Assam is an ethnic mosaic carrying in its embrace various tribal and ethnic groups such as Ahoms, Bodos, Koch Rajbongshis, Mishings, Rabhas, Karbis, Kukis, Mizos, Nagas, Khasis, Santhals, Manipuris, Hmars, Tiwas, etc., along with the dominant communities of Assamese Hindus, Bengalis, Nepalis, Hindibhashis, and Muslims.
The diversity and heterogeneity along with the strong ethnic consciousness among the communities has always meant that majoritarian nationalist and integrationist parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have found it difficult to capture the state. But the party securing a two-thirds majority in the legislative assembly in 2016 and repeating its victory in the assembly polls of 2021, shows that it has created a very united Hindu vote bank by polarising the Assamese electorate and thus uniting the non-Muslim vote.
As a result of this, tribal and ethnic players are at a decline except for Bodo regional parties.
Politics of Polarisation
The politics of regional identity had kept Hindutva at bay in Assam for over two decades.
The political landscape of the state changed completely with the Assam Agitation of the 1980s which was triggered by the entry of Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh and their inclusion in the electoral roll. The decadal growth rates of Muslims from 1971-1991 was at 77.42%, the result of unchecked illegal immigration on a tremendous scale. On the contrary, the same was 42% for other indigenous communities of the state.
Table 1: Composition of Foreign Immigrants in Assam, 1951–1991
Table 2: Interstate and International Migration to Assam, 1991
The Brahma Committee Report states that 11 districts in Lower Assam have a Muslim majority, and the three districts of Nalbari, Cachar and Kamrup may follow soon by the time the next Census survey is conducted. Barpeta has over 70% Bengali Muslims, Dhubri has nearly 80% and South Salmara has 95% Muslims. These districts account for nearly 40 constituencies in the Assam assembly and four Lok Sabha constituencies, forming 1/3rd of the total electorate in terms of votes and seats.
The Assamese caste Hindu block, as well as tribal groups, felt threatened by the migrations, fearing a loss of political power and economic and cultural dominance by the immigrant Muslims.
Table 3: Comparative religion-wise Decadal Growth Rate of Assam and India, 1951–1991
Source: Brahma Committee Report, 2017
Taking advantage of these fears, anxieties and suspicions, the BJP sought to consolidate the non-Muslim groups into a single solidified Hindu vote bank in the state. These anxieties helped BJP amplify the ‘insider versus outsider’ divide into a narrative of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. Even though different tribal groups have serious differences with the Assamese and a history of violent ethnic conflict, most of them have proven ready to unite on the anti-foreigner issue.
The rise of Narendra Modi in national politics in 2014 triggered a chain of reactions which led to the party winning even a demographically challenging state like Assam. BJP won seven out of 14 seats with a vote share of 36.5%. The BJP not just swept its traditional Hindu Bengali and Hindibhashi votes, but also got significant votes from different social, ethnic and tribal communities of Assam.
This was the first time in the political history of the state that ethnic, regional and identity-based issues were sidelined and religion played a more important role in mobilising voters.
An improbable demography
When it comes to the different demographic groups in Assam, it is important to note that Muslims as a demographic group are a majority in the highest number of legislative assembly constituencies (37), even more than Assamese caste Hindus (32). Various tribal groups have majorities in 44 constituencies or 1/3rd of the electorate.
Geographically, Muslim-majority seats lie at Lower Assam and Barak Valley, with some seats concentrated around Nagaon district in central Assam. The hill tribes such as Karbis, Rabhas and Dimasas are the majority in the five hill seats, Bodos are the majority Bodoland in the western side of the north bank of River Brahmaputra while tea tribes such as Santhals and plain tribes such as Mishings are spread out along the plains in Upper Assam.
2016: Initial steps towards polarisation
This trend repeated in the legislative assembly elections of 2016 where the BJP stormed to power winning 60 out of the 126 seats in the Vidhan Sabha, including a majority of the plain tribe and tea tribe seats of Upper Assam and the hill tribe seats of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.
The allies AGP and BPF secured 14 and 12 seats respectively, giving the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) a comfortable 1/3rd majority with 86 seats.
Decoding the 2021 Verdict
Fast forward to 2021, the BJP retained its previous tally of 60 seats while its allies the AGP won eight seats and new allies the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) won 7 seats in Bodoland. The NDA even increased its vote share from 41.9% in 2016 to 44.52% in 2021, which is a significant feat considering that the opposition parties – Congress and AIUDF – came together to form a ‘mahajot’ (mega-alliance) to prevent the division of Muslim votes.
BJP’s vote share increased among every key social group in the state, except for Muslims. Religious polarisation, particularly Hindu consolidation, is the only factor that helps in making sense of the election verdict. 67% of the non-Muslim vote rallied behind the NDA compared to 57% in the 2016 Assembly election. The Congress alliance, on the other hand, managed to secure only two of every ten or 19% of the non-Muslim votes, down 13% from 2016.
Given the religious profile of Assam, where the non-Muslim share in the state’s population is around 62%, this consolidation proved to be a decisive point once again. Further, the support for the BJP among Hindus cut across linguistic-ethnic differences and came both from the Assamese- and Bengali-speaking communities – 67% of Assamese Hindus and 74% of Bengali Hindus favoured the NDA this time, as opposed to 64% and 63%, respectively, in 2016.
Apart from this, the NDA also managed to secure a clean sweep of all five hill tribe seats, 22 of the 23 plain and tea tribe dominated seats and 14 of the 18 Bodo majority, creating a massive umbrella vote bank of every single tribal group in the state except for the Ahom community. Among the tribal-majority seats, BJP only lost Mariani which is the seat of four-time MLA and son of a former popular cabinet minister, Rupjyoti Kurmi; who ended up joining the BJP after the polls.
The Assam Vidhan Sabha elections of 2021 has cemented the complete polarisation of the Assamese electorate. The BJP has successfully created a united Hindu vote bank consisting of all non-Muslim linguistic and ethnic groups based on the issues of immigration and identity.
Going into the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections
One of the major promises made in the manifesto of the BJP in 2021 was delimitation of electoral constituencies so as to “secure political rights of indigenous people”. With Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma personally looking after the delimitation exercise, through his frequent visits to Delhi, it looks like identity politics will take centrestage in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha polls too.
By altering the boundaries of many of the districts, particularly Nagaon, Baksa and Barpeta, the party looks forward to limiting the impact of Muslim voters on political outcomes of the state. Additionally, the exercise will also grant political advantages to numerically-strong ethnic groups such as Bodos and Tea Tribes. By doing so, the BJP hopes to permanently cement different ethnic groups within the mainstream Hindu fold, thereby ensuring their voting loyalties to the party.
It is also crucial to note that both Nagaon and Barpeta districts house two of the most important religious sites for Assamese neo-Vaishnavite Hindus, namely Barpeta Satra and Batadraba Satra. However, both of these areas fall under constituencies dominated by Muslim voters which has been an eyesore for the party leadership. Encroachment of Satra land has been a perennial issue for elections in the state. As such, “freeing” Barpeta and Batadraba was one of the key mottos of the party during the 2021 polls, featuring prominently in their electoral rhetoric. By altering the constituency boundaries of these two areas, the BJP not only seeks to establish their political strongholds around these religious centres and gain support of important religious figures but also build a long-term narrative of protecting indigenous places of worship. The party hopes that this will attract the other non-Muslim ethnic groups who are not a part of the BJP’s rainbow alliance as of yet.
Nabaarun Barooah is an intern at Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University.
Poulomi Ghosh, Research Fellow at TCPD, contributed to the article.