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‘Look East’ Not Pleasant for Narendra Modi

Winning Assam may turn out to be as difficult for Modi as saving the state’s rhinoceros population from poachers.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Narendra Modi wearing a “Japi” (a traditional hat of Assam) receives a wooden Rhino by his supporters during a rally ahead of the 2014 general elections, at Guwahati 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Snapshot

‘Look East’ for Modi

  • Modi made it clear in 2014 elections that entrenching his party in the East was a priority
  • In the East, Assam seems to be only state where the BJP has gained ground
  • Modi’s decision to legitimise the stay of Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, in India, has upset the Assamese
  • Most Assamese treat the migrant issue as an ethnic issue
  • In West Bengal, it is not the BJP but the ruling Left and the Congress that will challenge Mamata’s Trinamool Congress

‘Look East’ for Narendra Modi has been as much about developing India’s connectivity with her eastern neighbourhood as about expanding the BJP’s influence in India’s East and Northeast. In the rundown to the 2014 parliament elections, Modi had made it clear that entrenching his party in the East was a priority. His declared commitment to develop the East, which he described as the ‘weak link’ of the Republic, had as much to do with ending regional disparity as to position the BJP in a region where it does not control a single state.

But as Nitish Kumar departed the NDA and the Asom Gana Parishad backed out from a 2001 alliance in Assam, Modi was left to hunt for allies. The 2014 parliament polls were encouraging. Not only did the BJP do very well in Bihar but also in Assam, where it bagged half the 14 Lok Sabha seats, leaving the ruling Congress in competition with the Muslim-dominated AUDF to battle for the second position. Even in West Bengal, the party’s vote share increased sharply.

Growing Concerns About the Hindutva Brigade

Narendra Modi plays a dhol, during an election campaign rally in Mangaldoi in Assam April 19, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Narendra Modi plays a dhol, during an election campaign rally in Mangaldoi in Assam April 19, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

After the recent debacle in Bihar, Modi’s ‘Drang Nach Osten’ (Drive East) lies in tatters. The resounding Grand Alliance victory promises to unleash forces that may threaten the BJP elsewhere in India. One cannot help but attempt a comparison with 1975 when JP’s ‘Total Revolution’ created the basis for an anti-Congress unity and the ultimate defeat of Indira Gandhi’s party in 1977. If the opposition pitched together in 1975 to save Indian democracy, it is now saying it needs to unite to protect its secular fabric and perhaps the very ‘Idea of India’. There are sharp divisions within the anti-BJP ranks but the vibes suggest growing concerns about the Hindutva brigade and a need to stop them.

In the East, Assam seems to be only state where the BJP has gained ground, often at the expense of the Assamese regional parties. The Asom Gana Parishad, which ruled the state twice, now fails to win a single seat in the Lok Sabha. It has lost much ground to the BJP in the years they were allies because ethnic Assamese came to see the BJP as a more effective anti-migrant party than the AGP. But just when it looked good, the BJP shot itself in the foot. The Modi government’s decision to legitimise the stay of Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, in India, has upset the Assamese. The BJP’s attempt to play the migrant issue on religious lines has not gone down well with the Assamese. Groups like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) have come out strongly against the move, even as some of their leaders have joined the BJP.

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Migrant or Ethnic Issue?

Himanta Biswa Sarma joining BJP. (Photo: Facebook/Himanta Biswa Sarma)
Himanta Biswa Sarma joining BJP. (Photo: Facebook/Himanta Biswa Sarma)

Most Assamese treat the migrant issue as an ethnic issue – Bengali migrants, Hindu or Muslim, are seen as a threat to Assam’s demography. The BJP’s effort to build a strong religious coalition of all Hindus – Assamese, Bengali, tribals – has not been accepted by the Assamese regional groups and parties. So, even as the BJP may be looking to win over the nearly 12-13% Bengali Hindu vote in Assam, it risks losing a much bigger share of Assamese vote. The only real fallout that may benefit the BJP somewhat, is that the religious polarisation it is attempting may drive the large Muslim electorate to the AUDF from the Congress, and that may decimate the ruling party beyond recovery.

But the BJP’s acceptance of defectors, specially former Congress minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and his flock, has created a new problem for the party. The obvious local face for the BJP to project in Assam was Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal – considered an Assamese hero of sorts for his dogged legal battle that led to the Supreme Court to dump the IMDT Act, 1983 – that most Assamese saw as favouring illegal migrants. But Sonowal now has a challenger in Biswa Sarma, whose chief ministerial ambitions led him to challenge Tarun Gogoi in the first place. In Bihar, they had a local face in Sushil Modi which the BJP did not project sharply enough. In West Bengal, they don’t have one. In Assam, they had one and have added another, promising factional feuds on the leadership issue.

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Assam is Modi’s Only Hope in the East

Assam remains Modi’s only hope in the East, as the BJP is unable to make a dent in the other northeastern states. (Photo: Reuters)
Assam remains Modi’s only hope in the East, as the BJP is unable to make a dent in the other northeastern states. (Photo: Reuters)

In West Bengal, it is not the BJP but the erstwhile ruling Left and the Congress that will challenge Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Not only is there a possibility of BJP getting no allies (not even in Darjeeling), but also that predictions of a huge swing of Left votes to BJP remains unfounded. With Naveen Patnaik in Odisha firmly in the saddle as is CPI(M)s’ Manik Sarkar in Tripura and with Bihar gone and Bengal nowhere in grasp, Assam remains Modi’s only hope in the East, as the BJP is unable to make a dent in the other northeastern states. It can only hope to play a junior partner to non-Congress regional parties in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya because it has only pockets of influence in these states with large Christian populations.

But winning Assam may turn out to be as difficult for Modi as saving the state’s rhinoceros population from poachers.

(The writer, a veteran BBC correspondent, is author of two highly acclaimed books on Northeast India – “Insurgent Crossfire” and “Troubled Periphery”.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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