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#5018, 14 April 2016

Looking East

A Vote For A New Assam?
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS

The Assam Assembly elections, that concluded on Monday, 11 April, witnessed an unprecedented polling with the turnout touching almost 85 per cent. This has been the highest-ever polling in any form of election in the state. Which party comes to win when the results are announced on 19 May is a different story, but if the catch-word of ‘parivartan’ or change that did the rounds across the length and breadth of the state of 32 million people is anything to go by, it has been a vote for a new Assam.

Hundreds of voters, including a large number of youth, both before and during polling days, told local news channels they are seeking ‘parivartan’ for ‘unnayan’ or a change for development. It would be right to say that the campaign for ‘parivartan’ was led solely by the young voters whose decision to vote for change could have actually influenced the voting behaviour of the elders. Even during the 1985 Assembly polls, held in the wake of the mass anti-foreigner uprising and signing of the historic Assam Accord, the polling percentage was a little more than 79.

If the high turnout in 1985 managed to oust the Congress and usher in the then fledgling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to power, the high turnout in 2001 (75.05 per cent) once again brought in the Congress. It was a vote for continuity in 2006 (75.77 per cent polling) and 2011 (75.92 per cent turnout), one of the reason for which perhaps was the absence of a truly viable alternative to the Congress. The AGP was weak and the BJP was struggling with its tally down from 10 seats in the Assembly in 2006 to five in 2011. Now, the big question this time is - will the BJP and its allies, riding on the high voter turnout, manage to oust the Congress that has been in power for 15 years in Assam without a break?

Firstly, what must be noted is that this has been the toughest elections in Assam in 30 years, an election that is being fought primarily by two national political parties - the Congress and the BJP. Secondly, this has also been among the most bitterly contested elections where political opponents took recourse to a language never heard in the state’s political or social arena ever. The BJP, for instance, has been going around with slogans saying ‘Aibar Axomot Khilonjiar Sorkar’ (This time, a Government by the indigenous people of Assam). It is not clear if the BJP meant to suggest that the governments headed by Tarun Gogoi, and former chief ministers like Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Sarat Chandra Sinha were not governments by ‘khilonjias’ or natives.

Confronted, BJP leaders tried to explain saying they were only cautioning the people to ensure a government is not formed by those who are not of Indian origin. They obviously meant people elected out of votes of Muslim settlers who largely inhabit the ‘chars’ or the riverine areas along the Brahmaputra, mainly in the western, northern and parts of central Assam. In fact, Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers dominate the election results in around 30 of Assam’s 126 Assembly constituencies. These votes have largely been shared by the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), formed by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a perfume baron, in 2005. It would, however, be incorrect to dub every Bengali-speaking Muslim settler an illegal migrant or ‘Bangladeshis’, as they are bracketed as by many.

There is no denying the fact that illegal migration from Bangladesh is a live issue in Assam even today, 30 years after the Assam Accord. That agreement had set 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of illegal migrants, meaning anyone found to have migrated to Assam (India, for that matter) before this date would be regarded as an Indian national. During every election since 1985, political parties haved invoked this issue, like the BJP this time saying it would give the people a government by the indigenous people of Assam. The BJP promised to ‘seal’ the India-Bangladesh border to stop further influx, a pledge made by parties of different hues all these years. It may theoretically be possible to ‘seal’ the border and halt further influx, but without an agreement with Dhaka, it appears impossible to deport those declared by the Indian legal system as illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Dhaka has not recognised that such a problem exists, and no political party active in Assam has addressed this issue.

People like Atul Bora, president of the AGP, an ally of the BJP, agree that the key to the problem lies in the voters' list which is still believed to contain names of a large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), that had led the anti-foreigner stir of the eighties, said that the voters' list on which this Assembly polls were fought contained names of "lakhs of illegal Bangladeshi migrants." “They will vote...they are very organised,” he said on the eve of the polls. But, none of the parties raised the issue of a faulty voters' list ahead of the elections. After all, parties like the BJP or the AGP, which are vocal with their demand to free Assam of illegal migrants, could actually have sought postponement of the polls until a correct voters' list was available. Perhaps the politics of citizenship is there to stay for the long haul in Assam.

If the BJP harped on the migration issue, aside from its promise of ‘vikas’ or development, the Congress went all out in accusing the BJP of dividing the society in Assam on communal lines. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, who visited Assam six times to campaign for his party, kept pointing out Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘failed promises’, including his vow to bring back the black money stashed abroad by many Indians.

This was the BJP’s first-ever real power grab attempt in Assam, a quest that started after the party managed to win seven of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The target seemed real after Congress heavyweight Himanta Biswa Sharma defected to the BJP in August last year along with nine other Congress MLAs. The BJP recognised Himanta Biswa as a poll-winning strategist and made him the convenor of the party’s election campaign committee. He proved his worth by mobilising the people and parties, and even in his solo rallies, people came out in large numbers. From the mood on the ground, it is advantage BJP, although the resilient Congress cannot be wished away.

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