Guwahati: In Borigaon in Assam’s Nalbari, about two hours away from Guwahati, a narrow and dusty lane finds itself in the middle of frenzied construction work. A massive 500-bed Nalbari Medical College and Hospital, with an outlay of around Rs 400 crore, is being built here on what can only be described as a sprawling area.
The hospital and medical college, the construction for which began in 2019, is among the many substantial infrastructure projects launched by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has succeeded in acquiring power with a decisive mandate at the Centre as well as across several states, it is because of a combination of what he offers, beyond Hindutva-laced nationalism — visible development in the form of big infrastructure projects as well as a carefully planned network of welfare schemes.
Assam, a state the BJP surprised everyone by clinching in 2016, is the perfect example of this model.
In the state, which starts voting Saturday, the BJP government’s most conspicuous contribution has been a slew of major infrastructure projects — from thousands of kilometres of roads to big bridges, medical colleges, hospitals and other complexes.
For a state, and even region, which has suffered from a lack of connectivity and amenities for decades, the concoction of infrastructure projects and welfare under the BJP government is significant and tangible.
This fact is reflected in how important this issue has become for voters in this election, and how quick they are to compare the nature and pace of work done by previous governments.
The BJP, meanwhile, is equally aware of the significance of this. And it leaves little opportunity during its campaign to drill this into the minds of voters.
“Infrastructure like big roads, bridges etc are tangible developments and help in creating jobs. They are easy to show to the people and claim credit for during elections. The last five years of the BJP government under Sarbananda Sonowal have ushered in the development phase of Assam,” says a well-informed source in the state BJP who did not wish to be identified.
“The CM pushed for the first business summit to be held in Assam. After that meet, land has been provided for industry in record time. The government, thanks to its clear mandate, has been able to focus on development and welfare schemes which are key to showcase good governance,” says the source.
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The infrastructure push
Obvious infrastructure can change the landscape of a region, making it a much more advanced version of itself and capturing the imagination of its people.
Assam, like much of the Northeast, has suffered from political, social and topographical disadvantages that have prevented such development.
The duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, along with the state’s top BJP leadership, was quick to gauge this gap and realise the potential of using it electorally and politically.
Look at how conspicuously the PM inaugurated a range of infrastructure projects in Assam just before the announcement of polls, and how Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech in February spent enough time talking about allotment for road construction, not just in Assam, but in the other poll-bound states too.
According to data accessed from the Assam government, close to 4,000 km of national highways have been constructed in the state under the BJP government, with the state’s Public Works Department constructing around 650 km of these between April 2016 and March 2020. These highways include around over 21 two-lane projects.
Bridges, by their very definition, help connect parts which have been left out and so, their symbolism runs deep. Modi’s BJP picked on that and announced major bridge projects.
The biggest, perhaps, was the Bogibeel bridge, India’s longest rail-cum-road bridge, which was inaugurated in December 2018 by PM Modi.
The bridge was a part of the Assam Accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government at the Centre in 1985, and was sanctioned in 1997-98 by the United Front government.
But by hastening its work and being the one to inaugurate it, Modi ensured he received the credit for it. The bridge is significant because it helps connect the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river in Dibrugarh to Silapathar in Dhemaji, bordering Arunachal Pradesh.
Meanwhile, the Dhola-Sadiya bridge across river Lohit — also inaugurated by Modi in 2017 — helps reduce the commute time for people on both banks of the river by at least eight hours.
And, again, while the construction work started in 2011 when the Congress was in power at both the Centre and state, it was Modi’s government that managed to speed up the project and add it to its list of achievements.
Besides these, according to Assam government data, 841 timber bridges have been sanctioned for conversion to RCC (reinforced cement concrete) of which around 475 have been completed. Nearly 1,200 new RCC bridges have been sanctioned, of which around 380 are now complete.
Beyond bridges, medical colleges and hospitals, education institutes and other big projects have been the party’s focus.
Thus, while the Assam Judicial Academy and National Law School has been constructed in Amingaon, there are new engineering colleges that have come up in different parts of the state, including Nirala and Karimganj.
Meanwhile, medical colleges and hospitals in north Lakhimpur, Nagaon, Nalbari, Tinsukia and Kokrajhar are under construction.
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What voters want
The voters seem to be lapping all this up. Barely 3 km from the construction site of Nalbari’s medical college in Ghograpar is Abani Barman’s small shop. Ask him what he thinks about the elections, who should come to power and why, and pat comes the reply.
“I think the BJP should come back. There is so much work that has happened under them, especially road construction. This is something Assam needed badly. Look at our upcoming medical college, for instance, see how big and crucial it is,” Barman says.
In Barpeta district’s Tapa village, a group of people have found politics as their choice of poison with tea at a neighbourhood stall. “Under BJP, we have got roads, we have got bridges. We had none of these earlier, we can now clearly see the difference,” says Kukul Das.
His friend Basudeb Das animatedly chimes in: “We have to see the infrastructure and welfare that Modi, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Sarbanada Sonowal have given us. Rural homes, roads, bridges — much has been achieved. If they continue, Assam can become among the top five states in the country. Most importantly, the middleman and the corruption at that level have been eliminated.”
Not everyone, however, agrees as wholeheartedly.
An industrialist based in Dibrugarh in Upper Assam, who did not wish to be identified as he was reluctant to be seen as siding with or criticising any political party, says a lot has been achieved, but it seems magnified because of the low base.
“Of course, roads and bridges have been built efficiently. And that has helped improve connectivity, and encourage businesses. But that also seems like a lot merely because Assam perhaps had very little earlier. We need to do much more, and much faster, than what we have done, and by that I mean even the BJP government,” he says.
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