By Sagarneel Sinha
With the completion of two phases of elections covering 86 assembly seats in Assam, the attention is on the 40 seats, mostly in lower Assam, which will go for polls on the last phase on April 6. Although much before the polls, BJP led NDA was believed to be easily winning the elections, the decision of Congress and AIUDF to form a grand alliance against NDA has made the battle more interesting. A section of political analysts is of the opinion that the Grand Alliance with arithmetic on its side is ahead of the BJP led NDA.
No doubt that the coming together of Congress and Badruddin Ajmal’s primarily Muslim-based AIUDF makes the fight tough for BJP — as the large chunk of the Muslims, who account for 34% of the state population, are likely to vote for the Grand Alliance.
However, in strongly Assamese-dominated Upper Assam, which voted in the first phase, the Grand Alliance is unlikely to take away all the anti-BJP votes — due to Congress’s decision to ally with AIUDF and the presence of another alliance comprising the regional partners AJP and Raijor Dal. Having said that, the AJP-Raijor Dal alliance is likely to eat a chunk of NDA votes, particularly the votes of AGP, the state’s oldest existing regional party. As BJP grew at the expense of AGP in the state, this regional alliance is also expected to cut into a section of the saffron party’s votes too.
Amazingly, most of the political analysts favoring the Grand Alliance are focused too much on the anti-CAA factor, which they believe is likely to cause harm to the prospects of BJP in Upper Assam and in the constituencies of other regions where Assamese and indigenous voters are crucial or have a say in determining the result. The fact that gets ignored is that BJP through a mix of Hindutva, Assamese regionalism, development, welfare schemes and peace has been quite able to reduce the anti-CAA anger against itself.
True that the anti-CAA anger is present among the Assamese population but it is unlikely to damage BJP’s fortunes the way it is speculated — as CAA is a factor in the state but not in a way it is imagined. The anti-CAA votes are likely to be divided between Congress and the AJP-Raijor Dal alliance — and the NDA too is going to lose a section of its votes due to anti-CAA anger. It has to be mentioned that BJP led NDA won decisively in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, despite the anger against the saffron party for bringing the CAB, which is now CAA.
Moving to crucial issues, the state under the 15 years of Congress rule led by Tarun Gogoi was tainted largely by corruption. However, under the last five years of BJP rule led by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, the public perception is that corruption has reduced. The fair conduct of the Assam Public Service Commission (APSC), as reported in news reports, only reinforces the BJP’s “clean” image.
Apart from this, the construction of roads and bridges are coming in handy for BJP in a state, which otherwise has suffered from lack of connectivity in the past. The inauguration of high-profile bridges whether the Bogibeel Bridge or the Dhola Sadiya Bridge by prime minister Narendra Modi has also strengthened BJP’s image as a pro-development party. For the public, it is the Modi-led BJP government that is responsible for increasing the pace of work of these bridges and other pending works like the completion of the long-pending broad-gauge rail connectivity in Barak Valley, one of the most underdeveloped regions of the state. The coming of broad-gauge has resulted in connecting the region with the rest of the state and the country. All these works of development done by the state government and the Centre — both led by BJP — are crucial in boosting the saffron party’s “double engine” slogan.
The Barak Valley accounting for 15 assembly seats voted on the second phase — and the saffron party is hoping to win a majority of seats from this region riding on development plus the CAA factor, as the Bengali Hindus are strong supporters of CAA in the region. In 2019, BJP wrested the two Lok Sabha seats — Silchar and Karimganj — of this region from Congress and AIUDF. In the five seats of hill districts, which also voted in the second phase, BJP is a strong contender given the efforts of the saffron party to reach the tribals through its welfare schemes, distribution of land pattas and through RSS, which has been engaging with the tribals of the state. Also to accommodate the tribals of Upper Assam and other regions, BJP has accommodated small indigenous groups like Misings, Rabhas, Sonowal-Kacharis etc into the party. In fact, chief minister Sonowal himself comes from the Sonowal-Kachari tribe. Such measures have ensured the tribals of the state to consolidate behind the BJP over the past years. This time too it is likely to happen. Tribals account for 12.4% of the state’s population.
Amid this, the state with a poor healthcare system in comparison to Kerala has performed well against the Covid-19 pandemic. BJP’s north-east strongman and state finance and health minister Himanta Bishwa Sarma himself led the charge in handling the pandemic. As a result, the state BJP government has earned accolades — and this, no doubt, is likely to pay dividends for the saffron party.
Not to forget that there are news reports full of conspiracy theories that Himanta is “trying to sabotage” the party to prevent Sonowal, who interestingly isn’t projected as chief minister despite being a sitting one by the BJP parliamentary board. Importantly, Himanta is contesting from his traditional seat of Jalukbari falling in lower Assam — and this may be a strategy of the saffron party to bring votes from lower Assam, where the battle is tough. After all, both Himanta and Sonowal are key assets of BJP — and suppose in any case Himanta is nominated as chief minister, if BJP wins, Sonowal is very likely to get a crucial post in the party or the Modi government. Maybe a section of media and political analysts are also falling into saffron party’s prey by furthering such “conspiracy theories of Himanta-Sonowal battle” — which may be a pre-planned strategy of the BJP to counter its opposition, particularly in lower Assam, where it is locked in a tough fight with the Grand Alliance.
In the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), which accounts for 12 assembly seats, Grand Alliance is hopeful due to joining of BPF but the NDA alliance too is a strong one, which also consists of UPPL, an emerging Bodo party and an arch-rival of BPF in the region. Most of the districts of the BTR region come under lower Assam. Significantly, the AJP-Raijor Dal alliance has also put Muslim candidates in many constituencies of lower Assam — and this is likely to cause damage to the Grand Alliance.
The Congress led alliance has vastly improved its campaign in this poll. But it is equally true that the BJP led NDA is on a strong wicket in the state riding on its agenda of development and Assamese regionalism mixed with layers of Hindutva and nationalism. (IPA Service)