The Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has returned to power in Assam with the party riding high on its all-time best performance in the north-eastern state.
The lotus has bloomed for a record second time here and the harvest seems to be getting steadier with time. This was a significant election for Assam for a number of reasons. It was to decide up to what extent and in which forms the large scale mass anger, witnessed against the BJP in the anti Citizenship (Amendment) Act mobilizations, would matter electorally. After all, the anti-CAA protests paved the way for the formation of a few political parties and led to an anti-BJP consolidation between existing ones. It was an election where many a forces that had so far remained outside the fray of ‘formal’ electoral politics, remaining instead in the realm of social movements of various hues, metamorphosed into political parties, under the broad banner of ‘Assamese nationalism’. The verdict had to be a watershed, therefore, for more reasons than one. What explains this seemingly unstoppable saffron march in the region?
Making connections: Citizens as clients, material and emotional
BJP and its allies had put a primer this election on ‘performance’ or at least on the perception of it. A steady infrastructural push, both at urban and rural levels, starting from construction of mega bridges to paving the village roads, proved right the cardinal truth of politics once again: ’make roads, get votes’.
Last mile connectivity created a positive perception of change, which BJP used successfully to contrast the negative experience of many of these areas with the previous regimes. Add to this a careful set of interventions that the party in power devised in the state, which were phased out communities, income group as well as gender wise. A set of schemes with mostly monetary and material incentives were aimed at creating ‘hitadhikaris’-beneficiaries. In other words, people who saw themselves ‘benefiting’ from a certain system, played a crucial role in sustaining it for some more years to come.
The party applied the phenomenon called ‘nurturing of electoral clienteles’, which has been increasingly used by parties across the spectrum and around the globe, most successfully by populist right wing radical parties. A host of welfare schemes, starting from providing free rice, subsidised kerosene oil to direct cash transfer to bank accounts (Orunudoi scheme), touched various segments of society, specially those lacking in much social capital otherwise, but with a significant ‘electoral capital’.
An amount, paltry as it may seem, when received by a housewife in her account directly from the government, specially at a time of scarcity, establishes a bond between her and the party in power. It is arithmetic of the mind understood well by the BJP.
A land of a hundred identities: fragmentation and consequences
The argument of beneficiary formation can be extended to the terrain of ‘identities’ too. In Assam, priorities and perspectives are circumspect to one’s social location in more ways than one. Take for example, the case of ethnic communities like the Ahoms, Motok, Moran, Sutia etc. who had played a crucial role in making Upper Assam the hub of anti -CAA protests. However, soon afterwards, some of the prominent student/cultural organizations ‘representing’ these communities, gravitated towards the BJP. Their ‘primary’ battle, which is to protect, preserve, promote their ‘ethnic identities’, (translating into recognition as Scheduled Tribes with a measure of autonomy) needed to be kept in perspective in deciding political affiliations, they argued. The assurance of benefits, the targeted interventions to the tea garden communities in Assam (Adivasis and others) seemed to have paid positive dividends too, going by the near complete sweep by BJP and allies in the Upper Assam region, where all these communities form a solid block.
These imperatives of ethnic fragmentation, in the face of a unified opposition to ruling dispensation, are not new to Assam. In fact, the Congress in the state had played upon this successfully many times in the past, most notably to puncture the emerging united resistance in the times of Assam Movement of the 80s.
Immediate Vs Potential: The many sides of the migration debate
Does the verdict in favour of BJP mean that fear of the migrants, that long running political narrative in Assam, no longer remains the driving force of politics? The verdict has shown that despite significant overtones, the majority perception on immigration, continues to be driven by a perception based on numbers and culture, packaged prominently in religious connotations. A careful campaign by BJP and allies to project the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) as a champion of immigrants and a real threat to the ‘indigenous’ people of Assam, seem to have resonated with many.
Conversely, the fact that AIDUF has done well in almost all the pockets, where ‘minority’ votes prevails, has formalized this polarization. All the parties in Assam have contributed in the past to constructing the ‘villainous’ image out of the figure of Maulana Ajmal. The fear of ‘turning into a lower Assam, where Maulanas rule’ has always moved a significant section of voters in Brahmaputra Valley. Now, it is the burden of this self-constructed legacy that has come back to bite some of the parties, who now stand on a different side of the political spectrum.
In this imagination, nurtured and fed by parties over decades, the exponential rise of the Ajmal & ilk (propagated by BJP this election as ‘tupi-darhi party’/ the party of the cap and beard mob), seemed more threatening than the potential inflow of Hindu Bengali that CAA would allow, however, reprehensible that is.
Akhil Gogoi’s victory: Lessons for alternatives
Having discussed the power of entitlements, consequence of identities and its fragmentations, what does the victory of Akhil Gogoi of the newly formed, avowedly anti-BJP, anti CAA party Raijr Dol signify? Gogoi’s victory shows the prowess of political imagination beyond the immediate cost-benefit analyses that politics seems to reduce people to. It shows that given the option there are enough takers for alternatives still. Gogoi’s was an emotional battle; a larger than life campaign, with him turning into a persona of a living martyr. Alongside his clean image as a first timer, which the other new regional party Asom Jatiya Parishad lacked due to the AGP example, gave him the added advantage that was worked out well by a well-functioning campaign machinery.
Multi-pronged approach to victory
In essence, the NDA almost perfected the stitching together of an electoral coalition, consisting of sub-groups of voters with divergent socio-economic realities and brought them together under a common minimum program informed by a sense of development, perception of security and moorings of cultural chauvinism. The fact that these are difficult times, ravaged by a pandemic, when one’s vulnerabilities are heightened, has only helped the ruling party’s endeavours.
The writer is assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University, and former public policy scholar, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy Kasturi Buildings, Chennai.