By Wasbir Hussain*
The BJP managed to break free from its ‘Hindi-heartland’ image by storming Assam with a massive victory, winning, along with its allies, 86 of the 126 assembly seats – thereby making its debut not just in Northeast India but in eastern India as well. The BJP has a lot to cheer because apart from the fact that Assam has traditionally been a Congress stronghold, the Party managed to unseat the government of Congress veteran Tarun Gogoi, which was firmly saddled for three terms since 2001. This is no mean achievement, because except for a ten-year rule by the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) over two separate terms, and a brief Janata Party stint, Assam had been under Congress rule.
The BJP win has been indeed decisive because most of Tarun Gogoi’s senior cabinet colleagues have lost, leaving him with no option but to sit in the opposition benches without his key aides. This was a reflection of the strong anti-incumbency against the 15-year-long Tarun Gogoi government. The BJP managed to engineer this victory because it projected and relied on two strong local leaders – state party president Sarbananda Sonowal and new entrant Himanta Biswa Sharma; stitched up alliances with influential regional parties; did not bring in its Hindutva ideology into the campaign; harped on development and livelihood options; and, of course, sought to protect Assam’s future by saving the identity of the indigenous people of the state from an onslaught of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. The BJP also kept its radical breed of saffronites away from the Assam campaign, lest they make controversial remarks. The results were there for all to see – the BJP on its own bagged 60 seats and its allies collectively won 26.
This has been a high-stake election for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who addressed 10 election rallies – and BJP President Amit Shah because they knew, of the five states going to polls in April, Assam was the one where they had a real winning chance, a result that could change the party’s national profile. The foundation, of course, was laid during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls where the Modi wave propelled the BJP to centre-stage in Assam. From just three Lok Sabha seats the BJP won in 2009, it managed to bag seven seats. The Congress tally declined from seven in 2009 to just three in 2014.
After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP realised that it actually led in 69 of the state’s 126 assembly constituencies and came second in 29 other seats. The Party quickly got down to business. It came up with a ‘Mission 84’ slogan, claiming it was going to win 84 assembly seats in 2016. Still, the BJP knew it was organisationally weak and lacked a leader with a pan-Assam influence and someone who could stitch up alliances and bring people into the party fold. The obvious choice was the dynamic Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sharma, who as Tarun Gogoi’s one-time deputy and a key minister, brought about a sea change in Assam’s health and education sector, besides being the main trouble-shooter.
Himanta Biswa by now had revolted against Gogoi and was demanding a change in leadership. Neither Gogoi nor the AICC paid any heed. The Congress high command did send senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge to ascertain the view of each of the 78 Congress MLAs. At least 50 of them wanted the chief minister replaced but the AICC stood by Gogoi – a diehard Nehru-Gandhi loyalist. Himanta Biswa was pushed to the wall and was welcomed wholeheartedly by Modi and Shah. He quit the Congress, and nine other party MLAs joined the BJP along with him.
The BJP straightaway took two major steps – it announced the name of Union Sports Minister and a party MP from the state, Sarbananda Sonowal, as its chief ministerial candidate. This was a break from tradition, the only exception being made when it had declared Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Having clinched the leadership question, the BJP was quick to accord Himanta Biswa a status befitting his seniority and acumen. He was made the Convenor of the BJP election campaign committee, a responsibility Himanta fulfilled rather well by personally criss-crossing the entire state and addressing 270 rallies, drawing huge crowds.
The BJP strategy of forging alliances with the AGP and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) paid rich dividends. Initiated by Himanta Biswa, the alliance with the AGP turned out to be a masterstroke because the BJP approached the regional party at a time when it was sought to be dismissed as having become irrelevant in Assam’s politics. The AGP contested 24 seats as part of the seat-sharing deal and managed to win 14 of them – a tie-up that paid rich dividends. The siding of the BPF with the BJP helped the saffron party maintain its hold in the Bodo heartland and bolstered its tally. The BPF too managed to be at par with its 2011 tally of 12 seats.
Comprising 34 per cent of the state’s 3.12 crore population, Muslims are a dominant community in Assam. At least 30 to 35 constituencies, mostly in western, northern and central Assam, are dominated by Muslims, most of them of migrant origin, who have traditionally been supporters of the Congress. Of course, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal emerged as an option from 2006 onwards. In 2006, the AIUDF won 10 seats and increased its tally to 18 in 2011. In this scenario, the Muslim vote has certainly split between the Congress and the AIUDF this time as well, with BJP allies such as the AGP and the BPF benefitting. But, if the scale of the BJP’s victory is taken into account, it is possible the party or its allies managed to enlist the support of sections of Muslims too in several constituencies. That could be the reason why the AIUDF tally came down this time to 13 with its President and Lok Sabha MP Badruddin Ajmal himself losing his seat to the Congress.
The Congress was aware of the anti-incumbency wave, but could not devise a strategy to counter it. It lacked star campaigners, with Tarun Gogoi almost going solo in the campaign. Besides, the Congress suffered from a trust deficit with perceptions about the existence of several lobbies within it, damaging its image. The Congress’ inability to quell the dissidence in the party and the eventual exit of Himanta Biswa Sharma, by far the key strategist since 2001, cost the party dearly. An unprecedented 84.72 per cent polling, and the people’s general chant of ‘parivartan’ or change, clinched Assam for the BJP at the end of the day.
* Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Columnist & Visiting Fellow, IPCS