But for its insistence on pursuing the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), BJP would have swept Assam, easily. Now it is working hard to win a decent number of Lok Sabha seats from the state.
Guwahati: What should have been an easy sweep in Assam for the Bharatiya Janata Party in these Lok Sabha elections, may have turned into a contest, and for no one else’s fault but its own. The party may now have to work to hold on to seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats it won in 2014 or increase its tally. The consensus among the educated class and the intellectual elite in Assam’s capital city is that by pushing for the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which promises to provide citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs from neighbouring countries, the BJP has made the elections difficult for itself, needlessly. The BJP has realised this and has been avoiding mentioning the CAB while campaigning in the Brahmaputra valley. Instead, it has been focusing on “development” and bringing “akho ekbar Modi sarkar (Modi government once more)”.
On the other hand, it is as if nothing but the CAB exists for the Congress, not even Rahul Gandhi’s ambitious universal basic income scheme, Nyay. In fact, Congress is indulging in all out scare-mongering, with the indigenous Assamese being warned of becoming extinct and confined to an enclosure in the zoo. In the Muslim dominated areas the song Congress is playing is about the BJP’s “plan” of bringing “Bangladeshi Hindus” and settling them in Assam.
The “third force” in Assam, Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party of migrants, is contesting only the three seats it had won in 2014—Dhubri, Barpeta and Karimganj. This means that there is unlikely to be any division in minority votes, which will benefit the Congress in several seats.
In the 2014 elections, Congress had won three seats, Silchar, Kaliabor and the Autonomous District (Diphu). This time it hopes to increase its tally, but as Congress leaders admit in private, they are hobbled by the lack of funds and leadership and coordination issues.
Meanwhile, the All Assam Students’ Union is angry at the “betrayal” of the Assam Accord by the BJP government and its push for the CAB, and seems to be leaning towards Congress.
Amid all this towers the figure of Himanta Biswa Sarma, the man who is spearheading the BJP’s campaign in Assam, while simultaneously decimating Congress’ leader- and cadre-base, wooing them into the BJP fold, even as his young team goes around pre-empting Congress’ moves. Most of them ex Congress, they are on revenge mode—to show former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi—“who does not know anyone beyond his son”—and leaders like the “dreaded” Rakibul Hussain that they are no longer Assam’s boss.
Moreover, Sarbananda Sonowal of BJP is a populist Chief Minister, with several schemes and doles to his “credit”, which may help the party retain its voters.
Here, it must be mentioned that the man on the street did not seem particularly concerned about CAB; and that BJP did well in the panchayat elections of December 2018, by winning an overall 50% seats. In fact BJP leaders pointed to the December elections whenever asked if CAB was an issue.
In 2014, the BJP won the seven following constituencies: Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Tezpur, Jorhat, Mangaldoi, Nawgong and Gauhati (as the constituency is called). Political observers are marking at least three-four of these seats as “difficult” for BJP—in that the party will have to work hard to win them again. The buzz is that Nawgong, which went to the polls on Thursday in the second phase, is a tough fight, as well as Tezpur
and Jorhat that went to the polls in the first phase, and also Mangaldoi. The problem in Tezpur and Nawgong is of dissidence, because the sitting MPs in both these seats, R.P. Sharmah and Rajen Gohain, respectively, were replaced, which has left both of them angry.
Of the two, R.P. Sharmah, a Gorkha, who is the president of the Assam Gorkha Sammelan, is allegedly working against the BJP, asking 15 lakh Gorkhas across Assam to vote for Congress, a charge that was denied by Sharmah when he was asked about it by this newspaper. Officially, he is campaigning for the party, but sources say that he is so angry that he even refused to attend the Prime Minister’s rally in Tezpur. If Sharmah has to be believed, Gorkhas have a substantial presence in seats such as Tezpur, Mangaldoi, Kokrajhar and Gauhati, while limited—in the range of 40,000 to 70,000—presence in the rest of the seats. Moreover, the Tezpur seat has been traditionally held by Gorkhas.
BJP’s candidate in place of Sharmah is Pallab Lochan Das, a minister in the Assam government, who belongs to the “tea community”, which too has a hold on the seat. And BJP is actively wooing tea garden workers in these elections, trying to assuage their unhappiness over wages. BJP is banking on the Gorkha votes not going en masse to the Congress. In fact, if sources are to be believed, BJP is confident of winning Tezpur, from where Himanta Biswa himself was planning to contest before the ticket went to “one of his men”. The Congress candidate for the Tezpur seat, M.G.V.K. Bhanu, is a retired bureaucrat and originally belongs to Andhra Pradesh. He had worked closely with the Congress Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy, and also with Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in the early 2000s as Additional Chief Secretary. He got the Tezpur ticket apparently in spite of opposition from Tarun Gogoi. BJP sources said that they were confident of defeating Congress’ “strange choice of candidate”.
In Nawgong, there was some speculation that dropping Rajen Gohain would impact BJP prospects. This seat has a substantial Bengali population, and Rajen Gohain was a vocal supporter of CAB and “angry Bengalis” were said to be shifting to the Congress because of his removal. But if anecdotal evidence is of any value, this newspaper did not find any such trend. In fact, in the village of Kumar Bori, Bengalis were categorical that not just them, “all Bengalis would vote for BJP this time” in the hope of CAB, which gives Bengali Hindu “refugees/infiltrators” the status of citizens. However, there is a caveat: this may not be the case in the primarily Bengali, Silchar constituency in Barak Valley, from where Congress’ Sushmita Dev is MP. It is her family seat, with her late father Santosh Mohan Dev MP from there before her, and even BJP insiders admit that she is too strong to be dislodged from there.
There is some speculation over the role being played by one of Rajen Gohain’s followers, Shiladitya Dev, a Bengali BJP MLA from the Bengali dominated Assembly segment of Hojai in the Nawgong Lok Sabha seat. But he refuted allegations of any anti-party activities by categorically telling this newspaper over phone, “I have great respect for Rajen Gohain. He is our leader, but as a BJP person it is nation first, party second and self last for me. I won Hojai with a record 1.15 lakh votes. In 2019, we will ensure that BJP gets 1.50 lakh votes from my Assembly segment.”
Jorhat has a new candidate, Tapan Gogoi, who has replaced Kamakhya Prasad Tasa.
Mangaldoi has gone to BJP ally Asom Gana Parishad, and there is some question mark over how strong its candidate Dilip Saikia is. Congress has fielded from here veteran leader Bhubaneswar Kalita, who is currently a Rajya Sabha member and a former president of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC).
In 2014, Congress won three constituencies: Silchar (Sushmita Dev); Kaliabor (Gaurav Gogoi, the “apple of Tarun Gogoi’s eye”) and the Autonomous District (Biren Singh Engti). The first two are considered to be Congress’ fortresses, while the BJP is laying siege to the third. In an off the record conversation, a senior Congress leader belonging to Assam told this newspaper that the party’s campaign was getting hobbled by the lack of money. “There is very little money. There is also no coordination on the ground, no management, so we are not being able to tap into the anti-BJP mood. Moreover, a tribal candidate was not fielded from Lakhimpur, because of which we are losing the tribal vote to BJP.” “We have a chance in Mangaldoi, Jorhat and Dhubri (in addition to Silchar and Kaliabor). Let’s see how it goes,” he added.
However, BJP’s Pijush Hazarika, Minister of State (Independent) Urban Development, Health & Family Welfare is categorical: “Neither does Congress have cadre, nor does it have any leader. To top that it is playing a double game: talking against CAB in Brahmaputra Valley and staying quiet on the issue in the (Bengali dominated) Barak valley.”
But what may be going in Congress’ favour is the Muslim factor. Two of the three seats that AIUDF won in 2014 are Dhubri and Barpeta in Lower Assam in the north-west, that is the area adjacent to West Bengal and Bangladesh. The third is Karimganj, in Barak Valley, the south-easternmost part of the state that has Bangladesh on one side and Tripura and Mizoram on the other. But the AIUDF put up a miserable performance in the December 2018 panchayat polls and there is speculation that Badruddin Ajmal is in trouble in his own Dhubri seat.
If the December 2018 panchayat elections are any indicator, then the BJP should do reasonably well in the Lok Sabha elections. It won 50% of the seats on its own, without an alliance with AGP. The elections were held soon after the protests over CAB, but did not affect the BJP’s run in the rural areas, ostensibly. And this in spite of the consensus being that BJP has a better hold on urban areas than in rural areas. In fact it is this that BJP leaders such as Queen Oja, the candidate from Gauhati refers to when asked about the prospect of CAB denting her votes. “CAB is not an issue, development is,” she told this newspaper on Wednesday while campaigning in the city. It must be added that a general walk around Gauhati did not elicit much response about CAB, especially from the man on the street. The chatter was more about Modi, Rahul Gandhi, GST, demonetisation, some local level pro- and anti-incumbency issues, etc. “BJP should win, but it is difficult to say this time, because there may be an undercurrent (against BJP), or maybe not,” was often the response. However, according to Oja’s opponent, Bobbeeta Sharma, CAB was a big issue and it was a media lie that it did not have a resonance on the ground.
In fact academician and AASU ideologue Basant Deka reflected this view when asked why things were quiet on CAB. “This (anger) may be urban centric, confined to the enlightened section, but the common man in the rural areas will go by what AASU says. The All Gauhati Students’ Union is the most powerful unit of AASU. They bear the burden of protests. In 2014, BJP won because of AASU support. This time AASU’s appeal is, you take the decision but take the correct decision. AASU has heavily criticised the AGP for joining hands with BJP, so that in itself is a message,” he told this newspaper. Deka, who is obviously no fan of the BJP, also says that “in a free election BJP would have lost most seats; but for money power it would not have won”. Deka, whose views are representative of AASU’s views, is highly critical of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, especially for “killing the Assam Accord of 1985 by bringing CAB”. “Assam Accord says that anyone who came after 24 March 1971, will have to go back (including Hindu Bengalis). But BJP is distinguishing migrants on the basis of religion.” He is also critical of BJP’s promise of safeguarding interests of the ethnic population in the Northeast. “They formed a committee to chalk out the provisions but no one wanted to become a part of that committee as that was violating the provisions of the Assam accord.”
Deka considers the doles being given by the Sarbananda Sonowal and the promises made as an attempt to “buy votes”. There is no doubt that the Sonowal government may get counted among the most prolific “gift givers” in the country: in its last budget his government promised to give 10 gm of gold to brides, rice for Rs 1 per kg to over 50 lakh families, free rice and sugar to 4 lakh tea garden families and Rs 10,000 every month for every college going students from the tea gardens. It also made monetary promises for young widows and other cash incentives for different sectors.
The line between “vote buying” and “welfare state” can get blurred when it comes to winning elections.
THE HIMANTA FACTOR
Himanta Biswa Sarma is one of the most important factors in these elections. According to veteran journalist Samudragupta Kashyap, “Himanta leaves no space for others during campaign. In a day he can go to up to 10 spots in a constituency creating a sweeping effect, a storm. If he goes to 10 spots, where is the space for the other candidates? There are these small, small towns and all the news that is coming there is of Himanta.” Sarma is travelling, mopping up support, his people are contesting the Lok Sabha elections, he is working towards breaking Congress’ backbone in Assam. The list is endless. People who know him say that as long Himanta Biswa Sarma is active in politics, there is no way that Congress can revive in the state. But Sarma is an ambitious man and there is a lot of speculation in Gauhati over his future plans particularly since the BJP did not let him contest from Tezpur Lok Sabha seat, ostensibly for his responsibilities with NEDA. The buzz in Assam’s capital is that like a good party man, he may have fallen in line, but unless he is suitably rewarded, it would be interesting to watch his next step. And he has huge support not just in current BJP, but also among allies such as the Bodo People’s Front.
According to Kashyap, BJP has done a lot of development work in the Northeast in the last 4.5 years, work that the Congress did not do in nearly 70 years. He lists the following as BJP’s achievements: Assam’s Bogibeel bridge; the 9 km long Bhupen Hazarika Bridge to Arunachal Pradesh; the railway to Garo Hills; the Jiribam-Imphal railway; putting an end to bandhs and encounters in Manipur and Nagaland; building three important roads in Arunachal—a border road, a trans Arunachal highway and a foothill road along Arunachal’s border with Assam; building countless bridges in Arunachal; starting an Assam hill section railway; ensuring that militancy in Assam goes quiet; bringing down corruption, with arrests made; making Assam Public Service Commission (APSC) appointments apparently corruption free, as money is no longer asked for appointments.
“So in an ideal situation it should have been a sweep,” says Kashyap.
Kashyap believes that the Centre needs to bring a separate law to preserve the identity of the indigenous Assamese. While Shiladitya Dev, BJP’s Bengali MLA from Hojai reflects his party line when he says that it’s time for Assamese Hindus and Bengali Hindus to unite “against the onslaught from the minorities as else it is the Hindus who will become a minority in Assam”.
In essence, Assam is witnessing a churn where the BJP as part of the larger Sangh Parivar is seeking to change Assam’s core from cultural identity to religious identity—from “Assamese first” to “Hindu first”. That is the premise on which battle lines are getting drawn in Assam.