At the time of writing this, Bhartiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance seems poised to return to power in Assam with the party riding high on what appears to be its all-time best performance in the state.
This was a significant assembly election for Assam for a number of reasons.
It was to be an electoral test of the widespread anger witnessed against the BJP during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act mobilisations – especially given that the anti-CAA protests paved the way for the formation of new political parties in the state and led to anti-BJP consolidation between existing ones.
It was also a moment when ‘Assamese nationalism’ changed, with an overwhelmingly youth-drive force deciding to take the electoral plunge, ending the longstanding dichotomy between protest politics and formal, competitive politics of popular representation.
What explains the seemingly unstoppable saffron march in the region? What lessons does it have for the unfolding of representational democracy in our times?
Crafting electoral clienteles
A steady infrastructural push both at urban and rural levels, starting from the construction of mega bridges to paving of the village roads in last few years in the state has been an indicator of BJP paying heed to the cardinal truth of politics, ‘make roads, get votes’.
Last mile connectivity created a positive perception of change, which BJP used successfully to contrast with the negative experience of many of these areas with previous regimes. Add to this a careful set of interventions that the party in power devised in the state. These impacted various communities, income groups, genders and professions.
A set of schemes with mostly monetary and material incentives were aimed at creating ‘hitadhikaris’ – beneficiaries. In other words, people who saw themselves ‘benefiting’ from a certain system played a crucial role.
A phenomena called nurturing of electoral clienteles has been increasingly used by parties across the spectrum and around the globe, most successfully by populist rightwing radical parties. From free rice and subsidised kerosene oil to direct cash transfer to bank accounts (like the Orunudoi scheme), these schemes especially touched segments of society lacking in social capital. They, notably, had significant ‘electoral capital’.
Identities and fragments
The argument of beneficiary creation can be extended to the terrain of ‘identities’ too.
In Assam, priorities and perspectives are circumspect to one’s social location. Take for example, the case of ethnic communities like Ahoms, Motok, Moran, Sutia, etc. who had played a crucial role in making Upper Assam the hub of anti-CAA protests.
However, soon afterwards, some of the prominent student and cultural organisations representing these communities gravitated towards BJP. Their argument was that the primary battle, which is to protect, preserve, promote their ethnic identities, (translating into recognition as Scheduled Tribes with a measure of autonomy) needed to be kept in perspective in deciding political allies.
A steady flow of benefits, the targeted interventions into the tea garden communities in Assam (Adivasis and others), and promise for more seems to have paid positive dividends to BJP in Upper Assam.
The Congress in Assam has played to this imperative successfully many times in the past, most notably to puncture the emerging united resistance in the times of Assam Movement in 1980s.
There is ideological fragmentation too, despite the common anti-CAA plank, that leads to parties not being able to come together due to bad history in the past. The foundational nature of ‘Assamese nationalism’ as one skeptical of national parties also plays a part.
This staunch position taken by Asom Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dol has possibly created confusion in voters and benefited NDA. This despite Akhil Gogoi of Raijor Dol being perceived as an uncompromising fighter.
BJP on the other hand aligned themselves with the aspiration with smaller communities and tribes from Assam. Their new ally, Bodoland United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), emerging as the clear winner.
Fear of ‘migrants’
The verdict has shown that the majority perception on immigration continues to be driven by numbers, religion and cultural othering.
A careful campaign by BJP and allies to project the Badruddin Ajmal led All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) as a champion of immigrants and a real threat to the ‘indigenous’ of Assam, seem to have resonated with many. Conversely, the fact that AIDUF has done well in almost all the pockets where minority votes prevail, have now formalised this polarisation.
All parties in Assam have contributed in the past to constructing a villain out of the figure of Maulana Ajmal. The fear of ‘turning into a lower Assam, where Maulanas rule’ has moved a big section of voters elsewhere in the Brahmaputra Valley.
Now, Congress which finds itself standing on a different end of the political spectrum suffers. With the anti-CAA atmosphere, this othering has been further propagated.
Veteran social activist Akhil Gogoi’s victory from Sivasagar constituency, from the new, anti-BJP, anti-CAA party Raijor Dol, is significant as it shows the persistence of political imagination beyond the immediate cost-benefit analysis.
It shows that given an option there are takers for alternatives. Gogoi’s was an emotional, larger than life campaign, with his image turning into one of a living martyr incarcerated in jail by an unfair regime.
His image as a first timer (which the other new regional party Asom Jatiya Parishad lacked due to a negative image of student politics aided by the Asom Gana Parishad) was a clean one and gave him added advantage that was utilised in the campaign.
Pandemic, protest and privileges
The pandemic and its aftermath not only broke the momentum of the anti-CAA mobilisations but it also brought back legitimacy, approbation and one’s dependence on of the establishment like never before.
The difficult times only helped BJP in stitching together an electoral coalition in Assam consisting of sub-groups of voters having divergent socio-economic realities.
Ultimately they were brought together by a triadic reality of perception of development, sense of insecurity and aspirations of cultural assertions.
Kaustubh Deka is assistant professor of political science at Dibrugarh University, Assam.