ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Assam: BJP’s Consolidation, Congress’s Lost Opportunities

Deepankar Basu (dbasu@econs.umass.edu) is with the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Debarshi Das (debarshi05@gmail.com) is with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

In the recent Lok Sabha elections, Assam’s Hindu vote consolidation shows as the highest in the country. The elections also brought into the limelight the irrelevance of ethnicity-based regional parties and the inability of the opposition to convert the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill protests into votes. How and why this happened is examined here.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election in Assam was an interesting event on many counts. Among other things, it put many widely held perceptions to test.

First, it was a test of the claim that the much-debated Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 would harm the electoral prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Recall that the BJP, in coalition with two regional parties—Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodo People’s Front (BPF)—is currently heading the state government. The AGP, born out of the Assam Movement (1979–85), has been opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. If the bill is passed, alleges the AGP, Hindu Bangladeshis will swamp Assam. BPF has oppos­ed the bill as well. But it did not walk out of the coalition—which the AGP did for a brief period. Both the AGP and the BPF represent indigenous communities’ interest, and a coalition with these parties does give the BJP some protection against the anti-bill sentiment. Nonetheless, the intensity of the anti-bill protests, which spread throughout the North East region, indicated that the BJP might suffer electoral damages.

The second question that the election put to test was the following: Would the Indian National Congress (INC) gain from the fact that the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) was contesting only in three seats? Recall that the AIUDF emerged as a major contender in Assam after the mid-noughties. It has a strong base among the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Lower Assam and Barak Valley. In the 2009 assembly election, the AIUDF emer­ged as the second largest party, but has been losing ground since then. This year it decided to contest only in those seats where it won in 2014: Barpeta, Dhubri, and Karimganj. The aim was to prevent Muslim votes from splitting between the INC and the AIUDF.

Since 2014, Assam has been preparing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) under the Supreme Court’s supervision. The Assam Accord of 1985 had stipulated that foreigners who immigrated into the state after 24 March 1971 will be detected and deported. Ordinary residents of the state have been asked to submit their (or their ancestors’) pre-1971 documents to the NRC authority. The NRC process has been distressing, especially for migrant-settlers who are not necessarily infiltrators. Procuring a document issued nearly 50 years ago has been difficult for the unlettered and the poor. It has been ­especially hard on women, for their pre-nuptial surnames and addresses differ from the post-nuptial ones. Moreover, the so-called “original inhabitants” of the state are subjected to “a less strict and vigorous process” of scrutiny compared to the migrants (Saikia 2018). Given this backdrop, the third question that was tested in the 2019 elections was this: Would the BJP, which has been strongly backing the NRC, lose votes among the migrant–settler communities?

The fourth, and final Assam-specific question that was in play was whether the BJP would be able to maintain its hold on Upper Assam. Until very recently, the eastern end of the Brahmaputra Valley was not considered to be a strong wicket of the party. For example, in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, when it was in alliance with the AGP, the BJP did not contest a single seat in Upper Assam, except Jorhat, where it lost to the Congress. That received wisdom was upended in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when the BJP won all Upper Assam seats, namely Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Tezpur except Kaliabor. Hence the question: Would its hold be maintained, especially after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill provoked angry protests and killings in Upper Assam?

There were other questions as well, though these were not specific to Assam: How would the voters respond to the economic doldrums courtesy of demonetisation, and the glitch-ridden goods and services tax roll-out? How would voters react to the ratcheting up of national security concerns post Pulwama, and to the increasing communal polarisation (Assam has the highest proportion of Muslims after Jammu and Kashmir)?

The 2019 Result

Table 1 summarises the overall results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and compares them with the results in the previous Lok Sabha elections in 2014. The first thing to note is that the BJP has increased its tally by two seats between 2014 and 2019—from seven to nine. Its overall vote share in Assam has gone down marginally—from 36.86% to 36.05%. As we shall see shortly, this marginal fall should not be counted as a loss. In fact, it is the result of deft electoral manoeuvring and, hides substantial gains by the BJP.

Second, the INC’s tally has remained the same at three, even though its vote share has gone up significantly—by about 5 percentage points. In fact, there is not much difference between the BJP’s and INC’s vote shares in 2019; but the BJP won three times as many seats. This calls for an explanation—to which we return below.

The third fact to note from Table 1 ­relates to the performance of the regional parties. The AIUDF has lost two seats and is now confined to the lone seat of Dhubri, won by its chief Badruddin Ajmal. Its vote share went down by 7 percentage points. On the other hand, the two alliance partners of the BJP—AGP and BPF—have not won even a single seat.

Before moving to a detailed analysis, let us address the following question: How did the BJP manage to win two extra seats even as it lost some vote share? The answer seems to lie in consolidation and deft electoral manoeuvring.

In 2019, the BJP was part of an electoral alliance with the AGP. The AGP was given tough, nearly unwinnable seats in Lower and Central Assam: Barpeta, Kaliabor, Dhubri. These seats were hard to win for the BJP—it did not win any of these in 2014. Neither is the AGP strong in these three seats: it was in the fourth (or lower) position in these seats in 2014 (Table 2).

In these three seats, the BJP transferred votes to the AGP. That is why the AGP’s vote share improved (for details, see ­Table 2). In return, the BJP received vote transfers from the AGP in Upper Assam. But these were fewer in number, so that BJP’s vote share declined marginally. Overall, it lost vote share, but this did not damage its seat count. Why? Because it consolidated votes and won new seats in Barak Valley (see Table 2 for details).

Seat-wise Voting Pattern

For ease of analysis, we have categorised 14 parliamentary constituencies (seats) into three groups. GroupA comprises of Silchar and Karimganj. This is the Barak Valley region, and is inhabited, mostly, by Bengali-speaking people. This group is demarcated by white in Table 2. GroupB comprises of Tezpur, Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, and Autonomous District. This region is in Upper and Central Assam. Demographically, the share of Muslim population is low here. GroupB is demarcated by light grey in Table 2. Finally, groupC is demarcated by dark grey in Table 2. This group comprises Kaliabor, Nowgong, Gauhati, Mangaldoi, Barpeta, Kokrajhar, and Dhubri. These constituencies mainly fall in Lower and Central Assam.

How did the parties perform in these three groups? Both seats in groupA went to BJP. In Silchar, which has a large Hindu Bengali population, the BJP’s vote share went up by a massive 15 percentage points. INC’s vote share also rose, but by a mere 2 percentage points. Thus, it appears that AIUDF’s votes got transferred to the INC, which partly accounts for the rise in its vote share. But the INC was not able to take advantage of this because its own voters may have gone over to the BJP, which accounts for the massive increase in the BJP’s vote share. The story in Karimganj seems a little different. Here, both INC and AIUDF con­­te­s­t­­­­ed and that was the problem. Since Karimganj is a traditional AIUDF stronghold, the INC’s decision to contest the elections led to a splitting of the non-BJP votes. It is more or less certain that if INC had not contested, and even if a fraction of its votes went to AIUDF, then the BJP would have lost Karimganj.

In groupB, the BJP had its best showing. It won all five seats. It wrested away one seat from INC, and held on to the other four. In three seats, the BJP’s vote share crossed the 60% mark. All seats in groupB, other than in Autonomous District, saw a bipolar contest between the INC and BJP. It had been speculated that, provoked by the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, Assamese nationalist votes of the Upper Assam area would forsake AGP and consolidate under INC. The vote share of the INC has indeed gone up in some seats in groupB. But it was not significant enough to defeat the BJP. One possible reason for BJP’s
extraordinary performance in the parliamentary constituencies in groupB is its strong support for the NRC. To its nativist backers, the NRC is a shield to protect the Assamese jati (nationality).

In groupC constituencies, the demo­graphy is heterogeneous. While it has a large Bengali-speaking Muslim population, it also has Koch Rajbongshi, Rabha, Bodo, Tiwa and other indigenous communities. It is this demographic dimension that has led us to include Kaliabor in groupC, even though a large part of it lies in Upper Assam. The BJP’s coalition partners, AGP and BPF, contested and lost in groupC. The BJP itself lost its seat in Nowgong, which was its only loss in 2019. The AIUDF lost Barpeta to INC. Thus, it should be noted in passing that the INC was instrumental in the defeat of AIUDF in two seats, Barpeta and Karimganj.

Addressing the Questions

With an account of the performance of the different parties across different regions of Assam in place, let us now return to the four questions we started out with.

The first question was whether the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would adversely affect the BJP. The answer is in the negative. Some votes may have very well gone into the INC’s kitty from the BJP that can be attributed to the bill. But the magnitude of this shift was not large enough to damage the BJP’s electoral prospects. This confirms the trend witnes­sed in the panchayat elections in Assam in December 2018, when the BJP had won more than 50% of the zilla parishad member seats. Moreover, it had a similar dominance at other tiers of the panchayat.

The second question was whether the INC would benefit from the absence of AIUDF in all but three seats. The answer is in the affirmative: the INC did benefit a little. In Nowgong, the INC won a close fight with BJP. Had AIUDF contested in that seat, the INC’s loss was a certainty. But the overall benefits to the INC were meagre. The reason is that the AIUDF, at least for now, has a limited vote base, both geographi­cally and numerically. Moreover, the INC did not return the favour and insisted on contesting in the only three constituencies that AIUDF had decided to contest. This non-reciprocation happened because the INC did not want to be seen close to the AIUDF and lose Hindu votes. Aside from being ethically untenable, such a tactic is practically wrong-headed. INC’s loss of votes to the BJP in Barak Valley indicates that a section of Hindus quit the INC anyway.

The third question related to the possibility of the NRC jeopardising BJP’s prospects. This did not happen. The non-indigenous people of the Brahmaputra Valley suffered in the NRC process. As a reprisal, Barak Valley, with its large migrant and indigenous, Bengali-speaking population could have delivered an anti-BJP mandate. This has not happened. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, devised to mollify the Hindu Bengalis may have polarised the voters along religious lines. This can be inferred from the huge increase in BJP’s votes in Silchar.

The final question was whether the BJP would be able to hold on to Upper Assam. It did. In fact, Upper Assam has become a fortress of the Hindu rightwing party. Common sense suggests that a region that has nurtured and articulated Assamese nationalism should not turn into a bastion of Hindutva nationalism overnight. How this has come to pass could be an interesting topic of study. The NRC came in handy, no doubt, but this is only part of the explanation.

Conclusions

A survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies indicates that in the Lok Sabha election of 2019 Assam has emerged as the topmost state in terms of Hindu vote consolidation (Menon 2019). In Assam, 70% of the Hindus voted for the BJP. In a traditional BJP state like Gujarat, the share of Hindus voting for the BJP is lower at 67%. This ­article provides some insights into how this feat was achieved.

First, the BJP’s support for the NRC placated the anxieties of indigenous communities over Bangladeshi infiltration. At the level of national politics, the party claimed credit for the NRC implementation and vowed to spread it to other states. Second, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was dangled to the NRC-distressed Hindu migrants with a promise that they would not be rendered stateless. Finally, smart alliance management with regional parties ensured that the BJP was not seen as opposed to the interest of the sons-of-the-soil.

The result was a massive consolidation of Hindu votes, both local and migrant. In all seats it contested, the BJP raised its vote share. It consolidated its position in Upper Assam and won new seats in Barak Valley. Loss of seats was contained in Lower ­Assam where its alliance partners bore the brunt. In contrast, the Congress was risk-averse, and was afraid to take hard decisions for fear of losing Hindu votes. This, paradoxically, bolstered the rightward shift of the polity. The inability of the Congress to lead anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill protests, or to highlight the tribulation the NRC caused, drove away potential voters. The near irrelevance of ethnicity-based ­regional parties is another important development. Hindutva-inspi­red “gre­at nationalism” which is backed by the pan-Indian big corporate capital appears to have rendered regional “little nationalism” into little more than a political footnote.1 This does not bode well for a frontier region with a complex ethnic composition and a history of developmental deprivation.

Note

1 See Guha (1979) on the compromises and contests that great and little nationalisms engage in.

References

Guha, Amalendu (1979): “Great Nationalism, Little Nationalism and Problem of Integration: A Tentative View,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 14, No 7, pp 455–58.

Menon, Aditya (2019): “Modi Wave: Has ‘Hindu Mind’ Been Rigged? Full Story in 8 Charts,” The Quint, 31 May, https://www.thequint.com/news/politics/narendra-modi-hindutva-lok-sabha-...
IwAR2M9W1c1cWc_SXjLj3Q7U5DavlMLo7K6_mwpaoAm2KwJT9nMnxC7EwenyI.

Saikia, Arunabh (2018): “Interview: No One Will Be Classified as Superior, Says Top Assam Citizens Register Official,” Scroll.in, 5 January 2018,
https://scroll.in/article/863831/interview
-everyone-will-be-the-same-level-of-citizen-says-the-state-coordinator-in-assam.

Updated On : 27th Jun, 2019

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top