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Brand Modi & govt schemes could override citizenship bill anger on BJP turf in Assam

In Nagaon, a seat BJP has won since 1999, locals are against the Citizenship Bill but say the party has done a lot for them.

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Nagaon (Assam): The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is marching into the Lok Sabha elections in Assam carrying complex and tricky baggage. Its attempts to push through the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill caused much indignation among the ethnic Assamese, at a time when the party hopes to better its 2014 performance in the northeast’s most populous state.

The test of the party’s fortunes in the state with 14 Lok Sabha seats, where it currently has seven, lies in the extent to which it has managed to assuage the voter and sell its work. It will also depend on how successfully it beats double anti-incumbency — being in power in the state and the Centre.

The real question in the state, however, is whether the BJP can continue to retain its hold in regions where it has been strong, despite incurring the indigenous populations’ wrath over the vexed bill that seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As it turns out, ‘Brand Modi’, BJP’s welfare initiatives and the Congress not being seen as a preferred alternative may just have overpowered, to a significant extent, the Citizenship Bill unrest in the party’s bastions. And Nagaon, where the BJP has not lost a Lok Sabha election since 1999, provides a glimpse into this phenomenon.

Assam votes in three phases beginning 11 April.

‘Upset’ over bill but BJP’s work enough

Voters in Nagaon put forth a dichotomous strand of thought. They are “upset” with the BJP for bringing in the bill, which they claim threatens to snatch their rights and give them to “outsiders”, but say the party has done much development work and so, all else is forgiven.

Voters in a village in Nagaon district say Modi should come back to power | Ruhi Tewari/ThePrint

“The Citizenship Bill did upset us and continues to do so,” says Panidhar Bora of Raha Gaon. “But the BJP has done so much work for us. From roads to gas connections to rural housing — a lot has happened, a lot that the Congress did not do in its decades in power.

“Moreover, my view is that even if the BJP does bring in the bill again, Assam will not let the party pass it. BJP, after all, is just one party. Hence, it won’t hurt us to elect it again. Modi should be PM at least once more,” he adds.

The ethnic Assamese have been staunchly opposed to the bill, which eventually lapsed due to BJP’s inability to get it passed in the Rajya Sabha since they believe any illegal immigrant being given citizenship would mean an imposition on their rights and limited resources. However, voters cite the Modi government’s pro-poor initiatives to explain why they support the BJP despite this bill.

An NRC board in Nagaon town | Ruhi Tewari/ThePrint

“The bill is unlikely to come up now. But what remains is the BJP’s good work. They have given us gas connections, houses, roads as well as facilitated pension payments,” says Bina Bora of Uttar Petboha village. “My mother-in-law died in her 90s waiting for her pension under the Congress regime, but now, we are getting pensions easily.”

Her friend Junuma Das pitches in. “They have also created jobs. It feels good to see people employed in our village,” she says.

Also read: NRC and Citizenship Bill are lollipops BJP is using to fool people of Assam: Mamata Banerjee

Brand Modi

The PM may not speak the local language but seems to have managed a connect with voters. Several say they support the BJP especially because of Modi, his work and his ability to give a “fitting reply” to Pakistan.

“Modi will do well. He has done a lot of work,” says Poluram Das of Raha Gaon. “In 70 years, Congress could do nothing and there were middlemen who worsened the situation. BJP has done a lot for the poor and deprived.”

Das further believes that the Prime Minister has tackled Pakistan in a way that the Congress hasn’t.

“We have to protect our country. Soldiers were martyred in Pulwama. If the Congress was in power, they would have never given Pakistan a reply,” he says. “The Modi government has gone into their homes and killed them, given them a fitting reply.”

“He (Modi) should lead the country again. He will fix a lot of what remains if given another term,” Das adds.

In Nagaon town, Deepak Saha also speaks of “Modi’s work for all”, his “strong and much-needed response to enemies like Pakistan”, and claims the Citizenship Bill “was a mistake the party won’t repeat”.

In fact, some voters claim that their four-term MP, Union Minister Rajen Gohain, being denied a ticket is not a factor. The BJP may even have quelled a degree of anti-incumbency by denying tickets to sitting MPs, making way for fresh faces.

“The candidate is not the point. The party is and Modi is. Even so, a fresh face means the burden of the old is gone,” Poluram Das adds, as his companions playing carrom with him nod in agreement.

Gohain has been replaced by Rupak Sharma, who is the Nagaon MLA.

‘What has the Congress done?’

Assam is not a state where the BJP has been strong. In fact, it was only in 2016 that the party first came to power in the state. But at this point, it seems to have strengthened its grip over the state, with Congress being seen as a less attractive option by many voters.

A Congress poster in a Muslim-dominated village claims if BJP comes back to power, it will push the Citizenship Bill but if brought to power, Rahul Gandhi will ensure the bill that dilutes Assamese identity is scrapped | Ruhi Tewari/ThePrint

There are many who, in fact, may not be entirely enthusiastic about the BJP, but look at it as a better option than the Congress.

“See, I am not sure of how much the BJP and Modi have actually done. Nothing drastic has happened. But at least Modi says the right things,” says Kamal Deka of Hatipara village. “The Congress and Rahul Gandhi only perpetuate the dynasty. How can we vote for them, especially when it is about electing a PM and not just a local election?” add Deka.

“Of course, we are angry about the Citizenship Bill. They want to bring in Bangladeshis, this is what we have always resisted. But what is our option? BJP at the centre seems like the only stable way forward,” says Suman Saikia of Raha.

Thus, besides all else, the inability of the Congress to present itself as a credible alternative at the national level seems to be working to the BJP’s advantage.

Also read: PM Modi assures commitment to Assam Accord and fighting infiltration at state rallies 

The minority vote

What, however, will be crucial to the BJP will be the arithmetic in each constituency — particularly of the minority vote. This will play out most significantly in seats where only one of the two claimants of the vote — the Congress or Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) — are contesting. There are only three seats in which both parties have put up candidates — Dhubri, Karimganj and Barpeta.

In Nagaon Lok Sabha seat, Muslims make up over 30 per cent of the electorate.

“We want Rahul Gandhi to be our PM. The Gandhis have done a lot for this country. They have even sacrificed their lives,” says Muhammad Shahzan of Dighaldari village. “They have given us everything. BJP is now just working on the surface and taking credit for all that they have done.

“We oppose and will continue to oppose the Citizenship Bill. It is terrible for the country,” he adds.

The polarisation caused by the bill, how the ethnic versus religious faultlines play out and how each political party exploits that will be key to the BJP’s fortunes in the state, besides, of course, its own track record.

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