everyone together? Professor Mahanta disagrees. “The movement could not elicit similar support and participation from other communities especially the tribals. It was mainly led by Assamese middle class and caste Assamese people,” he said.
In fact, some people point to the historical roots of tribal distrust with caste Assamese elite when tribal leaders gave a requisition to the Simon Commission for a separate tribal state. The double discrimination that the tribals faced – from the Centre and from caste Assamese elites – somehow shaped tribal regionalism’s own trajectory which doesn’t adhere to mainstream Assamese regionalism. This is also evident from voting patterns – even during the heyday of the AGP, tribal communities were largely supporting the Congress and have now shifted to the BJP.
In this scenario, the political traction of regionalism in Assam appears to be less powerful than currently projected. Additionally, expecting the now-petered out anti-CAA movement, which gave some new life to the diminishing appeal of regionalism, to alter politics in Assam seems too optimistic. In fact, in a recent qualitative survey conducted across the state by the survey agency People’s Pulse, a majority of the respondents said that CAA won’t be an electoral issue this time around.
Social engineering and altering of equations
While the rise of the BJP in 2016 was largely due to the anti-incumbency against a three-term Congress government, with Himanta Biswa Sarma’s political manoeuvring and the division of Muslim votes between the Congress and AIUDF in crucial seats, the BJP has made systematic attempts to cement its base after coming to power.
“Since 2016, BJP has made deep inroads into tea tribes, caste Assamese voters and tribal communities using government schemes, political patronage and organisational inclusion, while also keeping its Bengali vote base intact,” said Santanu Talukdar, political analyst and lawyer of KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi.
“With this vote base solidly standing by them and Ahoms and Muslims dominantly backing the AIUDF-BJP, from where can the new regional parties muster much support?” Talukdar said. According to him, the only option before them is an alliance with the Congress.
While the prospect of an alliance with Congress was explicitly ruled out by him, on the question of which sections the party will target for votes, AJP’s chief advisor Basanta Deka said, “We won’t target any one community. We will appeal to the common people as a whole, and there are still many takers for regionalism in Assam.” Raijor Dal general secretary Kamal Medhi also took a similar stance. Both attempted to dodge a straightforward question: where are their parties going to siphon votes from in a highly polarised environment with strong social engineering by both BJP and Congress alliances?
Summing up this dilemma, Professor Mahanta said, “Their situation may not be very good in electoral terms as their support across communities is weak. However, if they enter into a tacit alliance with Congress, they may open their account.” Though rumours about a tacit alliance with Congress, on at least the seats of AJP leader Lurinjyoti Gogoi and Raijor Dal’s Akhil Gogoi, are doing rounds, it apparently looks like the new regional parties of Assam are destined for a damp start.
Rajan Pandey is a freelance journalist. He is associated with survey agency People’s Pulse.