As the country battles a second wave of coronavirus, four Indian states and one Union Territory await new governments in less than three days, with counting of votes polled in the five assembly elections is scheduled for May 2.
Puducherry saw a contest between the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — which lost its majority just before the election schedule was announced — and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is led by AINRC of N Rangasamy in the Union Territory. The BJP is a junior partner in Puducherry NDA.
In Kerala, the main electoral fight was between incumbent Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPI-M and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). The BJP is likely to play a minor role.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led alliances were the main poles of competition in Tamil Nadu, whereas in West Bengal, the BJP got all guns blazing trying to dislodge the Trinamool Congress from power.
BUT ASSAM IS UNIQUE
In Assam however, the BJP contested to retain power for another term. Assam is the only state where the BJP is in power.
The saffron party leads the Mitrajot (Alliance of Friends) in Assam. It has an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) and the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP), which mainly represent the Bodo and Sarania communities respectively.
On the other side, the Congress-led Mahajot (Grand Alliance) forms one flank of the Opposition that consists of the Muslim-backed All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which has controlled the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) for nearly two decades, and marginal players such as Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM), Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI and CPI (Marxist-Leninist).
On the other flank, there are two newly formed regional parties — the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal (RD).
NON-CONGRESS GOVERNMENTS IN ASSAM
What makes the contest this time interesting is that a non-Congress government has never been able to win consecutive terms in Assam’s history.
In 1978, the state had its first non-Congress government when the Janata Party came to power, but it fell after 18 months when internal dissensions forced the resignation of Chief Minister Golap Borbora’s ministry.
Thereafter, following the signing of Assam Accord, the AGP came to power in 1985 and 1996, but the Congress managed to reclaim the government after both terms. Finally, the BJP dislodged the 15-year-rule of the Congress and completed its first term in office between 2016 and 2021.
WILL BJP REWRITE HISTORY?
So, will this trend persist or change?
While both ruling and Opposition parties are exuding confidence about their performance, the Congress-led Mahajot has appeared extremely upbeat after the final phase of voting. Just days after polling, the AIUDF transferred its candidates to Rajasthan, whereas the BPF team was flown to Malaysia, before they were brought back after the surge in coronavirus cases.
The Congress also shifted its contingent for some days to a resort near Guwahati. Mahajot leaders tried to make light of the development citing reasons ranging from sightseeing trips to organisational meetings.
But as local media put it, the actual reason for moving candidates is to thwart alleged BJP attempts to poach them. This also reflects the Mahajot’s estimate that the ruling alliance of the BJP may fall short of majority, something which Congress’s internal survey said.
Despite a close contest in Assam Assembly election, the BJP-led Mitrajot might just have an edge over Mahajot putting it in a position to retain power for another term. If this happens, it will signal a fundamental change in the state’s political curve.
One of the main factors helping the BJP-led Mitrajot is the steady but substantial consolidation of Hindu voters towards it. Over the years, the BJP has sought to politicise the issue of influx in Assam, often accusing the previous Congress governments of harbouring illegal Muslim immigrants in exchange for political support.
Using this narrative, it rode into power in 2016, besides taking impressive strides during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
This time around, the BJP pursued a similar course, denouncing the Congress-led Mahajot as an “Alliance of Mughals” that is opposed to Assam’s indigenous interests. Senior BJP leader and Assam minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma launched a blitzkrieg against the alliance for including AIUDF.
Sarma said the Congress’s alliance with the AIUDF turned these polls into a “conflict of civilisations” alleging that the AIUDF was a communal party, referring to the party’s predominantly Bengali Muslim base.
Such rhetoric intensified consolidation of Hindu voters towards the Mitrajot. The alliance is likely to make big gains across Hindu-dominated seats and secure a decisive lead in Upper and North Assam while papering over ethnic fault lines.
This campaign pushed the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), upon which the Mahajot and regional parties based their campaign, into background. The BJP claimed the Congress-AIUDF alliance threatened Assam’s ethnic identity.
As such, it won’t be surprising if both AJP and RD, having strongly banked upon anti-CAA sentiments, are unable to put up an impressive show and their top leaders such as Lurinjyoti Gogoi and Akhil Gogoi struggle to make a mark.
POLITICS OF DEVELOPMENT
Apart from some discontent among youths and upwardly mobile classes, most others including rural voters and those belonging to lower income groups — who form bulk of the electorate — appear to have a favourable opinion about the Mitrajot government’s performance.
Both the Congress and the AJP have sought to attract voters by making impressive socio-economic promises such as job creation for youths, income support for housewives and land rights for indigenous people, to name a few.
However, despite such promises, what ultimately seems to have swayed voters towards the Mitrajot was an array of beneficiary schemes launched by the government. Most popular among them was ‘Orunodoi’ through which the government extends financial aid to women.
Another popular initiative was “Dr. Banikanta Kakati Memorial Award” under which scooters are given to meritorious girl students. Under “Atal Amrit Abhiyan”, the poor received free treatment facilities.
The overlapping planks of (Hindu) identity and development consequently helped the BJP-led Mitrajot build a formidable social coalition to back it in Assam Assembly election. Apart from the Assamese, other major ethnic communities such as Karbis, Dimasas, Misings, Rabhas and Tiwas have probably stood with the BJP again.
However, due to BPF’s entry, the Mahajot is likely to make some crucial gains in Bodo-dominated seats falling within the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) as well as outside due to aggregation of Bodo votes with the AIUDF’s minority base in the region.
The Mitrajot is also closely tied here. In recent times, Bodo voters have significantly shifted towards the UPPL. The support from the BJP and the GSP translates into non-Bodo Hindu votes for the UPPL, which could very well give the BPF a run for its money.
WHAT ABOUT CONGRESS?
The Congress, on its part, hopes to regain support of the influential tea tribes, which could have been a game changer. The party promised to hike daily wages of tea garden workers to Rs 365, besides granting ST status to the community.
But garden after garden, workers, however, did not show the expected enthusiasm about the Congress or its promises. Rather, like the previous Lok Sabha election, they are likely to be with the BJP this time again.
What primarily seems to be driving their choice are initiatives such as the state’s cash transfer scheme to tea tribes, construction of roads inside labour lines and provision of relief aid by the government during lockdown.
Further, there is a growing bitterness towards the top brass of the Congress-inclined Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS), the region’s largest tea workers’ union.
However, despite such losses, one area where the Mahajot is set to make huge gains is the minority-dominated constituencies. There are about 35 such seats in Assam, most of which are located in Lower Assam. Some seats are in the Barak Valley and Middle Assam.
The Congress’s alliance with the AIUDF has thereby paved the way for the Mahajot to sweep majority of these seats. An expected landslide in minority-dominated constituencies, aided by some crucial gains in Bodo areas along with few other odd wins, may propel the Mahajot close to the halfway mark.
But the Congress-led alliance might plateau short of the majority mark owing to heavy losses it is expected to concede in almost all other regions, comprising a greater number of seats.
(The author is assistant professor of Political Science at Assam Royal Global University, Guwahati)
ALSO READ: Kerala exit poll: LDF likely to win 104-120, Congress-led UDF 20-36, NDA 0-2, predicts India Today-Axis My India