For decades, there has been much talk and debate about why Assam and other states of Northeast India have failed to join the “national mainstream”. The answers offered have varied, from the “tyranny of distance” lament of a prominent media professional to the covert and overt racism of rulers and ordinary people in the country. It was automatically assumed that when it came to social and political trends, Assam and its seven sisters danced to a tune that was different from the rest of India.
A second and more serious look at numbers and data, particularly during contemporary times, suggests that the old proposition or hypothesis may be obsolete today. This became evident after CVoter conducted a detailed survey in the five states that went to polls last year around this time. Assam was one of these states, and last month marked one year of the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led NDA government in the state. This was in addition to a similar survey carried out in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, which went to polls along with Assam in March-April, 2021.
The authors have identified five ways in which social and political trends in Assam mirror the rest of India.
There are five ways in which social and political trends in Assam mirror the rest of India.
21st-century politics in India has been marked by personality cults and pro-incumbency verdicts. Look at Pinarayi Vijayan, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and now Himanta Biswa Sarma.
In Assam, arguably a state where AAP happens to be a non-entity, Kejriwal scores more than the ratings his party enjoys and Rahul Gandhi scores less than the support base of his own party.
Out and out, dynasty-based parties like the DMK, the RJD, the SP, the Trinamool, the Shiv Sena and others are doing quite well, while those without a dynasty are floundering.
Personality Cults & Pro-Incumbency Verdicts are Here to Stay
Ever since he made the now-legendary remarks in 2015 accusing Rahul Gandhi of being more interested in feeding biscuits to his pet Pidi than listening to the woes of local and regional Congress satraps, Himanta Biswa Sarma has acquired a unique personality cult of his own. Some have described him as the Yogi Adityanath of the Northeast. But virtually, everyone in the BJP and elsewhere knows that after he quit the Congress and joined the BJP in 2015, Sarma has been the master strategist of the relentless rise of the party in the region. Though former Chief Minister and current Union Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, is much liked, Sarma is considered the architect of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s second successive victory in Assam.
According to the CVoter survey conducted recently, Sarma is also an immensely popular Chief Minister. More than 60% of the respondents were satisfied with his performance. To illustrate the scale of his personal popularity, more than 42% of Congress voters were happy with his work and performance. That personalities nowadays tend to overshadow parties is evident from how people in Assam rated the state government. About 37% were very satisfied, while another about 17% were satisfied.
Himanta Biswa Sarma is neither unique nor an exception in India. The authors have completed writing a book on how 21st-century politics in India has been marked by personality cults and pro-incumbency verdicts. Look at how Pinarayi Vijayan defied both odds and history by winning a second and bigger mandate in the 2021 assembly elections.
To that extent, Assam now very much resembles the rest of contemporary India; the tyranny of distance be damned.
Polarisation Is Real & Growing
In terms of demography, Assam presents an even more formidable challenge to the BJP than West Bengal. That’s simply because the share of Muslims in the Assam electorate is considerably higher than in West Bengal, and everyone knows a majority of Muslims vote against the BJP. So, analysts were virtually dumbstruck in 2021 when Sarma publicly announced during campaigning that he is not interested in “Miyan” votes. In the complex and complicated nature of demographic politics in Assam, Sarma was referring to allegedly illegal Bangladeshi Muslims who 'threaten' land and other resource bases of even traditionally settled “local” Muslims of the state. Sarma won a famous second successive victory for the BJP and its allies despite scoffing at the “Miyan” vote. In neighbouring Bengal, the BJP lost badly to the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee despite an outreach to Muslim voters.
The answers lie in growing polarisation. The recent CVoter survey in Assam throws up startling evidence of this polarisation. We have already noted how more than 42% of even Congress voters were happy with Himanta Biswa Sharma as the Chief Minister. But when it came to responses from voters of the AIUDF, a party formed by Badruddin Ajmal, the difference was stark. Just 11% of AIUDF voters were happy with Sarma, while 89% clearly stated they were unhappy.
In the same survey, respondents were asked if the Sarma-led government was able to control crime. More than 61% said yes; close to 80% of BJP voters said yes; 45.3% of Congress and only 34% of Muslims said yes. In contrast, less than 17% of the AIUDF voters said yes.
The responses were on similar lines when respondents were asked whether women felt safer in Assam after one year of the Sarma-led government. Overall, 56.5% said yes, about 78% of BJP supporters said yes, while just about 22% of the AIUDF voters agreed.
In this, Assam reflects what is happening in the rest of the country. It's not a healthy trend by any yardstick, but the Northeast is mirroring the so-called “mainland” India.
Congress Is Getting Chewed up By Other Parties
Around the time CVoter was analysing the year-long tracker data in the five states, elections were held for the Guwahati Municipal Corporation. The results stunned even the cynics. Of the 60 seats contested, the BJP and allies won a staggering 58 seats. What shocked some analysts, even more, was the fact that the Congress, which ruled Assam for 15 continuous years between 2001 and 2016, drew a complete blank.
Even more interesting was the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) winning one ward with a Muslim candidate. It’s not just Delhi and Punjab where the AAP is simply gobbling up the traditional vote banks of the Congress. It is threatening to do so even in distant Assam.
According to the CVoter survey, the BJP remains the most popular party in the state with a support base of 52.4%. The Congress comes a distant second with just about 22% of the respondents supporting it. But what should worry the Congress, even more, is that 12.2% of the respondents said that they support AAP.
More shocking are the numbers on the question of preferred candidate for the post of Prime Minister. In Assam, arguably a state where AAP happens to be a non-entity, Kejriwal scores more than the ratings his party enjoys and Rahul Gandhi scores less than the support base of his own party. The result is an unusual situation where Arvind Kejriwal actually ties up as the second-most popular candidate to be Prime Minister among the voters of Assam.
Being a neighbouring state of West Bengal, having more Muslim voters than West Bengal and having a substantial voter base of Bengali speaking population doesn’t help Mamata Banerjee fill the opposition vacuum in Assam, and yet, a Hindi-speaking Bania leader born in Haryana and now ruling Delhi becomes more popular than Rahul Gandhi in Assam. This is a trend where the rest of India is probably going to be following Assam. Truth is stranger than fiction, always.
A Double Whammy for Congress
This is a cruel squeeze and a double whammy that the Congress is becoming familiar with. It is being decimated in the gladiatorial battles between the BJP and the regional parties. Look at what happened in Goa in the 2022 assembly elections. Every Sanju, Manju and Gangu knew that there was a very strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP after 10 continuous years in power. Goa was a low-hanging fruit for the Congress to pluck. And yet, the BJP won 20 out of the 40 seats while the Congress could manage just 10.
More humiliating was the fact that the vote share of the BJP was 10% higher than that of the Congress. Even more galling for the Congress was the fact that the TMC and the AAP together cornered 12% of the anti-BJP vote that would have gone the Congress way in the good old days.
Something similar happened in Uttarakhand in 2022 when the Congress spectacularly failed to pluck yet another low-hanging fruit. Too much has been written by too many people about the existential woes of the Congress for the authors to add anything more.
It's Advantage BJP In 2024
The recent C Voter survey in Assam also provides a glimpse into what could happen during the Lok Sabha election due in 2024. Let us hypothetically assume that the current support base of the BJP and allies drops from 52% to about 40%. Let us also assume that the Congress and the AIUDF contest as allies and their combined support rises from today’s 30% to about 35%. It is still an advantage BJP; if the AAP manages to retain its current support base with Arvind Kejriwal being touted as a potential Prime Minister face, it becomes a no contest.
The BJP doesn’t have very high chances of winning any seats in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. But then, they swept the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections even after drawing a blank or registering just a token presence in all these states. It is a strong contender in the rest of the country. And if the opposition vote is fragmented, as it appears likely now just on the lines of Assam, the BJP could coast to victory despite the anti-incumbency stoked by inflation and unemployment.
In some ways, 2024 might become a repeat of the 2009 verdict. In the run-up to the 2009 elections, many regional chieftains decided to shun both the BJP and the Congress. Politicians like Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and even Sitaram Yechury of the Left, nursed big ambitions. Their contention was that elections could throw up a hopelessly hung Parliament like in 1996 and the Congress would be compelled to support a Third Front government.
The decidedly non-charismatic Manmohan Singh took the tally of the Congress from 145 seats in 2004 to 206 in 2009. Imagine what a charismatic and still immensely popular Narendra Modi can do if the opposition vote is fragmented.
We have already seen this happen in Goa in the 2022 assembly elections, where Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Bannerjee not only shunned the Congress but also fought against each other.
Do Regional Parties Have a Future Without Dynasties?
Once again, the C Voter survey in Assam throws up intriguing answers to this question. Once upon a time, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) appeared to be the natural ruling party of Assam, full of youthful and idealistic politics. Today, it is a pale shadow of itself and a minor ally of the BJP. According to the recent C Voter tracker, less than 1% of the people of Assam support it, compared to 12.5% who opted for the AAP. There seems to be no way out for the party as it hurtles towards relative oblivion.
The AGP is a rare regional party that did not practise dynasty politics. Look at what has happened with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the last decade or so. In 2007, when Mayawati won a majority in the Uttar Pradesh elections, she emerged as a genuine national leader and the BSP spread its footprints wide across the country. She was a potential Prime Minister candidate in 2009 as well as 2019. But her party has been simply wiped out in Uttar Pradesh today and no longer plays a role in other states. Mayawati does have a nephew, but he has not been active in politics. Mamata Banerjee, too, does not have a direct successor like Mayawati, but her nephew is very active in politics and the de facto inheritor of the Trinamool throne.
The formidable AIADMK also seems to be in serious trouble in Tamil Nadu. The charismatic Jayalalitha did not have a family member to nurture and promote as a future leader unlike her rival M Karunanidhi, who assiduously promoted his son MK Stalin, now the Chief Minister of the state.
What 21st-century politics shows is both cruel and ironic. Out and out, dynasty-based parties like the DMK, the RJD, the SP, the Trinamool, the Shiv Sena and others are doing quite well, while those without a dynasty are floundering.
One of the authors was in Odisha just a few days ago. While no one came on record, most analysts feel that the BJD has a bleak future once the immensely popular Naveen Patnaik hangs up his boots in the not-too-distant future. He has no family successor. The same could be the case for the JD(U) in Bihar.
The Double-Engine Appeal of Modi and Sarma
But will the AIUDF in Assam also go the AGP way? Can identity politics survive a lack of proactive leaders? Will Congress still have the AIUDF as a partner in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and risk further polarisation, or will it go solo? Or for that matter, can Gaurav Gogoi weave the magic back for Congress the way his father did? The answer lies in the fact that Tarun Gogoi was not born in a political family. His father was a practising doctor in a tea garden area and his mother was a simple housewife and a poet. But Gaurav is the son of an ex-Chief Minister, and for all practical matters, he was born in a political family.
On the other hand, while Kejriwal manages to trump Rahul Gandhi among Asamiya voters on Prime Minister preference, the AAP doesn’t have any leader at the state level to capture the imagination on Chief Minister preference. Compare this opposition ambiguity to the double-engine popularity of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and Himanta Biswa Sarma as Chief Minister, and one can see the larger picture.
Now, simply compare this larger picture of Assam with all other states, and you can easily put all pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. Assam leads the way now in showing how the rest of India is thinking.
(Yashwant Deshmukh is Founder Editor and Sutanu Guru is Executive Director of CVoter Research Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)