Out of Assam’s 126 Assembly seats, 47 will be voting in the first phase of polling on 27 March. In the 2016 Assembly election, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance had won 35 out of 47 seats, sweeping Upper Assam. One seat was won by an Independent candidate, who has since joined the BJP and will now be contesting on the party’s ticket.
However, Upper Assam – both the North and South banks of the Brahmaputra – had emerged as the epicentre of the anti-CAA protests in 2019.
One of the ways in which the BJP-led government in Assam has been able to douse the fire of the anti-CAA movement is by inducting many of the top leaders of the protest. However, this has come at the cost of further fragmentation of the greater Assamese community, even as the government is still fighting to douse any possible shift by the politically crucial tea tribes.
The BJP needs to sweep Upper Assam as it is staring at a loss of seats in the subsequent two phases due to non-division of religious minority votes as a result of the Congress-AIUDF alliance.
This article will try to look at the different steps taken by the BJP to neutralise the CAA factor in the Assam elections and also briefly examine the question of the tea garden workers of Upper Assam.
BJP Manifesto Silent on CAA
The BJP manifesto for Assam, doesn’t mention implementation of the CAA. It has also avoided mentioning the Act in its campaign, except for a few statements made by BJP national president JP Nadda and state BJP president Ranjit Dass.
“The BJP fears a backlash from the voters if it talks about CAA in its campaign, so they have avoided talking about it. The party has realised that it could lose more votes than it could possibly gain if it rakes up CAA,”Sabita Devi, columnist and editor of Pratilipi
The BJP also denied tickets to two sitting MLAs - Rituparna Barua and Debananda Hazarika - who had opposed CAA and had expressed solidarity with the anti CAA protestors.
Its alliance partner, the AGP didn’t give ticket to three MLAs who had opposed CAA - former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, former ministers and senior leaders Brindaban Goswami and Utpal Dutta.
“When I spoke out against CAA, it was in the greater interest of Assam,” said Goswami.
Anti-CAA Leaders Inducted
However, the BJP led alliance has been able to stay on course for an electoral win by inducting prominent faces of the anti-CAA movement into the saffron party and also by setting up of more autonomous councils.
Arunjyoti Moran, a firebrand leader of the All Assam Moran Students' Union who was active during the anti CAA movement, joined the BJP in January this year. Though he didn’t get a ticket to contest the election, it is believed his induction will be a value addition for the BJP.
“The BJP can solve the issues and problems in Assam and it is important to support the party,” Moran told the media after joining the BJP.
This year the BJP also inducted senior All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) leaders Rahul Das and Parikhit Dutta into the saffron fold - both of them were part of the anti-CAA protests in Assam.
Also brought into the BJP are about 25 actors and singers, who have a fan-following and were also faces of the anti-CAA agitation. These include actor Jatin Bora, singers Simanta Shekhar and Vidyasagar, Kallol Borthakur, Nayan Nirban, Asha Bora and Baikuntha Prince.
Jadav Das, a leader of the Scheduled Caste Students Union who had staged a naked protest against the CAA in New Delhi, also joined the party. After his induction, Das said that he was “misled and misguided”.
Autonomous Councils to Ease CAA Woes
In an attempt to pacify the CAA protestors, last year the Assam government in the Assembly passed four bills to create autonomous councils for the Moran, Motok, and Koch-Rajbongshi communities in the state. The Moran Autonomous Council Bill, 2020, The Motok Autonomous Council Bill, 2020, and The Kamatapur Autonomous Council Bill, 2020 were tabled on 24 March last year.
Later the Assam Assembly also passed a Bill for creating an autonomous council for the Bodo-Kachari community living outside the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) that comprises four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri.
“The BJP-led government will be providing Rs 125 crore to each of the Ahom, Chutia, Moran and Motok communities for generating self-employment opportunities, infrastructure development, preservation of monuments and archaeological heritage," the Assam chief minister’s office had stated after the passage of the bills.
“These councils will help the BJP regain some of the lost support from these communities and will benefit it in the electoral battle,” said Devi.
Tea Tribe Factor
One of the challenges the BJP is facing in Upper Assam is the possible shift of the tea tribe votes that had played an important part in its victory in 2016.
To prevent such a shift, the BJP has inducted former Congress leader Rupesh Gowala, general secretary of the influential Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), which has a strong influence over the tea tribe community.
However, tea tribe organisations and leaders have expressed dissatisfaction over the BJP government not raising the daily wage of the tea garden labourers to Rs 351 per day as was promised in the 2016 election manifesto.
The tea garden workers got their first substantial hike in 2017 when as an interim measure, the state government had raised their minimum wages to Rs 167 per day. This was following the recommendation of an advisory committee, which was formed by the Assam government. The committee, however, had suggested a daily wage of Rs 351.
“We have been hearing promises after promises but the wage hike has not been implemented,” said Nabin Chandra Keot, vice president of ACMS.
The issue has become an important one for both the incumbent BJP and the main Opposition Congress, ahead of elections.
As a damage control measure, the Labour Welfare department on 23 February said that the minimum wage for tea workers should be raised from Rs 167 per day to Rs 217 per day by adding an "interim amount" of Rs 50 per day.
However, this order was immediately challenged by tea garden owners at the Gauhati High Court, which ruled that that tea garden owners in Assam will have the "liberty" to decide if they want to follow the state government's order on raising wages for workers.
After the interim order, no "coercive action" can be taken against them for not following it.
The Indian Tea Association, however, on 22 March has directed the member tea gardens in Assam to enhance the daily wage by Rs 26, as an interim measure, till the final judgement of the court is delivered.
So, be it regarding the anti-CAA protests or the wage hike demand for tea garden workers, the BJP has taken some measures to contain their impact in the elections. However, it remains to be seen whether this would be enough to guarantee as sweep of Upper Assam that’s essential to the BJP’s electoral prospects.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Assam. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. )