By Uddipta Ranjan Boruah*
A series of events taking place in the political arena of the restive northeastern state of Assam has been making news in the state as well as in the corridors of power in New Delhi. Observers have already jumped the gun to describe it as the wind of change in the poll-bound state. Looking forward to the upcoming assembly polls in 2016, specialists have considered the changes to be a new dawn for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the northeast where the party has had fairly limited influence since ages. For most of the time in the history of Assam, the Indian National Congress has successfully ruled the state. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has now qualified himself to be called one of the longest ruling chief ministers in the country. The loyalty of the voters of the state towards the INC has perhaps enabled the party to stay in power despite the arrogant media stunts by senior Congress leaders of the state on various occasions. There have been moments wherein the INC had witnessed its nadir in the state but a strong leadership in New Delhi, efficient vote-bank politics, availability of funds and an army of charismatic leaders sailed the party through the turbulent waters. The state is yet again gearing up for the upcoming assembly polls. The public is yet again confronted with the crucial task of electing their representatives. But the scenario this time is not the same.
The conditions in Assam have considerably changed now throughout the 15 years of Congress rule. People no more are interested in trading their franchise for a blanket or a mosquito net or maybe for a bottle of foreign liquor. Voters now are guided by performance not promises. The masses today have learned to look beyond short-term pleasures and are bargaining for long-term gains. With the rapid rise of electronic media in the state, a farmer in the peripheral Kakapathar today is perhaps as close to Dispur (the seat of the Assam Legislative Assembly) as a white collared IT professional based in Guwahati, and is now keeping track of his elected representatives and making them accountable to the ballot. The civil society has developed to a considerable extent in the state. The people now fight for issues ranging from lack of water in kitchens to the flooding of water on streets of Guwahati. To put it directly, politics no more is an easy ride in Assam and winning constituencies today is tougher than winning wars.
New dawn for the Bharatiya Janata Party?
Apart from the above-mentioned organic changes that have been taking place with time, a chain of recent developments in the state is of much relevance. These developments have brought the ruling INC to a gloomy situation. Although it is quite early to assess these developments in terms of their potentiality to strengthen the position of the BJP in the poll-bound state, it is quite explicit that these developments will add up to the growing anti-incumbency against the INC and help other political parties to make inroads. Mentioned below are three landmark events that have been heating up the political arena in Assam.
Defection of Himanta Biswa Sharma
The defection of prominent Congressman Dr Himanta Biswa Sharma to the BJP is perhaps one of the crucial turning points in the contemporary political history of Assam. Sharma, a former cabinet minister in the current Tarun Gogoi-led government, is undoubtedly a key player in the political arena of Assam. One of the few handpicked choices of former chief minister, Hiteshwar Saikia, Sharma has duly proved his worth. From a student leader of the All Assam Students Union during the Assam Movement of 1980s, Sharma climbed up the ladder of success to finally become an influential Congressman and at one time the closest and most trusted aide of present Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. During his tenure as cabinet minister of health and education in Assam, both the departments reached remarkable heights. As education and health minister he effectively implemented the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) flagship programme National Rural Health Mission and managed to ensure the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) examination for recruitment of teachers in government schools.
Winning the Jalukbari Assembly seat for consecutively three terms in 2001, 2006 and 2011, Sharma had proved his charisma and popularity among masses. Dr. Sharma proved his worth yet again when in 2011 the Congress campaign under his stewardship won 78 out of 126 assembly seats. With his charismatic leadership, Dr. Sharma succeeded in influencing a large section of the youth in Assam, and as a result there is ample possibility of an exodus of Congress workers to the BJP following the giant leap of Himanta Biswa Sharma. His relations with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and other leaders of the party slipped to the darker side with the entering of Gogoi’s son Gaurav into the political space in Assam. After trying helplessly for around two years to negotiate a deal with the Congress high command in New Delhi, Sharma found defection to be the only exit route. Although the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee and the Sharma brigade have refrained from explicitly accepting Gaurav Gogoi as the bone of contention, the fact is almost implicit for the greater Assamese populace.
The defection of the once “blue eyed boy” of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has now become a matter of deep concern for the Congress party as a whole. The rise of the BJP in the state was witnessed in the last Lok Sabha elections when the party grabbed seven of of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, pushing the INC to three. The already rising BJP is now expected to be even stronger, and the INC needs to restructure its strategies for the upcoming elections before it is too late.
Release of the Census report
The release of the data on Population by Religious Communities of Census 2011 by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner on August 25, 2015 is yet another significant event for Assam. The release is crucial for the reason that it claims Assam to be the state to witness the highest growth in Muslim population since 2001. Irrespective of the facts and methods of calculation underlying the census, the right wing forces are set to blame illegal migration from Bangladesh for this marked rise in Muslim population. Given the fact that Assam has had a bitter history of antagonism with migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan and subsequent Bangladesh, the BJP and other political parties and civil society members will take up the census report to blame the incumbent Congress government of failure to check Bangladeshi influx. Although there may be other factors behind the rise — like increased birth rate and low death rate accruing from improved healthcare facilities, urbanization of other communities leading to low birth rate, religious conversions etc. the primary attempt of the BJP and other political parties will definitely be to capitalize political gains by beating the drum of illegal migration.
Another crucial factor regarding the census report is the time of its release. The fact that its release has been delayed for three years is enough to make implicit the critical relevance of the report. Fearing political instability that could arise from the release of the crucial report, the UPA government sat on it for two years, finally to let the BJP sit on it for another one year. Now that the assembly elections are less than one year ahead in Assam there could have been no riper time for the BJP government at the centre to release the census report. Coupled with the already existing anti-incumbency of 15 years against the ruling regime, the report is obvious to provide incentives to the BJP.
Ordinance to naturalize refugees
The national media has been bringing to light for some time an ongoing talk in New Delhi regarding passing of an ordinance to provide citizenship to Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The Times of India in an article titled “Law to Rehabilitate Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh?” on April 13, 2015 stated: “The government is likely to soon enact a law for rehabilitation of Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. At a meeting held at Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence, the issue was discussed along with the recent Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh…”
The news yet again is crucial for Assam. Although the talks are on to naturalize Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, it requires no mention about the effect of such an ordinance in poll-bound Assam which houses innumerable number of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. The BJP is expected to bring a bill in the winter session to send a message to Bangladeshi refugees living in Assam for years without proper documents that it intends to include them in the system. Thus the release of the data on Population by Religious Communities and the talk of an ordinance to naturalize Hindu refugees in such an appropriate time is undoubtedly a poll strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party which is explicitly making use of its strong hold in Lok Sabha to make the best use of time. All these changes are obvious to put the BJP in a better position in Assam which is less than a year away from assembly elections in 2016.
*Uddipta Ranjan Boruah is a student at the South Asian University. He can be reached at [email protected]