Elections are about arithmetic but chemistry triumphs over arithmetic: That’s a common refrain of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the undisputed poll gurus of modern India. This has become a sort of truism, thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral domination in the past seven years, a few reverses here and there notwithstanding.
What Modi and Shah mean to say is that the opposition’s reliance on certain social or ethnic groups and their numerical strength is misplaced. What works is a good chemistry between the BJP (read Modi) and the voters — struck through welfare schemes, personality cult or otherwise — which transcends caste considerations. Many opposition leaders such as Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and Ajit Singh — part of the anti-BJP front in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh — would vouch for it. There may, however, be some dissenters like poll strategist Prashant Kishor who would cite the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav-Rahul Gandhi alliance that had trumped the BJP in Bihar in 2015.
Be that as it may, while Amit Shah is busy laying booby traps for Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, he must be conscious of the pitfalls in Assam. It’s not just about retaining power in a state that sends 14 members to the Lok Sabha. Modi-Shah’s chemistry-versus-arithmetic poll theory is in for a tough test in this northeastern state. What gives this test a larger, national context is the fact that the BJP’s use-and-throw approach vis-à-vis its allies has strengthened the opposition’s arithmetic in Assam.
Opposition’s superior arithmetic
Following political realignments in Assam, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which had abandoned the Congress after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to joins hands with the BJP in the 2016 assembly polls, is now back in the Congress-led alliance. Instead, the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), the BPF rival that was Congress party’s alliance partner in 2016, is now with the BJP. Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is also a part of the Congress-led alliance that includes three Left parties and four other smaller outfits.
As it is, the NDA constituents — the BJP, the BPF and the Asom Gana Parishad — had secured 41.59 per cent votes. The BPF, which has joined hands with the Congress now, had secured 3.94 per cent of the votes then. If one were to reduce the BPF’s vote share in 2016, the NDA’s share would be reduced to barely 38 per cent votes in the 2016 polls. The UPA constituents, as they are —the Congress, the AIUDF, the BPF, the Left and others — had secured around 49 per cent votes in 2016. Trailing the UPA by 11 percentage points (going by the 2016 vote shares of the two umbrella alliances) must be worrisome for the BJP.
NDA’s chemistry through welfare schemes
BJP leaders may be seeking to polarise voters along Hindu-Muslim lines by their constant barbs against the Congress for tying up with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, but it’s the BJP government’s welfare schemes that seem to draw better traction from the people.
ThePrint’s interactions with the people across several districts in Assam showed a general sense of satisfaction with the Sarbananda Sonowal government. From Orunodoi, a scheme under which 15,000 to 17,000 women in every constituency get Rs 830 directly transferred to their bank accounts every month, to scooters and cycles for girl students, there are schemes galore targeted at different sections of society. These are over and above the central welfare schemes.
Baijanti Bora of Kashomai village in Nagaon, about 130 km east of Guwahati, doesn’t know who gave her the cylinder – Sarbananda Sonowal or Narendra Modi — and under what scheme, but she got one last year (under Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, it seems). Only that she has to pay Rs 800-1,000 to a local deader to get it re-filled. She also got Rs 2,000 in her bank account in two tranches last year. She thinks it must be under her old age pension, but isn’t sure. “Some people” also built a toilet in her house recently.
Baijanti doesn’t know which government or who did all this for her and doesn’t even know the name of the schemes under which she got these benefits. All that she knows that this government (be it Sonowal’s or Modi’s) is “doing something good”.
Prashant Medhi of Hahara village in Kamrup district, about 30 km east of Guwahati, goes gaga about government schemes. Ninety-eight per cent of the fields in his area are getting irrigated now, thanks to a new canal. At least 50 youngsters in his area have got Rs 30,000 each (Rs 20,000 later) under the Svayem scheme and they have either started mushroom and goat farming or opened poultry farms. The villagers are also expecting to get piped water from next year, with “most of the work completed”.
Political may be polarised along religious lines in Assam, but not policies and welfare schemes. A few kilometres from Hahara, Mallika Khatun of Sonapur Pathar village is happy that her entire family’s name figures in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). When I asked her whether she got any benefits from any government schemes, she gave a blank look. But specific queries drew a different response.
“Did you not get any rice during the lockdown?”
“Yes, 30 kg for six members. Got it three times,” said Mallika.
“Anything else during the lockdown?”
“Yes, got Rs 500 three times in my bank account. Nothing more.” (The ex-gratia payment to women to tide over Covid-19 crisis, as declared by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in March last year.)
“What’s that toilet under construction outside your house?”
“Yes, people (read local government officials) are building it but it’s not complete yet.”
One heard similar stories during random stopovers in villages and small towns. Some scheme or the other seemed to be touching every household even though many people couldn’t even specify the schemes or who initiated them. For instance, one wonders why Baijanti should have got just one cylinder and then must pay to get it re-filled. There were, of course, many loopholes in the delivery system. But, given that the BJP-led government at the Centre or in the state managed to touch everyone’s life, Modi and Shah’s political theory of chemistry with voters don’t seem unfounded. And, of course, developments in the infrastructure sector were for all to see, which must only deepen that chemistry.
NDA and UPA are counting and re-counting
So, why should Modi or Shah worry about Assam? Probably because the arithmetical odds are stacked against the ruling party heavily, I guess. If the Congress and the AIUDF had contested together in 2016, their combined votes would have been more than the NDA’s on at least 17 seats, say Congress leaders in Assam. That would have meant 69 seats to the NDA and 56 to the UPA in the 126-member assembly—a close call. Besides, the BPF, which won 12 seats in 2016, is part of the UPA now.
Although the BJP has abandoned the BPF in favour of the UPPL to consolidate its strength in the Bodoland region, the BPF’s Hagrama Mohilary has considerable influence. The UPPL, which had allied with the Congress to unsuccessfully contest one seat in 2016, did well in the Bodoland Territorial Council polls, but it remains a virtually untested outfit in an assembly election. As it is, the third front comprising two new outfits born out of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act agitation — Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal and Lurinjyoti Gogoi’s Assam Jatiya Parishad — is also keeping everyone guessing. Congress leaders are apprehensive that these two would eat into the anti-CAA votes that would have come to the opposition alliance. But the ruling side is also not sure if these two parties would eat into the Asom Gana Parishad’s votes.
Political realignments in Assam are keeping all stakeholders on tenterhooks in the chemistry-versus-arithmetic battle.
Views are personal.
Edited by Neera Majumdar.