Multiple states are going to polls this season, and amid election fever, parties are on overdrive — announcing candidate lists, releasing manifestos, while star campaigners are conducting road shows / rallies, and workers are campaigning from door-to-door.
Out of the four poll-bound states, the BJP’s main battles are in Assam and Bengal — in the former, the saffron party is fighting to retain power, since Assam has become its gateway to the Northeast. The BJP is also giving serious competition to Mamata’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Bengal. Kerala is not the focus area of the BJP top brass in these elections, while in Tamil Nadu, it is still a marginal player piggybacking on the AIADMK.
While there is a lot of media attention and buzz around Bengal, where the BJP is up against a feisty Mamata Banerjee, the party is also facing a stiff battle in Assam, away from the media glare.
The latest opinion polls have given an edge to the BJP in Assam, and to the TMC in Bengal.
However, given that incumbent BJP governments do not have a great record of getting re-elected, Assam assumes an even more important position than Bengal. In Bengal, the BJP can always play the underdog card and claim moral victory even if it falls short of the majority mark.
The Return of the Anti-Incumbency Vote
The era of the anti-incumbency vote is back, with only one out of every four governments getting re-elected since 2014.
In 2016, the BJP won Assam riding on 15 years of anti-incumbency against Tarun Gogoi’s government, Modi’s popularity, effective implementation of central schemes and deftly-formed alliances which helped it break into ethnic groups.
In the 2014 general elections, the saffron party led in 69 assembly segments, higher than the simple majority of 64.
However, it struck a deal with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which enjoyed the support of a section of Assamese Hindus. It also roped in the Bodoland People’s Front, which enjoyed the support of the Bodo community and tea garden workers.
CAA/NRC Fears of a ‘Different Kind’ in Assam
The 2016 election was easier in the sense that the BJP had already created a successful template for running out long tenure opposition governments. Politics is the art of managing contradictions; BJP’s social support base in the state — consisting of both Assamese and Bengali Hindus — have contradictions galore.
Many people of Assam consider migrants from Bangladesh — either Hindu or Muslim — as ‘infiltrators’ who deserve to be identified and deported. On the other hand, the BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Act, has made a distinction between a Hindu migrant and a Muslim migrant.
The Assamese fear that if Bangla-speaking illegal immigrants are granted citizenship, they may outnumber the locals, as it has happened in Tripura where Bengali Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh now dominate political power, pushing the original tribals to the margins.
A Change in Alliances in Assam
According to the 2011 Census, the percentage of people speaking Assamese decreased from 58 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 2011, while Bengali speakers in the state went up from 22 percent to 30 percent in the same period.
Assam was the first state to erupt in protest against the CAA. These led to the formation of new parties, namely, the Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal who have formed a Third Front to contest the upcoming polls.
Alliances have undergone a change in Assam this time around.
The Congress has tied up with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to consolidate the Muslim vote, which accounts for 35 percent of the population. Muslims are in majority in 9 out of 27 districts, and can influence the outcome of 49 seats. The BJP had won 22 of them in 2016, due to a split in votes between the AIUDF and the Congress.
On the other hand, the BJP has dumped the BOPF in favour of the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL). The BOPF has joined the Congress-led alliance.
The BJP hopes the consolidation of Muslim votes will result in a counter-polarisation amongst Hindu voters, disregarding their ethnic differences and helping the party make a comeback. The Third Front could also lead to a split in anti-BJP votes.
Why Assam Will be the Litmus Test for CAA-NRC
Assam is a testing ground for the CAA and the NRC. Any adverse result in the state will be regarded as a failure of the controversial act, and the opposition could pressurise the BJP to withdraw it. It would reflect poorly on the political astuteness of the powers-that-be.
It will also show that while the Modi factor works in national elections, in state elections — especially where the BJP is the incumbent — it fails. Assam has been the gateway to the Northeast for the BJP wherein it has managed to form governments in states either with allies or alone. A loss here will also upset calculations in the other states of the region.
If the BJP wins Assam, it can claim ground support for the CAA. The win will cement its position in the Northeast and prove that its victory in 2016 was not by fluke.
It will also highlight the ability of the BJP to manage contradictions in its social coalition. The victory is also likely to add to the prime minister’s popularity in the country. It will provide a template for other states where BJP is in power.
As per the latest ABP C-Voter opinion poll, the NDA enjoys a slender 3 percent lead over the UPA in Assam. Assam has a history of mass emotional movements for the protection of its language and culture. This election could act as a defining moment which will shape the politics of Assam and the Northeast for years to come.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)