The BJP's Good Luck in Assam May Well Run Out

BJP National President Amit Shah after being   felicitated with a traditional Assamese “Japi” and “gamocha” during a party workers conference in Dibrugarh, Assam. Credit: PTI

BJP National President Amit Shah after being felicitated with a traditional Assamese “Japi” and “gamocha” during a party workers conference in Dibrugarh, Assam. Credit: PTI

The performance of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Assam was nothing short of spectacular. It won 7 out of 14 seats and garnered 37% of the votes. Its closest rival, the Indian National Congress (INC) won 3 seats and got a 30% vote share. To put this in perspective, the BJP in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections had won only 4 seats and a 16% of the votes. Thus, the party’s vote share more than doubled while its seats nearly doubled. Will the BJP be able to repeat its performance in the assembly elections that are due in 2016?

According to party functionaries, the RSS is giving high importance to the Assam elections. This focus on Assam is understandable given the back-to-back drubbing the BJP received in Delhi and Bihar. The other states that go to the polls in 2016 are Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and West Bengal. These states are unlikely to produce a spectacular electoral showing for the party. Assam could prove to be the saving grace for BJP in 2016. But will it?

To answer this, we need to look at more than one election result to understand the recent trend of the BJP’s performance in Assam. The party certainly has reasons to be optimistic on this count. From a meagre 1% of votes in the 1985 assembly elections it has steadily improved its position. In the last two assembly elections of 2006 and 2011, the BJP’s vote share has been around 12%. This has to be tempered with the fact that it won merely 5 seats in a house of 126 in 2011 – which is a sober reminder that the BJP has traditionally not been a major player in Assam. At the same time, there was a huge jump in its vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Although the dynamics of state assembly elections are different from Lok Sabha elections, it would not be unjust to expect that at least a part of the surge of 2014 would remain with the party when Assam goes to the polls in 2016.

The success of 2014 needs to be understood if the BJP wants to replicate it. Geographically, the entire province of Assam can be seen as comprising of three different regions: Upper Assam (the eastern part of the state), Lower Assam (the western part) and Barak Valley (the southern part). In terms of 2014 vote share, the BJP made electoral gains in all three regions compared to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. However, its biggest gains came in Upper Assam, where the party’s vote share went up from 13% to 45% – a more than three-fold rise. As a consequence it picked up 4 additional seats from Upper Assam. In the rest of the state, BJP in fact lost one seat in the net.

The rising dominance of the BJP in Upper Assam has come at the cost of the Congress. Congress’s tally went down from 4 to 1 in Upper Assam, while its vote share fell from 41% to 34%. But the party which has lost the most is the Assamese nationalist Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Upper Assam has been its bastion for long. From 24%, the AGP’s vote share in Upper Assam fell to merely 5% in 2014. The decimation of the AGP in a way sealed the success of the BJP. Interestingly, these two parties were in alliance not very long ago.

Little and great nationalisms

What lies behind the changing fortunes of the AGP and BJP? The analytical framework of Amalendu Guha, a pioneering figure in the history writing of Assam, can help us here. The “little nationalism” which the regional bourgeoisie champions may not always move in unison with “great nationalism”, advocated by the pan-India ruling elite. The latter see the development of a homogenous all-Indian market to their benefit. Establishment of such a level playing field to do business in is underpinned by a narrative of pan-Indian nationalism. On the other hand, the middle class manning the camp of little nationalism has reasons to be apprehensive about the idea of a unitary nation state. In the extreme, it may choose secession. Normally, it would seek more independence for itself in terms of regional autonomy, a federal structure. While the little and great nationalisms may find a common cause at times, such as the anti-imperialist struggle, the conflicts and frictions are never far away.

In this context, the Assam movement (1979-1985) can be seen as assertion of strident little nationalism. Before that, the Congress had had a relatively untroubled rule of nearly three decades. The Assam movement demanded the detection and deportation of alleged foreigners. But it frequently led to violent sectarian clashes. The Nellie massacre of 1983 has remained one of the biggest killings in modern India in which Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants were butchered en masse. Such incidents indicate that strident little nationalism often takes anti-minority, anti-labouring class shades.

This aspect of the exclusivity of little nationalism left a disturbing legacy. First, it gave a boost to the demands of exclusive geographical zones for many tribal groups that populate Assam. The massacre of Nellie would be replicated in these movements, although on a smaller scale. Thus from regional, exclusivity went micro – to local exclusivity. Second, exclusivity also went macro: for the Assam movement set the background for the growth of pan-Indian Hindu nationalism. The rise of BJP in Assam has to be seen in this context.

The vacuum left by AGP

The AGP, which rode the tide of regional nationalism via the Assam movement, has seen a decline in its fortunes after assuming office in 1985. Initially, the fall appeared to have benefitted the INC, the grand old party of the state. However, by the 1980s, the Congress was no longer the sole party of great nationalism. A more aggressive, Hindu majoritarian force was making rapid progress in the mainland. This force has been keen to mould little nationalism’s anxiety towards foreigners into hatred towards the religious minority. The fact that the BJP did particularly well in 2014 in Upper Assam, which has a low Muslim population, indictes the party has been successful in its strategy.

But this does not mean that it is all smooth sailing for the BJP. Although its version of great nationalism appears to have gained ground in Assam, there is no reason to discount little nationalism as yet. Little nationalism’s political expressions, from the parliamentary AGP to the secessionist ULFA, seem to have spent themselves. But as long as market forces keep reproducing regional inequality, little nationalism will very much remain alive. And so would its reservations against the pan-Indian, homogenising narrative of great nationalism. Recently, the Central government issued a notification granting amnesty to undocumented Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. This touched a raw nerve in the nationalist quarters of the state. This episode exposes the difficulty the BJP faces in trying to propagate Hindu nationalism while accommodating regional nationalism.

The electoral success of the BJP will depend on how much it is able to placate regional anxieties while pushing its own political agenda. In the long run, it would have to assimilate little nationalism within the folds of its great nationalism in order to establish a solid base in the state. The success of that project is, however, doubtful.

Of the BJP’s adversaries, it is important to note that even in 2014 the combined vote share of the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) exceeded that of the BJP by a good 10 percentage points. A united opposition of the INC and AIUDF can very well spoil BJP’s plans in Assam.

Debarhi Das is at the Humanities and Social Science Department, IIT, Guwahati