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Assam 2019: NDA Deepens Its Dominance

Dhruba Pratim Sharma (dhruba75@rediffmail.com) and Vikas Tripathi (59.vikas@gmail.com) teach at the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam.

The 2019 elections, held against the backdrop of massive protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, were seen as a litmus test for the Bharatiya Janata Party in terms of retaining its base among the state’s indigenous communities that were bitterly opposed to the bill. The party’s success in neutralising opposition to the controversial bill amongst non-Muslims and diverting attention towards the increase in the percentage of Muslim population, marked a continuation of the trend witnessed in the 2016 assembly elections, when it managed to patch up a “rainbow coalition” with regionalist groups raising the issue of protection of land and identity from “illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants.”

The political dominance that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has enjoyed since 2014 in Assam remains a significant factor in giving the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) an edge over other parties in the Lok Sabha elections. The Lok Sabha elections to Assam held in 2019 seemed to represent continuity with the political consolidation of the BJP that was witnessed during the assembly elections held in 2016. The BJP’s ability to craft a social coalition with the leadership of diverse ethnic groups and forge electoral alliances with prominent regional players like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) in 2016 proved to be a master stroke leading to the formation of the first ever BJP-led government in the state.

The major challenge during the Lok Sabha elections before the BJP in Assam was the perpetuation of the social base that had shifted to the party during the assembly elections of 2016. In part, it remained contingent upon the party’s ability to keep intact its alliance with the AGP and BPF (Kalita 2019). The BJP could eventually retain its alliance with the AGP and BPF, preserving its newly attained regional character which helped to withhold the consolidation of the anti-BJP votes, while the opposition casted the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 20161 as the most significant issue, apart from projecting the failure of the BJP-led government at the centre on various fronts during the campaign (Hindu 2019).

The NDA could remain cohesive, and fought the election on three major planks: of the leadership of the Prime Minister, development activities of the union government, and the performance of the BJP-led government in Assam since 2016. The BJP, through retaining the AGP and BPF, could neutralise much of the opposition that it could have faced on the election front due to its firm stand on the bill. The popularity of the prime ministerial candidate, coupled with the satisfaction level of the voters with the performance of the union and state governments across regions and diverse social groups in the state certainly provided an edge to the NDA. However, the social polarisation along religious lines emerged as the major subtext in this election, as the divide along religion overwhelmed divisions along caste, class, language, and ethnicity.

NDA Deepens Its Dominance

The NDA won nine out of the 14 seats it contested and, within the NDA, both the AGP and BPF could not win a single seat. The AGP contested on three seats, while the BPF contested on a single seat that was retained by an independent candidate.2 The BJP won nine out of the 10 seats it contested. The Congress won three seats (same as in 2014). Traditionally, the Congress in Assam had been the catch-all party with an even spread of vote share across regions and social classes. However, a major challenge before Congress in Assam remains the conversion of votes into seats. This election remained no exception and the party witnessed an increase in vote share.

This happened primarily because of two reasons. First, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)3 contested elections only on three seats and, thus, the Congress could get the anti-BJP votes in all other seats left by the AIUDF. Second, the increase in vote share is also because the party contested alone on all the 14 seats. The AIUDF, contesting on three seats, could win only the Dhubri seat, which was retained by the party’s president, Badruddin Ajmal. The AIUDF suffered an erosion of two seats as compared to 2014 (Table 1, p 24). The decline happened as a significant share of traditional voters of the AIUDF shifted to the Congress this time, even in the constituencies that the AIUDF contested. It is evident as a proportionately large number of Bengali-speaking Muslim voters voted for the Congress in this
election (Table 3, p 25).

Even though the Congress did not reciprocate the AIUDF’s gesture and fielded its candidates on all seats, including the ones where the AIUDF was contesting, the BJP lost no opportunity to accuse the two parties of having a tacit alliance. This accusation by the BJP seems to have put off traditional Hindu supporters of the Congress and, thus, disadvantaged it in constituencies which had once been its strongholds, but not having a large share of religious minority votes.

Traditionally, the BJP has remained strong in the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley region, and its phenomenal performance both in Lower and Upper Assam in terms of vote share and seat share in 2014 represents a moment of linguistic transcendence (Goswami and Tripathi 2015). It unequivocally showed a new strategy of political realignment by the BJP in Assam which had upset the electoral dominance that the Congress had enjoyed across regions in Assam. The region-wise seat share and vote share analysis of the 2019 elections explicitly shows that the BJP continued its dominance and witnessed a significant surge in vote share across regions (Table 1).

Alliance Strategy Pays Off

The BJP’s alliance strategy was instrumental in containing the Congress. The failure of the Congress in not getting major regional players onboard and stitching together a counter grand alliance in the region added to its difficulties. Working out a coalition with regional players turned out to be an advantage for the BJP during the assembly elections, as it prevented a split in the anti-Congress votes (Tripathi et al 2018). Considering the fact that both the Congress as well as the AIUDF cut into each other’s social base in Lower Assam and Barak Valley, a grand alliance by the BJP against the Congress could withhold the split of anti-Congress votes and contribute in part to the phenomenal performance of the NDA across regions in Assam, while the Congress and AIUDF did cut into each other’s vote in three seats, contributing to the loss for both parties in Karimganj.

Retaining the Social Base

The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)–Lokniti survey points out that the preference for Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate of the NDA remained significantly ahead than that for Rahul Gandhi, the Congress candidate. While close to half the respondents preferred Modi, one-third preferred Gandhi. The gap of more than 10% remains significant to have given the NDA an edge. Apart from the popularity of the prime ministerial candidate, an overall satisfaction rate of the respondents with the governments both at the centre as well as state remained quite positive in favour of the NDA.

The survey indicates that the NDA could secure votes from all social groups evenly, barring the Muslim voters who predominantly favoured the Congress. The traditional Congress support base, comprising the tea tribe workers, Muslims, and Scheduled Tribe (ST) voters appears to have suffered a split, as the BJP has been able to attract tea workers and STs as its new social base since 2014 (Sharma 2014). The phenomenal performance of the BJP in Upper Assam constituencies of Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, and Tezpur, along with the Autonomous District seat in Barak Valley remains the epiphenomenon of the tribal and Adivasi4 shift to the BJP. In all the five constituencies, the tea workers and STs constitute a significant voting population. The BJP fielded three candidates belonging to the Adivasi community from Dibrugarh, Tezpur, and Karimganj, and all of them won their respective seats. Apart from these constituencies, the Adivasi and ST population remains dispersed in other constituencies too and their shift to the BJP has considerably deepened the BJP’s dominance in Assam.

However, the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat marked an exception to the BJP’s dominance over seats having significant tribal population. Naba Sarania, an independent candidate, could retain this ST seat. Sarania’s win can be attributed to non-tribal support, especially from Muslims under the influence of All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU) that openly supported him, along with a considerable proportion of non-tribal Hindus, including non-Bodo tribes. The consolidation over Adivasi and ST votes, coupled with the huge shift of caste Hindu voters towards the NDA enabled its even performance across regions (Table 2). The BJP’s alliance with the AGP was central to its forging a caste Hindu consolidation towards the NDA.

Religion: Marker of Polarisation

Religion as a marker of polarisation assumed greater salience than language and ethnicity. Seven of every 10 Muslim respondents voted for the Congress while an overwhelming proportion of the Hindu voters cutting across caste and ethnic lines voted for the NDA. A record voter turnout during this election, particularly in constituencies having a significant Bengali-speaking Muslim population, was in particular symptomatic of the social polarisation.

An analysis of the vote share in terms of language and religion presents a scenario of intense polarisation along religious lines. It indicates that while language became secondary in determining the voter’s choice, religion emerged as the primary determinant, particularly in Barak Valley and Lower Assam, both having a significant presence of the Bengali-speaking population. Overall, the divide emerges sharply as the Hindu Bengalis predominantly voted for the NDA and the Muslim Bengalis for the Congress, except in the three seats contested by the AIUDF, which witnessed a split in Muslim votes. Close to nine of every 10 Hindu Bengalis voted for the NDA, while three-fourths of the Muslim Bengalis voted for the Congress and one of every 10 for the AIUDF (Table 3). Hindu Bengali votes remained insignificant for the Congress as well as the AIUDF.

Though the Assamese-speaking Hindu voters remained much fragmented as compared to the Bengali-speaking voters, partly owing to the resentment against the bill, such fragmentation and opposition remained insignificant as far as denting the prospects of the NDA was concerned, as six of every 10 Assamese-speaking voters went with the NDA, despite the fact that around three-fourths of Assamese Hindus were opposed to the bill as per the CSDS–Lokniti survey. Further, as per the findings of the survey, the NDA got more votes among the Assamese-speaking Hindu voters who opposed the bill. It goes on to prove that one of the major successes of the NDA in this election remained due to the neutralisation of the political opposition to the bill. The CSDS–Lokniti survey too finds that most Bengali-speaking Hindus were in favour of the bill. Paradoxically, the BJP gained significant support among Bengali-speaking Hindu voters who supported the bill. The consolidation of Bengali-speaking Hindu voters towards the BJP becomes apparent with its unprecedented performance in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, wherein the party secured both the seats.

In Conclusion

The 2019 elections, held against the backdrop of massive protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that seeks to bestow citizenship upon certain categories of non-Muslim migrants escaping religious persecution in neighbouring Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, was seen as a litmus test for the BJP. The party’s advocacy in favour of the bill was expected to pose a major challenge to it in terms of retaining its base among the state’s indigenous communities that were bitterly opposed to the bill on the grounds that it would lead to an influx of persecuted refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh. While regionalist sentiments were against any further influx of foreigners in the region, organisations representing local Muslim populations also opposed the bill as it sought to discriminate between migrants on religious grounds.

The BJP’s success lay in its ability to neutralise the opposition to the controversial bill amongst non-Muslims, diverting attention towards the increase in the percentage of Muslim population in the state, presumably due to an unabated influx from Bangladesh with the patronage of the Congress. This marked a continuation of the trend witnessed in the 2016 assembly elections when it managed to patch up a “rainbow coalition” with regionalist groups, raising the issue of protection of jati, mati, bheti (community, land and homestead) from “illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants,” and drawing support from diverse ethnic communities with its promise of freeing the land from the foreigners’ clutches. The 2019 Lok Sabha poll marks a sharpening of the trend towards polarisation, with the AIUDF’s decision not to field candidates against the Congress in all but three constituencies being interpreted by the BJP as an open consolidation of Muslim voters in favour of the Congress.

The upsurge of the BJP, a party representing Hindu nationalism at the national level, in a state that has traditionally witnessed the dominance of ethnic politics based on linguistic and tribal identities marks the trend towards religious consolidation, where the issue of illegal immigration from across the international border emerges as a crucial point of religious polarisation.

Notes

1 The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to relax
the requirements for citizenship by naturalisation for non-Muslim migrants belonging to six religious categories from three neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh.

2 The AGP contested on the Kaliabor, Barpeta, and Dhubri seats.

3 The AIUDF, founded in 2005 and led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a noted cleric as well as business magnate, draws strength from the fear among migrant Muslims settled in central and western Assam of being persecuted on suspicion of being Bangladeshi infiltrators.

4 The term “Adivasi” in the context of Assam refers to tea garden workers who are mostly descendants of migrants from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bengal, Odisha and Bihar. Hence, its meaning differs from that elsewhere in the country. They are also termed as “tea and
ex-tea garden workers” or “tea tribes.” They have significant presence in Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Tezpur, and Nagaon districts of Assam. They are classified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Assam. However, their demand for being recognised as Scheduled Tribe (ST)groups in the state is under consideration and enjoys the support of the BJP government both at the centre and the state. The centre’s decision to consider granting ST status to six communities, including a few tea tribes, had resulted in the unprecedented consolidation of the BJP among Adivasi groups across Assam.

References

Goswami, Sandhya and Vikas Tripathi (2015):
“Understanding the Political Shift in Assam,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 39, https://www.epw.in/journal/2015/39/notes/understanding-political-shift-a....

Hindu (2019): “2019 Lok Sabha Election: BJP–AGP Alliance Back on Track in Assam,” 13 March, https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/2019-lok-sabha-polls-b....

Kalita, Prabin (2019): “AGP Quits NDA as Cabinet Approves Citizenship Bill,” Times of India, 8 January, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/agp-breaks-alliance-with-bjp-o....

Sharma, Dhruba Pratim (2014): “Saffron Surge in Assam,” Research Journal Social Sciences (Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh), Vol 22, No 2, pp 224–33.

Tripathi, Vikas, Tamasa Das and Sandhya Goswami (2018): “National Narrative and Regional
Subtext: Understanding the Rise of BJP in Assam,” Studies in Indian Politics, Vol 6, No 1, pp 60–70, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/ 10.1177/2321023018762676.

Updated On : 23rd Aug, 2019

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