June 04, 2016

India: 2016 Assam Assembly Election - Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory built on social engineering (Joydeep Biswas)

The Hindu - June 3, 2016

Assam Election: A victory built on social engineering

Joydeep Biswas

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s emphatic victory in Assam was, among other things, scripted by a complex social engineering whereby Assamese regionalism, ethnic assertion and Hindutva could be rallied successfully against the perception of a Muslim demographic invasion. In this traditionally Congress-dominated State, the BJP had, up until this election, made a mark only in 1991 when it managed 10 Assembly seats riding on the back of the nationwide polarisation over Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy. The party’s total tally in the five Assembly elections between 1991 and 2011 was a meagre 37 seats, and in between it could touch the double-digit mark only once, in 2006.

The historic win for the BJP on May 19 is being sought to be explained in a very reductionist manner. While the advantage of having a deft election manager like Himanta Biswa Sarma, formerly the undeclared number two of the Tarun Gogoi government, in the BJP strategy room can surely not be explained away, more objective analysis of the electoral victory is visibly missing.

Stitching the alliance

Initially, poll pundits failed to find any psephological logic behind a purported pre-poll patch-up between the BJP and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Since 1996, the last time this regional party came to power, the electoral prospects of the AGP had been steadily on the slide terms of both the number of seats won and vote share. Neither the BJP State president, Sarbananda Sonowal, nor a sizeable section of the AGP top leadership was convinced of the prospect of this tie-up. Mr. Sarma perhaps impressed upon the party’s national leaders Amit Shah and Ram Madhav that the raison d'être of the BJP-AGP alliance lay not in electoral, but ideological logic. A robust BJP did not require the seats of the AGP to add to its tally in the Assembly that much. What it urgently needed at that moment was a loud and clear message to the Assamese middle class that the BJP was very much with the Assamese regional nationalism, a force which has dominated the State’s politics in the post-colonial period.

For a pro-Hindutva brigade like BJP it was never thought possible to win Assam on its own. With non-overlapping constituencies like Hindu Assamese, Hindu Bengali, Muslim Bengali and various tribal groups — each of which is capable of tweaking a verdict either way — the prime task of the BJP was to pick the friends and foes, and then to draw the battle line accordingly. The standard strategy for the BJP in the Hindi heartland is one of consolidation of the Hindu vote across caste divides.

For Assam such a consolidation did not seem possible for the BJP given the demographic distribution and diverse cultural contexts of the State. Hence the party think tank evidently took a detour by picking the foes first, and the friends later, by a method of simple subtraction.

Picking the foes

Immigration from across the Bangladesh border has always been a big issue in Assam politics. In fact, the genesis of the major alliance partner AGP is found in the six-year-long violent anti-foreigner agitation led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in the eighties. The foreigners’ question in Assam has a linguistic angle. Assamese nationalism has always considered both Hindu and Muslim Bengali equally qualified to be branded as ‘foreigners’ in Assam. But the BJP, under the diktat of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was compelled to infuse a religious dimension to the immigrants’ issue. Two Central notifications from the Ministry of Home Affairs dated September 7, 2015 incorporating suitable changes to the relevant provisions contained in the Foreigners Order, 1948 and the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950, allowed the non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh (and also from Pakistan) who came to India up to December 31, 2014 to stay back in India. This effectively meant that the BJP was not in favour of deporting Hindu Bengali migrants from Assam.

The party had to do it because of two reasons. One, as a policy, the RSS considers India as the natural refuge for persecuted Hindus from all over the world. Two, for sheer electoral expediency, the Hindu Bengali voters — who constitute a decisive chunk in more than 25 Assembly segments in the State — were given the legal safeguard as a quid pro quo for their unstinted support to the BJP since 1991. But such a move irked the votaries of Assamese chauvinist sentiments such as AASU and AGP. Here came the master stroke from the BJP. It successfully persuaded the AASU to withdraw the petition it had filed in the Supreme Court challenging the Central notifications regularising the stay of Hindu Bengali migrants in Assam. In the bargain, however, the BJP sharpened its attack on the Muslim migrants, ostensibly to nurse the bruised Assamese emotion.

The entire campaign language was craftily drafted in such a manner so that the resulting sharp religious polarisation could push Congress into a cul-de-sac. The battle of Saraighat of 1671 was used as an allegory to foment the theory of Muslim invasion. Assembly Elections 2016 were named as the “Last Battle of Saraighat” so that the indigenous Assamese and tribal could be pitted against the ‘invaders’ (read the Muslim settlers) for electoral vengeance. The retaliatory gesture from the All India United Democratic Front, which claims to represent the rights and interests of the migrant Bengali Muslim in Assam, added grist to the Hindutva mill. The Congress leadership both in Delhi and Dispur failed to come up with any counter-narrative to this smart social engineering by the BJP.

Joydeep Biswas, an associate professor of economics at Cachar College, Silchar, is a scholar with the Department of Political Science at Assam University. E-mail: joydbiswas@gmail.com