By Sagarneel Sinha
Putting an end to the endless speculations of the skeptics, who weren’t sure about the saffron party’s victory, the BJP led NDA returned to power with a comfortable majority. This is the first time in the history of Assam that a non-Congress party returned to power consecutively.
The north-eastern state till 2016 had most of the time elected the Congress to power — barring the 1978, 1985 and 1996 elections. But the grand old party always managed to return to power in the next elections in the state. So, Congress was also hoping that the 2021 elections would favour the state’s pro-Congress historical trend. That, however, didn’t happen.
This time, unlike 2016, Congress stitched up a Grand Alliance comprising state’s Muslim-based All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), Assam Gana Mancha (AGM), RJD and the three Left parties — CPI, CPI(M) and CPI(ML)(L). Particularly, the Congress’s decision to ally AIUDF put the saffron party in a tight spot in Muslim concentrated Lower Assam, which has 43 assembly seats. On the other hand, the regional alliance between Raijor Dal and Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) — both born out of the fire of the anti-CAA movement — was targeting the Assamese population, the saffron party’s new base, which played a crucial role in BJP’s ascension to power in 2016. So, it wasn’t an easy ride for the BJP, which fought the elections with Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the state’s oldest existing regional party, United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) and Rabha Joutha Mancha, whose sole candidate fought — and won — on BJP’s ticket.
The fact is that the BJP successfully pulled through these tough elections as it has an able state leadership in the form of chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and the state’s powerful cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who also happens to be from the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) — an extension of NDA consisting of anti-Congress regional parties of the region. Sarma, who left the Congress back in 2015, was given the free run to look after BJP’s affairs in the region. On the other hand, Sonowal, who comes from the indigenous Sonowal-Kachari tribe, classified under the ST category, has been a known face with a non-controversial style in Assam’s politics for playing a key role in the cancellation of the much-derided Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act of 1983 back in 2005. Interestingly, both Sarma and Sonowal in their initial days were associated with the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the all-powerful student organization of the state. Sonowal later joined AGP before moving to BJP in 2010.
The BJP led NDA under the leadership of Sonowal-Sarma fought the polls based on welfare schemes, clean governance, development and peace mixed with layers of Assamese regionalism and Hindutva. As a result, the BJP’s campaign didn’t have to rely only on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah.
Contrary to this, it has become a trend for many state leaders of the party to rely mainly on Modi’s popularity and Shah’s strategy to even sail through the assembly elections. Also, not to forget that the saffron party under Modi-Shah is also witnessing the rise of high command culture just like the Congress party — where opinions of regional leadership are sometimes not valued. This mentality has cost the party many states in the past — and now the most crucial West Bengal, where the state leadership’s overreliance on the Modi factor and Shah’s strategy brought embarrassment for the saffron party. In Bengal’s case, as the reports say, the high command turned a deaf ear to the counter views of many state leaders, who were not at ease with the saffron party’s strategy to incorporate many Trinamool MLAs. Also, the failure of the saffron party to protect its incumbent governments in states like Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh has been a cause of worry too.
It is generally believed that BJP performs well against Congress compared to the regional parties — and it has been argued in political and intellectual cycles that BJP can’t win any non-Hindi speaking state. For the same section, BJP’s rise to power in Assam was always an exception — however such arguments fall flat this time. Not to forget regional AIUDF was a key player against BJP this time. The saffron party stabilizing in a non-Hindi-speaking state like Assam, which has a long continuous tradition of strong regionalism in politics and society, shows that BJP is not only restricted to Hindi identity — it also understands the Assamese asmita. The party played its own style of regionalism by interweaving shades of Hindutva with the Assamese sentiments. This is also a factor that helped the saffron party reduce the anti-CAA anger against itself. To be fair, the main factors that overpowered the CAA anger are welfarism, development and effective governance — which helped the state, despite having a poor healthcare system, to fight impressively against the Covid-19 virus during the first wave.
If the West Bengal results are rightly questioning the ability of BJP’s to win in a non-Hindi identity state, then the Sonowal-Sarma Assam model is the answer — where the party even managed to beat the anti-incumbency. The Assam model may come in handy for the saffron party in the coming future in the non-Hindi regions like the South — and also in West Bengal and Odisha. But for this to happen, the BJP first needs to set things right within the party. (IPA Service)