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Explaining NDA’s Victory in Assam

Religious Polarisation Outweighs Ethnic Mobilisation

The Assam assembly elections continued the trend towards deepening of religious polarisation in the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s alliance strategy helped in retaining its hold over the ethnic base that had shifted to the party in 2016.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) showing in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in which it bagged nine out of the state’s 14 seats, two more than its tally of 2014, signified that the party was here to stay on as a dominant player. The assembly ele­ctions of 2021 continued the trend towards dominance of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as the latter could win 75 seats out of 126, with around 45% vote share. Of the 75 seats that the NDA won, the BJP won 60 seats, while its allies the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) returned nine and six seats, respectively, to the NDA (Table 1, p 32). The Congress could secure 29 seats, while the Mahajot (Congress-led alliance) in all secured 50 seats with 44% vote share. Within the Mahajot, the performance of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) was most phenomenal as it secured 16 out 20 seats it contested, while Congress secured 29 out of 95 seats it contested and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) won 4 out of the 12 seats it contested. Both the Congress and AIUDF gained three seats each despite depletion in their respective vote shares. The BPF lost 8 seats, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) gained one seat as compared to their performance in 2016. As far as the vote share is concerned, while the BJP’s vote share surged by around 4%, the principal opposition party, that is, the Congress’s vote share declined by 1%. As compared to 2016, the NDA gained 7% vote share, while the Mahajot suffered an erosion of around 5% vote share, which explicitly indicates a comfortable and decisive victory in favour of the NDA. Though the newly formed regional party Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) could not open its account, it secured a 4% vote share; one candidate supported by Raijor Dal, another new entrant, won a seat.

Beyond Indigeneity

The preceding assembly elections of 2016 and the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 showed the ability of the BJP to forge and retain coalition with prominent regional parties having distinct social bases, enabling it to veil religious polarisation and to win votes from wide segments of society, except for a large section of Muslim votes. Interestingly, the BJP’s strength in the 2016 Vidhan Sabha and 2019 Lok Sabha elections laid in projecting itself as the representative of the issue of indigeneity and cultural identity of Assam (Tripathi and Sharma 2021a: 16). In this assembly elections, however, a marked shift in the party’s strategy was seen as it positioned itself as being the protector of Hindu civilisation and the cultural identity of Assam. In 2016, the party navigated its rise through the app­ropriation of regional agenda and giving a call for the protection of “Jati, Mati and Bheti.” The party had put aside its blatantly vocal Hindutva rhetoric and age­nda (Tripathi et al 2018). It could make the question of indigeneity as the core issue that became apparent through its alliance with prominent reg­ional forces, declaration of Sarbananda Sonowal (representing an indigenous face) as the chief ministerial candidate, and making the issue of illegal migration as the principal axis of political mobilisation. In contrast, in 2021, the BJP moved beyond being a protector of indigeneity and projected itself as the preserver of Hindu civilisation and cultural identity of Assam. The party exhorted Miya poetry, on the one hand, and the alliance between Congress and AIUDF, on the other, as cultural onslaughts on the civilisational identity of Assam. Tripathi and Sharma (2021b) argue that the BJP sees the contemporary moment of politics as that of cultural war between two distinct civilisations. Therefore, issues of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) are reduced to being a mere background for the 2021 elections (Tripathi and Sharma 2021a: 15). This explains why the BJP did not compromise with its stand on the CAA and remained consistent in making the protection of the cultural identity of Assam the primary issue in the elections. Moreover, it did not declare Sonowal, the incumbent chief minister, to be its chief ministerial candidate considering the greater salience that religion now enjoys in the state. Though the BJP did not declare a chief ministerial candidate, the campaign was perceived to be led by Himanta Biswa Sarma who eventually became the chief minister of Assam. The campaign was anchored in overt Hindutva politics infusing religious meanings and symbols deeply into the idea of cultural identity of Assam. The declaration of Sarma as the chief minister represents a well-marked strategy of naturalising Hindutva politics in Assam at a moment in its history when religion has definitely overtaken ethnicity and language as the most significant marker of political mobilisation in the state.

Competing Coalitions

The plank of protection of the cultural identity of Assam was the prime issue around which the BJP fought the elections, but it also pinned its hope on the welfare schemes of both the state and central governments, including targeted direct beneficiary schemes and the grant of autonomous and development councils for ethnic communities as additional issues for ensuring its electoral victory. Among the tea plantation workers, it focused on the negotiation of pay hikes and the implementation of welfare sch­emes in order to secure the support of this populous community towards the party. Additionally, the party also placed high stakes on the development of infrastructure, especially in transport and com­munication as well as COVID-19 management. The BJP gave up its alliance with the BPF in the Bodoland region and chose to induct the UPPL into its fold. Thus, the NDA included the BJPAGP, and UPPL.

As a result, the major challenge before the opposition parties in general and Con­gress in particular was to contain the narrative around the cultural identity of Assam by forging a pan-Assam counter-coalition. A statewide counter-coalition appeared pragmatic given the dominance that the BJP enjoys in Assam apart from the unanimity among all the opposition parties on their vocal opposition to the CAA. The BJP’s phenomenal perform­ance in successive elections was the outcome of its stable alliance with regional parties, factionalism within the Congress, and the inability of opposition parties to present a united front (Tripathi and Sharma 2021a). In the assembly elections, another significant challenge was to declare a chief ministerial candidate to lead the opposition campa­ign. The opposition could neither forge a statewide counter-coalition and nor could it evolve a consensus over its chief ministerial candidate. The opposition fragmented into two major alliances: the Congress-led Mahajot and a regionalist alliance. The Mahajot included the Congress, the AIUDF, left parties, Anchalik Gana Morcha, and the BPF and was expected to have a major impact in Muslim-dominated seats in lower and central Assam as well as in the Barak Valley. The regionalist alliance of the AJP, supported by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and Raijor Dal, backed by the left-oriented Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), hoped to contain the BJP’s dominance in upper Assam (Tripathi and Sharma 2021b). The principal agenda of both the alliances in the opposition was the rolling back of the CAA, yet they were unable to forge a pan-Assam counter-coalition.

The Congress in its campaign promised certain guarantees that included the issue of rising unemployment, minimum wages to women, a hike in the minimum wages for tea plantation workers, and price rise. Region-wise, the allies of the Congress-led Mahajot had a social base predominantly limited to the Barak Valley and lower Assam and the regionalist parties’ alliance had a visible clout in upper Assam. The Congress–AIUDF alliance had an electoral advantage in the minority-dominated constituencies, yet it failed to break grounds in upper Assam constituencies that are characterised by profound ethnic diversity and religious homogeneity. In brief, a dominant-ruling coalition and a fragmented opposition without any leadership face marked the political scene in Assam as it went for polls.

Polarisation or Performance?

The electoral stability that the NDA enjoys in the state as well as its victory can be explained through two key factors: first, religious polarisation and second, perception about performance and pro-incumbency sentiments. As perception about performance and pro-incumbency sentiments is clearly and sharply divided along religious lines, it becomes apparent that the nature of religious polarisation has overtaken other crucial factors. Pro-incumbency becomes apparent from the survey as 43% favoured an incumbent government, while 38% desired a change. Further, 58% voters expressed satisfaction with the Sonowal government in the state, while the figure for satisfaction with the NDA government at the centre was 56%. When the data are disaggregated on religious lines, satisfaction level of voters with the state government among Hindus was twice as compared to Muslims, that is, 72% and 36%, respectively (Palshikar et al 2021). Similarly, as seen in Table 2 (p 32), while the NDA enjoyed a support base cutting across communities barring the exception of Muslims, the Mahajot had a preponderant presence among the Muslim voters. While 67% of Hindus supported the NDA, only 19% supported the Mahajot. In contrast, 81% of Muslims supported the Mahajot, while only 11% Hindus supported it.

The primacy of polarisation over performance thesis can be explained through a nuanced view of the emergence of coalition structures that enabled religious polarisation in the state. The trumping of religious identities over linguistic markers or divide in the state owes in part to the profound base that the AIUDF enjoys among the predominantly Bangla-speaking population of the state. Two other factors have also been significant since 2014; first, the BJP’s politics of appropriation of cultural identity and infusing it deeply with religious meanings and sym­bols, second, the creation or expansion of development/autonomous councils and forging of coalitions in autonomous councils. For instance, the UPPL allied with the BJP in the constitution of the Bodoland Territorial Council and the lone member of the legislative assembly supported by the Gana Shakti Party (having a popular base among the Mising community) joined the BJP on the eve of elections. The BJP’s dominant position by virtue of being the ruling party both at the centre and the state has certainly helped its cause of reaching out to diverse ethnic communities.

The deepening of religious polarisation and consequent Hindu consolidation in favour of the NDA had foreclosed the possibilities for regional parties like the AGP or UPPL to expand electorally on their own. For the AGP, issues such as factionalism as well as the gradual shifting of caste Hindu votes, the tribal votes, and the tea plantation workers, votes to the BJP foreclosed its possibilities of expanding its political base, thereby deepening its dependency over the BJP. In fact, despite deep disagreements between the two parties over the CAA, the shift of traditional AGP voters, especially the caste Hindus to the BJP, has ensured that this dependency continues (Tripathi and Sharma 2021a). In the absence of any strong regionalist force, particularly in upper Assam, the Congress’s alliance with the AIUDF resulted in sharp polarisation along religious lines. Reluctance among Hindu voters of the Congress to accept the Congress–AIUDF alliance sharpened the polarisation. As per the survey, Palshikar and others (2021) noted that,

the survey found a major dilemma among Congress’s traditional Hindu supporters on this count—three of every ten (30%) of them were found to be opposed to the Congress–AIUDF alliance, and around four-fifths of them ended up voting for the NDA.

Constitution of coalition along religious lines led to the remaking of structures of the coalition as a site for religious polarisation and consolidation. Thus, in Assam, religion became a principal factor for voter mobilisation and choice, while all other factors derivative.

The primacy of religion as a determinant of electoral choice can be gauged from Table 3, which categorically establishes the primacy of religion over language in a state where language and ethnicity have traditionally been the marker of political mobilisation. In 2021, an overwhelmingly large proportion of Hindu voters—both Assamese Hindus (67%) and Bengali Hindus (74%)—voted for the NDA, and this was simply a repetition of the 2016 trend. Contrary to this, Muslim voters—both Assamese Muslims and Bengali Muslims predominantly voted for the Mahajot. Assamese Muslims were an exception when compared to 2016 elections, as 24% of the community (a sizeable proportion) voted for the NDA in 2021 as compared to 7% in 2016.

A similar trend of religious polarisation is evident when the region-wise voting pattern of major religious communities is mapped. As Table 4 (p 34) shows, Hindu and Muslim consolidation in Assam transcends regional boundaries and remains the norm across regions, though Muslim consolidation for Mahajot supersedes Hindu consolidation for the NDA. The greater intensity of Muslim consolidation owes to the Congress–AIUDF alliance, which remain­ed successful in containing the split of Muslim votes and thus advantaged Mahajot in all minority-dominated constituencies across regions in Assam.

Though anti-CAA mobilisation was the principal issue for opposition parties, it could not bring in electoral dividend for the opposition as religious identity overdetermined voters’ choice for the alliance. As seen from Table 5, despite the emotive appeal of the anti-CAA sentiment, neither the Mahajot or the AJP could convert it into votes. In fact, among 53% of the Assamese Hindus who opposed the act, an overwhelming 60% voted for the NDA and the corresponding figure for the Mahajot was a mere 18%. Even if the votes for Mahajot and the AJP are added up, it remains at least 20% short of that for the NDA. On the contrary, a predominantly higher number of Assamese Muslim voters and Bengali Muslim voters opposed to the CAA voted for Mahajot as compared to the NDA.

Tribal Consolidation and Regional Balance

With the rise of the BJP, upper Assam has proved to be the Achilles, heel of the Congress as the region has turned into a springboard for the saffron surge. As Table 6 shows, the NDA outperformed Mahajot with a 47% vote share and 43 seats. Mahajot got 12 seats with 38% vote share and the regionalist alliance could secure just one seat from the region. This has been a continuation of the previous trend. For a region that traditionally remained the epicentre of ethnic politics, the smooth ride for the NDA indicates a deeper shifting of the ethnic base towards the BJP. Even the impact of ethno-regionalist forces like the AJP and Raijor Dal remained limited to few constituencies in upper Assam.

Shifting of ethnic base also explains the NDA’s performance over the Scheduled Tribe (ST) seats. Out of 16 ST seats, it won 14 with a phenomenal vote share of 53%. Considering the fact that the anti-CAA mobilisations were mostly concentrated in this part of Assam, the voting pattern show it clearly that the religious divide was more prominent than ethnolinguistic markers. It can be argued that the Sangh Parivar’s long-drawn politics of cultivating base among the tea tribes in Assam contributed to the party’s electoral stability in upper Assam. Despite the territorial concentration of few ethnic groups, a predominantly large number of constituencies in upper Assam are ethnically diverse and mixed with the tea tribes votes, thereby having a considerable impact in the elections (Tripathi and Sharma 2021b). The elections showed an even performance by the NDA across regions, and the Mahajot could maintain its hold only in the lower Assam and Barak Valley constituencies, that have a significant Muslim population.

In Conclusion

In the 2021 Assam assembly elections, key factors that were instrumental in getting the NDA back to power were religious polarisation, positive perception about performance of the state and central governments and pro-incumbency. The dominance attained by the BJP in Assam is unprecedented as it has deepened the dependency of the regional forces on account of religious polarisation overtaking region, language, and ethnicity as markers of political mobilisation. On the one hand, such dependency momentarily works in favor of the NDA making it numerically strong, yet, on the other, in the long run, it shrinks autonomous electoral space for regional parties in elections. The failure to forge an alliance with prominent regionalist parties and factions in upper Assam apart from its inability to project a leadership face made the Congress vulnerable in the elections. It is worthwhile to mention that though AIUDF increased its presence owing to consolidation of minority votes in favour of the Mahajot, the Congress could not secure the return of its traditional voters back into its fold. Essentially, the Mahajot was unable to counter the narrative about protection of cultural identity of Assam, and the alliance failed to penetrate the Hindu bases that had shifted to the BJP in 2016.

References

Palshikar, Suhas, Manjesh Rana, Dhruba Pratim Sharma and Vikas Tripathi (2021): “Hindu Consolidation Pays off for BJP,” Hindu, viewed on 6 June, https://www.thehindu.com/electi­ons/assam-assembly/hindu-consolidation-pa­y­s-off-for-bjp/article34509288.ece.

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 1–11, viewed on 5 June, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2321023018762676.

Tripathi, Vikas and Dhruba Pratim Sharma (2021a): “After Gogoi: Congress and Its Challenges in Assam,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 56, No 4, pp 12–16, viewed on 5 June, https://www.epw.in/journal/2021/4/commentary/after-gogoi.html.

— (2021b): “Coalition of Compulsion,” Hindu, viewed on 5 June, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/coalition-of-compulsion/article34085996.ece.

 

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Updated On : 10th Jul, 2022
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