By Ashis Biswas
In Assam, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally the United Peoples’ Party Liberal (UPPL) won all five seats where assembly by-elections were held on October 30.Its performance in the biggest state in India’s Northeast somewhat offset its miserable showing in West Bengal, where saffron party candidates forfeited their security deposits in three out of the four seats they contested, losing all.
There were some common features in Bengal and Assam by-elections: first, victorious candidates, whether from the BJP or the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) mostly won by very big margins. Second, winning parties asserted their total political dominance as their opposition failed to win even a single seat!
A Kolkata-based observer, however, did not find either the poll outcome nor its nature on both states particularly unusual. These by-elections, he explained, ’were held within six months or so after the recently concluded Assembly elections in both states. Therefore, there was no possibility of any anti-incumbency making a difference either in the pattern of voting, or in terms of the peoples’ general response.’
Numerically the position of the ruling BJP and its allies in the Assam Assembly improved narrowly: the BJP now has 62 seats, ally Asam Gana Parishad (AGP) 9and the UPPL 7, in a house of 126. The Indian National Congress (INC) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) are the major opposition parties with 27 and 15 seats respectively. Others are the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (3 seats) the CPI(M) and Independent,1 seat each.
However, the unusually large margin of victories left observers somewhat confused. It made some political sense in Bengal, where the ruling TMC had campaigned relentlessly against the massive and never ending price rise in petrol, diesel and cooking gas. As for the Bengal BJP, a thoroughly demoralized party after its defeat in the Assembly elections a few months ago, neither its leaders nor cadres/supporters campaigned seriously during the by-elections. The central leaders, presumably thinking of the drubbing they suffered during the assembly polls, stayed away. As for the forlorn supporters and cadres, they complained of a continuing terror campaign from the ruling party and the state administration whether at Dinhata or Khardah.
Even the BJP’s factually correct assertion that the TMC-ruled government had also contributed to the fuel price increase by not withdrawing the taxes it collected did not cut much ice with Bengal voters, reeling under the twin effects of a pandemic-induced lockdown and the lack of any initiative from the central government to mitigate their economic sufferings.
However, a totally contrasting political trend prevailed in Assam. As the by-elections were held, there was a nagging fear among some BJP leaders that the majority Assamiya community, even if wary of the Bengali-speaking ’Mian’ Muslims (35% of the voters), were put off by the prospect of Bengali Hindu settlers in the Brahmaputra valley after getting full citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act. On the other hand, the passing of the CAA was a major national political objective of the BJP and it could not afford any compromise on the issue.
As a result, even hardline BJP leaders were worried about the possible erosion of the BJP’s Assamiya vote bank to the AGP (although a BJP ally!), the Raisor Dal, or the newly set up regional party AJP. These parties do not make a secret of their total opposition to the provisions of the CAA, which in their apprehension would result in an eventual dilution of the Assamiya identity of their state in time.
To the pleasant surprise of the BJP, nothing of the sort happened in the by-elections. Whether in the Brahmaputra valley or elsewhere, majority Assamiyas seem to have reposed their faith in the BJP. Presumably, Assam’s economic development played a role. The BJP government, thanks to some generous assistance from the central government, had undertaken major road and other infra projects in Assam and neighbouring states, improving connectivity and generating work for the people. New projects to improve facilities for the tourism sector, together with a satisfactory law and order situation, all contributed to the BJP’s win.
Even on the troubled issue of citizenship for non-Assamiyas, the implementation/completion of the controversial NRC exercise went a long way to assuage Assamiya sentiments. The Centre also repeatedly stressed that it would ensure the strict implementation of the Assam accord provisions (especially clause 6 of the accord) outlining special measures to protect Assam’s cultural and linguistic identity.
Another major relief for the saffron party was that somehow the loss of votes on account of rising prices, the economic hardship resulting from the lockdown, the recurrent floods and other problems, did not amount to much.
The other major contrast in Assam with Bengal was very refreshing. Unlike Bengal, where there is little respect among political parties, their leaders and their followers, marked by the frequent use of filthy language, violent group clashes and mindless destruction of property, common people in Assam have not abandoned good behaviour and still observe the normal courtesies.
Said INC chief Bhupen Bora, as he conceded defeat in the by-polls, that his party would ’gracefully accept’ the verdict of the people. The INC’s defeat was not unusual, as assembly elections had been held only recently. Perhaps voters felt that since they had given the BJP a mandate to rule Assam for the next five years, there was as yet no major reason to vote against it. Also, some people may well be convinced that the BJP stood for development. The opposition would certainly analyse the outcome in detail later, but for now it congratulated the victorious candidates unhesitatingly on their win.
For the record, the BJP won the Thowra, Bhabanipur and Mariani seats, while the UPPL won at Tamulpur and Gossaingaon. The margins of victory were mostly large, ranging from around 25,000 to around 70,000 votes, clearly showing that the BJP and its ally had won comfortably. Victory margins of this magnitude were somewhat unusual for a state like Assam, with its total population of around 32 million people. In the seats won by the UPPL, polling became necessary following the recent deaths of two newly elected MLAs. (IPA Service)