The spotlight in 2021 seems to be on the West Bengal assembly election but it is the Assam polls that will tell the big political story of recent years — another convincing win by the Bharatiya Janata Party would show how it has learnt to capture territories that are not organic to it, not just electorally, but also politically and culturally. While the West Bengal result can be a defining political event — either way — it is Assam that remains a far more fascinating and crucial electoral experiment.
In the 2016 assembly election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP did exceedingly well in Assam, winning 60 of the 126 seats on its own, and 86 in partnership with its allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). This was a fresh breach for the BJP, storming into an uncharted territory. If 2016 was an electoral capture, the years since then have seen the BJP tightening its grip on the state politically and at the socio-cultural level.
Politically, the BJP has ensured all other players, especially the Congress and even ally AGP, are edged out. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party won nine of the 14 seats, reducing the Congress, which had been the predominant party in the state, to just three seats. Culturally and sociologically, it has ensured the long standing ‘ethnic, non-ethnic’ faultline — which the BJP isn’t equipped to cash in on — is blurred into a fuzzy mix of Hindu-Muslim and ‘Indian-non Indian’ binaries.
If the BJP wins Assam again, it will mean Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s gamble of pushing through with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act didn’t hurt them in the one state where it should have otherwise spelt doom for them. This would also mean the Modi-Shah duo have mastered the art of not just acquiring new territories, but ruling them in all aspects, putting their own stamp and gaining absolute power. What is even more pertinent is that in Assam the BJP is doing well not because of its Hindu-Muslim politics, but despite it.
But if the BJP loses in the state, it would expose the glaring limitations of the party’s politics and its constant gambles. Assam, therefore, is a microcosm for determining the success of Modi-Shah’s political model.
How BJP established control over Assam
Assam has never been the BJP’s organic, traditional ground. It has been a painstaking ground-up approach by the party and its ideological parent — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — to spread their message and acquire leaders from established political players that helped the party spread its wings across the state.
Equally importantly, selling and capitalising on brand Modi has worked wonders for the party — quite a feat given the ‘foreign’ Gujarat chief minister had no connect with the state.
Assam — done with decades of being treated as the ‘periphery’, with lack of amenities and attention that other, more fortunate states have had and having battled a troubled insurgency — was seeking national focus. And Modi and Co. tapped into this very aspiration of the people of Assam, treating the state not just as one remote corner of India but as crucial an aspect of its national politics as any other state. Since the 2014 Lok Sabha victory, Modi made sure the benefits of his flagship schemes — from Ujjwala to rural housing — reach the people of Assam as much as they reach those in Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan.
In a way, by putting so much political capital into the state and not leaving it just to regional satraps, Modi ‘mainstreamed’ Assam politically. His popularity kept soaring in the state, so much so that during my election travels there in 2019, Modi was the biggest buzzword.
Simultaneously, the BJP-RSS weaved a carefully crafted narrative that shifted focus away from the ‘indigenous Assamese versus outsider’ question. This binary never suited the Modi-led BJP, given its high-command had no locus standi on the interests of the indigenous Assamese. But yes, a Hindu-Muslim binary or an ‘Indian vs outsider’ one always works for the party, and in this case, it also helped put the opposition on the back foot by relegating the ethnicity question to the shadows. Having observed the socio-political situation in my growing up years, I never quite thought the BJP’s belligerent Hindu-Muslim politics could work in Assam — given the region’s strong dislike for the non-Assamese and those of Bengali-speaking origin, irrespective of religion.
To add to it, the BJP took important leaders into its fold — former All Assam Students’ Union president and ‘jatiya nayok’ (hero of the race) Sarbananda Sonowal as the party’s main face, and the politically astute Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Why BJP’s 2021 win will be significant
With its win in Assam in 2016 and the solid performance in 2019, the BJP showed it can prepare a recipe to pull off victories in difficult terrains — Tripura and West Bengal yet again proved the efficacy of the party’s newfound ability under Modi-Shah.
A thumping victory in this year’s assembly polls in Assam will prove quite another point — Modi-Shah’s ability to hold on to power in states that have traditionally been other parties’ turf, and its success in transforming the socio-cultural-political landscape of these newly acquired territories. It is this aspect that should worry the BJP’s opponents the most, including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who faces a tough challenge from the party.
Assam post-CAA is going to be a big referendum on the BJP’s political skills. The entire debate in Assam, for decades, has been around the ‘Assamese vs non-Assamese’ question, and by pushing a law that grants citizenship to Hindus from outside, even if they are whom the Assamese people see as ‘bidexis‘, the BJP has turned the situation around. It has rejected the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) and brought in the brazenly communal CAA — but it continues to remain powerful in the state.
A victory will also show that the anti-CAA protests notwithstanding, the larger population backs the BJP and its policies — that ethnicity and nationalism can coexist, with the former ceasing to be as important a political issue.
If the BJP loses Assam, it would mean Modi and Shah need to hit the reset button and realise that their largely successful ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach may not always work.
Assam is also important because it is the gateway to power in the Northeast. After winning Assam, the BJP managed to form governments in most states in the Northeast, directly or with help from coalition partners under the Northeast Democratic Alliance. The idea that it can gather power, and sustain it, beyond the Hindi heartland comes from two major states — Karnataka and Assam.
The 2021 election is equally crucial for other political players in Assam. Congress, currently rudderless after the passing away of party stalwart and three-time Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, has way too much work to do before it can even hope to put up a fight. The AGP, meanwhile, has slid down the path from being a political breakthrough that ruled the state to playing a timid sidekick to the BJP. In the recent Bodoland Territorial Council polls, the BJP emerged as kingmaker and put its ally in the state — Bodoland People’s Front — in the dock by refusing to join hands with it.
Views are personal.