Assam became the BJP's stepping stone for establishing its dominance in rest of the Northeast and now the party is fighting to defend its turf and win a second term in power.
The BJP fancies its chances and has claimed that it is aiming to win 100 out of the 126 seats in the state.
However, this is easier said than done.
The only major opinion poll done so far – by ABP News and CVoter – gives BJP a simple majority along with its allies like the Asom Gana Parishad. However, a few things have changed since then and it is believed that a comfortable BJP victory is far from a done deal.
BJP insiders say that the party’s USP is welfare schemes and their last mile delivery. It is also counting on a possible polarisation due to the Congress’ alliance with AIUDF.
But there are 10 obstacles that the BJP is facing. The eventual result may depend on how the BJP manages to address these factors and to what extent the Congress manages to take advantage of them.
1. Congress' Grand Alliance
Since the CVoter opinion poll, a major change in political equations has taken place due to the alliance between the Congress, Badruddin Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front, journalist-turned-politician Ajit Bhuyan's Anchalik Gana Morcha, the CPI, CPM and CPI-ML.
The ABP CVoter opinion poll had predicted a vote share of 43 percent for the NDA, 35 percent for the Congress and 8 percent for the AIUDF. A simple addition of the Congress and AIUDF's projected vote share would bring the new alliance at par with the NDA.
However, this may not be as simple as the NDA hopes for a counter polarisation of Assamese Hindu voters on its side due to the Congress' alliance with the AIUDF, which is dominated by Bengali speaking Muslims.
Having said that, the alliance significantly improves the chances of the Congress. In 2016, it had lost a number of seats due to a split in votes between it and the AIUDF.
The BJP's intentions became clear with Deputy Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma saying that "Miya" Muslims or Bengali speaking Muslims "don't vote for the BJP any way".
The Congress is trying to counter this by focusing on the alleged patronage given by BJP to big corporates "from outside", most notably Gujarat based industrial houses like Adani. It has launched a campaign titled ‘Assam Bachao’ alleging that the BJP government is “selling out the state to outsiders” and urging people to put out videos highlighting what’s wrong in Assam.
According to the CVoter's survey, 24.6 percent voters picked "unemployment" as the biggest issue in these election. This percentage is much higher than other poll-bound states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu where it is less than ten percent and just marginally lower than West Bengal. But unlike Bengal - where the blame for unemployment may fall on both the TMC-led state government as well as the BJP-led Centre, in Assam the jobs issue may entirely work against the BJP.
The unemployment rate in Assam is marginally higher than the national average and this is a fact that the Congress has been stressing in its campaign.
However, the BJP on its part has been asserting that to address Assam's economic needs, it would better advantage to have the same party in power at the Centre and state level.
3. Price Rise
Price rise is never good news for an incumbent government and it is known to shape electoral outcomes much more than unemployment.
If the CVoter survey is any indication, it has become a major issue in Assam. According to the survey, 24.2 percent respondents in Assam chose rising prices as the most important issue for them in these elections. In all the other poll bound states, including West Bengal, this is less than 10 percent.
4. Citizenship Amendment Act
The Centre is yet to notify the Citizenship Amendment Act and apparently this is being delayed due to the Assam and West Bengal elections. CAA is a major issue in Assam as the indigenous population fears that it would lead to large number of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees being given citizenship rights.
Assam witnessed some of the biggest protests against the CAA.
The protests against the CAA may have subsided due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government's crackdown but there are signs of revival. If the CAA issue picks up, it could harm the BJP's prospects among Assamese Hindu voters.
However, it is not clear to what extent the CAA could shape the election narrative.
5. New Parties
Trying to fill the vacuum among Assamese speaking voters are newer ethnic parties like the Assam Jatiya Parishad, the Raijor Dal and the Anchalik Gana Morcha. The Assam Jatiya Parishad has been formed by the All Assam Students' Union that has spearheaded the cause of Assamese ethnic nationalism for the past four decades.
Upset with the Asom Gana Parishad – which is now seen as a lackey of the BJP – AASU decided to form a new outfit. Raijor Dal and its leader – jailed activist Akhil Gogoi – also has some influence and the two parties have decided to form an alliance.
The Anchalik Gana Morcha, on the other hand, has joined the Congress-AIUDF-Left alliance.
According to Gauhati based political analyst Rajan Pandey, the new outfits may be able to make an impact only if they arrive at an understanding with the Congress.
6. Fall of AGP
However, the formation of the new outfits seals a major trend in Assam politics – the fall of the AGP, a party which once shaped ethnic nationalism in the state.
Many observers believe that the party has become a liability for the NDA and the only reason the BJP is keeping it on its side is as a token.
According to Rajan Pandey, the seats in which the Congress is taking on the AGP could end become the weakest links for the NDA.
7. A ‘Betrayed’ BPF
The BJP has played an interesting but risky game in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas. In the recently concluded BTC elections, the party decided to support the newly formed UPPL instead of its ally the Bodoland People's Front.
Deprived of power in its turf, the BPF and its chief Hagrama Mohilary, is smarting at the BJP's "betrayal".
It is likely that Mohilary could strike a deal with either the Congress alliance or the Assam Jatiya Parishad-Raijor Dal alliance.
The Congress alliance is focussing on consolidating non-Bodo votes in the BTC, while still trying to strike a deal with BPF.
8. Tea Garden Workers
In the Union Budget, the government announced a package of Rs 1000 crore for tea garden workers in West Bengal and Assam. The state government has recently transferred Rs 3000 into the accounts of over 7 lakh tea garden workers.
However, many workers' representatives have called this insufficient. They have been demanding a wage hike from the existing Rs 167 per day to Rs 351.33.
This was one of the promised the BJP made during the 2016 election campaign but all that the workers got was a hike of Rs 30 – from Rs 137 to Rs 167 per day.
The state government could announce a partial hike just before the model code of conduct comes into place.
The BJP is hopeful that it will manage to retain the support of this important vote bank.
9. Dual Leadership: Sonowal and Himanta
Another problem that the BJP is facing is its dual leadership in the state – between Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his deputy Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Though the relations between the two have largely remained cordial, there have been pinpricks occasionally such as Himanta's earlier statement that he may not contest the polls.
The Congress has spared no opportunity to criticise the dual leadership of the Assam BJP, calling it a double engine train.
10. Local Anti-Incumbency
There is said to be some anti-incumbency against BJP MLAs at the constituency level. According to the CVoter survey, nearly 29 percent voters said that they are not at all satisfied with their local MLA.
Keeping in mind this resentment, the BJP is expected to drop a number of sitting MLAs. According to reports at least 15 MLAs could be denied tickets and this could increase as well.