Guwahati: Late on March 12, Ram Madhav, the BJP national general secretary in charge of the Northeast, emerged at the lobby of a posh hotel in Guwahati from a huddle of state party leaders and a handful of Asom Gana Parishad’s (AGP) top leaders.
Madhav, keeping the party strategist for the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma and AGP president Atul Bora as well as his deputy Keshab Mahanta by his side, faced a battery of TV cameras. He announced “We are just one month away from the general elections. We would like to share a good news with the people of Assam and to all of you (media persons). As you all know, two years ago when the assembly elections happened in Assam, the BJP, together with the AGP and the BPF (Bodo People’s Front), fought the elections and defeated the Congress party. We formed the government together in the state. Today, in the coming parliamentary elections also, the three parties have decided to work together with the same purpose of defeating the Congress party in the coming parliamentary elections also.”
In January, the AGP had walked out of its alliance with the BJP due to the vociferous public opposition in Assam to the Narendra Modi government’s decision to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in parliament. The Bill would have segregated the undocumented Bangladeshis –allegedly residing in Assam in large numbers – on religious lines and facilitated granting citizenship to Hindus. Doing that would have violated the Assam Accord of 1985, as per which any undocumented immigrant, Hindu or Muslim, residing in Assam post-March 24, 1971, would have to be deported to their country of origin. AGP was born of this Accord and ruled the state for two terms (1985-1990 and 1996-2001).
Atul Bora, Keshab Mahanta and Phani Bhushan Choudhury, ministers in the Sonowal government, resigned from their posts consequently. Their resignations received approval from the Assamese public, its core voter base. Intriguingly though, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal didn’t forward their resignation letters to the governor for acceptance, thus triggering speculations in the local media that it was to keep the window of future negotiations open for the re-entry of the party into the coalition government. Their walkout from the BJP-led coalition government didn’t affect its stability as the BPF kept itself with it.
Though in the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP – for the first time – had an impressive win, it was three short of the simple majority mark in the 126-member house. Together with AGP’s 14 MLAs and BPF’s 12 members, BJP formed a coalition government. Both the parties were given three ministerial berths each.
The news about the March 12 re-alliance didn’t go down well with the AGP cadres and a section of party leaders. Several party men have resigned since. Former chief minister and AGP founding member, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, held a press conference in Guwahati on March 15 to state that though he was a member of a nine-member panel formed to discuss the formation of electoral alliance with parties for the 2019 elections, the three AGP ministers took the decision on their own in favour of the BJP.
Till then, there was also speculation about the AGP going with Congress as the latter had opposed the Bill. Mahanta felt the issue should have been raised at a general body meeting of the party. He also refuted allegations that he gave tacit support to the alliance because the Modi government promised him the governorship of Mizoram, recently vacated by Kerala BJP leader K. Rajasekharan.
Speaking to reporters on March 12, Madhav had said that the state’s AGP and the BJP’s top leadership would convince their party cadres about the alliance. Just a few days prior to Madhav’s statement, Sarma had told reporters that the AGP-BJP alliance would not happen as cadres of both parties were against it.
Why BJP wants to continue its alliance with AGP
So why is the BJP national leadership keen on continuing its alliance with the AGP, going against the wishes of its cadres? Asking the question is crucial not just to fathom BJP’s vote-catching strategy for the 2019 general elections in a state which has 14 of the Northeast’s 25 Lok Sabha seats, but also to understand how it wants to secure its future in Assam – most likely at the cost of the AGP.
With apprehensions within the party about its possible tanking of numbers in the north and central India where it did considerably well in 2014, BJP is keen on meeting the shortfall from the eastern and northeastern states. Naturally then, Assam is under its radar. BJP national president had announced to the media that his party’s target is to grab 21-22 of the 25 seats of the NE along with its regional allies.
The Modi government – keeping its voter base in north India and West Bengal in mind – pushed for the Citizenship Bill in the last parliament session. This, however, disturbed the political equilibrium it had reaped benefits from in 2016 by aligning its Hindutva-based voter base (mainly comprising Bengali Hindus and Hindi speakers) with the regional politics of the majority Assamese community.
The party also pocketed seven seats – highest ever – in the 2014 general elections through this strategy. Seats in the Assamese heartland went to the party mainly on Modi’s promise that “illegal Bangladeshis” would have to leave Assam “bag and baggage” once he became the prime minister.
With the forfeiture of its alliance with AGP, the BJP national leadership understood that it might find it hard to keep intact the votes gained from the majority community in 2014 and 2016. With Congress opposing the Bill, the BJP knew it had to take on board AGP to offset its arch enemy at the national level.
The result was hard electoral calculations. Three seats where BJP has zero chance of winning were handed to AGP, while those seats which AGP had a considerable chance of winning this time for protesting against the Bill – and wrest a parliamentary seat after 2009 – were kept with the BJP. It is here that the top three AGP leaders seem to have compromised with the party’s interests to benefit the BJP. Rumour mills are rife in Assam that they did it “for personal benefit”.
The seats which the BJP is contesting are also those which have a large chunk of voters belonging to six communities within the Assamese umbrella that have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status from the Modi government.
The Centre has failed to deliver, leading to anger and disappointment among the organisations spearheading the movement. BJP is now trying to break away, particularly the Tai Ahom and tea tribe communities from this bloc with budgetary sops (for tea tribes), choosing LS candidates from these communities and making other promises to the leaders of the movement. Additionally, it wants the AGP’s support to make it a watertight game.
What should worry the AGP
The 2019 calculations aside, what should worry the AGP is the threat to its very existence in the political scape of Assam due to its growing closeness to the BJP. If it skims the trajectory of the BJP-Shiv Sena relations, it can learn a valuable lesson on what not to do if it doesn’t want to be reduced to the B-team of the BJP in Assam.
Just as the AGP was born of the anti-foreigner agitation, regional pride (Maratha Manush; Mumbai for Marathis) too was the fount of Sena. Like the AGP’s anti-outsider stand affected the BJP’s core constituencies of Hindi and Bengali-speaking Hindus residing in Assam, Sena’s anti-north Indian migrant stand in Maharashtra was detrimental to the BJP’s prospects, particularly in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. It knew it had to grab most seats from UP to seize power in Delhi and had to go against the Sena. Similar reasons for electoral interests outside of Assam led BJP to bring the Citizenship Bill in January in spite of AGP’s protest.
So, like the AGP just before the 2019 general elections, Sena too became a political liability for BJP in the 2014 polls. However, the power struggle within the Sena gave the BJP the required handle to manoeuvre the situation to its advantage. With the breakaway group of Raj Thackeray supporting Modi’s prime ministership, Uddhav Thackeray had to reluctantly follow suit in order to remain relevant. Anyway, Raj’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena, with its violent ways, was threatening to take away the core ‘Mumbai for Marathi’ base from the Sena.
In AGP too, there are at least two factions – one led by Atul Bora and the other by Mahanta. BJP is making use of this internal division and scramble for control of the party to its advantage in 2019.
What AGP must take note of is that having used the over two decades of alliance with the Sena to spread itself across Maharashtra, BJP is today a force which could easily choose to ignore the demands of Sena – such as giving more than one Union cabinet berth to it in 2014. Though a miffed Sena broke the 25-year-old alliance in 2015 and went to the assembly polls alone, it became a distant second. Reluctantly, it had to join a BJP-led government.
BJP, in all likelihood, is looking at replicating this model in Assam through the AGP.