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Does a ‘Less Corrupt’ BJP Have an Edge Over Congress in Assam?

Somehow, the perception is that the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP govt in Assam is less corrupt that its predecessor.

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Opinion
4 min read
Does a ‘Less Corrupt’ BJP Have an Edge Over Congress in Assam?
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Polling in Assam, the state which accounts for the largest number (14) of Lok Sabha seats in the northeast, wrapped up on 23 April. According to this report, Election Commission officials claimed that the voter turn out in the third phase was 74.05 percent. It was 78.27 in the first phase of polling on 11 April, and 81.20 percent in the second phase on 18 April.

Assam is reported to have recorded the highest voter turnout in phase-III of the Lok Sabha elections.

The state had witnessed a turnout of 80.12 percent in the 2014 general elections. The BJP in Assam is looking to increase its number of seats. In the last elections, the BJP won seven seats, with the Congress and the All India Democratic Front (AIUDF) securing three seats each. This time, the BJP led NDA – which include Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People's Front (BPF) – has targeted to win 12+ seats in the region.

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Impact of the Citizenship Amendment Bill Issue

Understandably, the Citizenship Amendment Bill issue– which died on its own – was a factor in Assam this election. The Bill, which sought to provide citizenship to six minorities — Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians — of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh — was introduced by the BJP government at the Centre and was passed in the Lok Sabha. However, protests erupted in the northeast, preventing the Bill from being tabled in the Rajya Sabha, and ultimately compellled the BJP to allow the issue to die a natural death. However, the BJP has promised to bring back the Bill if voted back to power.

While the Bill remains a poll plank, it is unlikely to have as much of a bearing as some commentators believe. The reason is that, there are other factors (mentioned below) which have the potential to eclipse the Bill.

Impact of the National Register of Citizens

The National Register of Citizens (NCR), which created a huge political storm in Delhi's political circles and drew the attention of international media too, was well-accepted by the majority Hindu Assamese community, including sections of Assamese Muslims and the indigenous tribal community (who are largely Hindus).

However, both the Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus — mostly immigrants from Bangladesh — fear the NRC. But the BJP’s promise of citizenship seems to have lured the Hindu Bengalis — the party’s core vote bank in Assam.
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Ethnic and Religious Polarisation

Presently, Assam is heavily polarised along ethnic and religious lines, an issue that prevailed even last year during the panchayat elections in the state held in December. The majority Assamese community and the tribals rallied behind the BJP, mainly based on ethnic polarisation due to the NRC factor amid the citizenship controversy, and the Bengali Hindus of the Barak Valley supported the BJP due to its Citizenship Bill initiative.

On the other hand, Bengali Muslims, who also live in the Barak Valley, supported the Congress, shifting away from their traditional party, ie, the AIUDF led by Badruddin Ajmal.

This time, AIUDF contested only in Barpeta, Dhubri and Karimganj, the seats that were won by the party the last time. This means that Muslims might have shifted towards the Congress, a phenomenon that has already been witnessed in the rural body polls, and will benefit the grand old party.

But this consolidation of Muslim votes has the potential to push the majority Assamese community towards the BJP.

That's why, the BJP reiterated during the election campaign, that there was a ‘hidden alliance’ between the Congress and AIUDF. It is to be noted that the ‘anti-Bengali Muslim’ issue has been at the core of Assam's politics. The Nellie massacre of 1983, during which at least 1,800 Bengali Muslims were killed (unofficial figures run higher), bears testimony to the sharp division between the Bengali Muslims and the Assamese community. Importantly, this massacre, which is among the worst genocides in Independent India, took place when the Congress was ruling Assam, and Indira Gandhi was the prime minister.

BJP+AGP+BPF Alliance Looks Strong

The NDA, comprising the BJP, Asom Gana Parishad, and Bodoland People's Front, looks strong. However, there is bitterness between BJP and AGP supporters – mainly due to the latter's flip-flop (to leave the NDA) – only to unfold its umbrella under the NDA's within months. But the fact is that the AGP, which had contested only three seats, has largely been an anti-Congress party.

That’s the reason the BJP, despite resistance from a section of state leadership, allied with the AGP to prevent the split of anti-Congress votes by pooling them into the NDA camp. BPF, which is contesting from the lone seat of Kokrajhar, is the other partner which has its committed voters around the Kokrajhar region.

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BJP Govt in Assam Has Gained ‘Less Corrupt’ Image

The Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government in Assam has been successful in gaining an image of being ‘less corrupt’ than the earlier Congress government, which might have also given a push to the BJP. The National People's Party (NPP) led by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, an ally of the BJP, was in the fray in Dibrugarh, Silchar, Tezpur, Kaliabor and Jorhat, which might have captured a section of anti-Citizenship votes (which would have otherwise benefited the BJP).

Another factor that may have affected the voters is the ‘Modi factor’ — which has the potential to benefit the BJP.

The conclusion is that, the BJP-led NDA seems to have an edge in Assam, with the Congress managing to increase its vote share (which may not necessarily convert into a large number of seats).

(Sagarneel Sinha is a freelance writer from Tripura who writes on politics, foreign affairs and Indian mythology. He tweets @SagarneelSinha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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