June 06, 2016

India - 2016 Assam Assembly Election Results: Udayon Misra see's victory for identity politics not Hindutva

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 22, 28 May, 2016

Victory for Identity Politics, Not Hindutva in Assam
2016 State Assembly Elections

Udayon Misra

Udayon Misra (udayon.misra[at]gmail.com) is a former National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

During the recently concluded Assam assembly elections, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's role was exaggerated to strengthen the impression that the Assamese have finally succumbed to the ideology of Hindu nationalism. This is not borne out either by the background of most of the successful Bharatiya Janata Party candidates or the overall voting pattern in the state.

Defying all demographic equations, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance has swept the polls in Assam, winning 86 of the 126 seats in the state assembly. The Congress, which ruled the state for three terms, has been reduced to just 24 seats. This was certainly not the result of a Modi wave. Rather, it was the result of the BJP’s success in garnering the support of regional forces like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and the Rabha, Tiwa and other plains tribal organisations.

There was no Hindutva agenda as such in these elections and the emphasis was clearly on preserving the identity and culture of the indigenous people of the state in the face of swift demographic change triggered by "infiltration" from neighbouring Bangladesh. Alarm bells had started ringing amongst the indigenous groups the moment the religious break-up of the 2011 Census was released by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government after it had been kept under wraps by the previous dispensation. Once the figures were released, it became evident that the rise in the Muslim population in the state, which now stands at 34.2%, was the highest in the country, surpassing even a state like Jammu and Kashmir. Different ethnic organisations voiced their apprehensions at the possibility of being totally marginalised in the state’s politics and political parties like the AGP, which had lost much of its credibility but still had a substantial base in rural areas, made the issue of threat to identity a major one. Reading the writing on the wall, the BJP went out of its way to build up an electoral alliance with regional forces. This proved to be a master stroke, especially as the Congress developed cold feet in arriving at an understanding with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) for fear of antagonising its Hindu vote base.

The understanding with the AGP brought in rich dividends to the BJP. Those who wrote off the AGP as a political force because of its miserable performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and in the 2011 assembly elections where it managed to secure just nine seats, failed to take into account the strong sentiments in favour of a regional force. This surfaced during the recent elections. In the last Lok Sabha polls, the AGP drew a blank but the number of votes it got in the state exceeded five lakh. Moreover, the regional party still had its organisational structure more or less intact in different parts of the state despite its reduced presence in the state’s legislature. Once it arrived at an understanding with the BJP, things started looking up. For the Congress, the resultant consolidation of votes against it proved too great a challenge as it had always made electoral gains because of a divided opposition. This accounts for the 14 seats won by the AGP and the victories of several of its stalwarts who had been virtually written off in the state’s politics.

A Secular Flavour

The AGP gave the BJP a much-needed secular flavour from which it benefited. Moreover, several AGP leaders had already joined the BJP. This made the equations between the AGP and the BJP much easier. For instance, although several former AGP leaders fought the polls as BJP candidates, the electorate continued to see them as strong supporters of regional sentiments. In fact, most of the state’s BJP leadership is made up of former All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and AGP activists, including the chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal who is a former AASU President and an AGP leader. The BJP’s decision to project Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate paid off because of his wide acceptability to different sections of the people of the state. A plains tribal belonging to the small Sonowal–Kachari community of upper Assam, Sonowal has emerged as a major voice of the indigenous people. His success in getting the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983, which had made the detection of foreign nationals virtually impossible, scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2005, made him a hero amongst the Assamese people who called him jatiya nayak (national hero). Sonowal represented the AGP in the Lok Sabha from 2004 to 2009. Even when he moved from the AGP to the BJP in 2011, he was always seen as someone who represented regional interests. It was precisely because of Sonowal that so many of his former colleagues in the AGP joined the BJP.

Although initially reluctant to induct the Congress dissident Himanta Biswa Sarma into the BJP, Sonowal soon realised the latter’s worth. Together they worked out a successful strategy to defeat the Congress that had already been considerably weakened by internal dissension and family politics. Moreover, the last term of Tarun Gogoi’s 15-year rule was marked by widespread corruption and administrative incompetence compounded with arrogance and an increasing disconnect with the masses. With Himanta Biswa Sarma in charge of the election campaign, the BJP made full use of anti-incumbency feelings and pushed forth the agenda of development and identity, appealing to people to vote for the protection of their maati, bheti and jati (land, hearth and nationality).

This had a strong appeal amongst the indigenous Assamese and all the ethnic groups. Though the question of development continued to be a major issue in the elections, it was clearly the preservation of the land and the identity of the indigenous people that found greater resonance during the campaign. That is why the elections were often referred to as the last battle of Saraighat1 for the Assamese people and memories of the anti-foreigner agitation of the 1980s were revived. Following the election results, several regional newspapers commented that the spirit of the 1980s was back, with the issues of identity, land and language once again back in focus.

In recent years, the debate over Assamese identity has been acquiring new dimensions and there were signs that different ethnic organisations were coming together. More than 25 ethnic organisations gathered under the leadership of the AASU to demand constitutional safeguards as had been promised by the Assam Accord of 1985. There was much debate about the definition of “Assamese” in Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. The Asam Sahitya Sabha was asked to come out with a formula but it failed. On this issue, the then speaker of the Assam assembly, senior Congressman Pranab Gogoi, came out with a suggestion that all those who figure in the 1951 electoral rolls and anyone who spoke Assamese and any of the tribal languages as well as Bengali in the Barak Valley should be seen as Assamese. While the AASU and the tribal organisations supported this move, the Congress and the AIUDF strongly opposed it. The Congress, which claimed in its election rallies that it represented regional interests better than its opponents, did not realise that its dilly-dallying over the definition of Assamese would prove costly. The election results have shown that the fear about eventually being reduced to a minority in their homeland was shared by the broader Assamese society as well as by the different ethnic groups in the state. This also explains the victory of the BJP candidates in the hills of Karbi Anglong and in all constituencies where there is a sizeable plains tribal population, especially in upper Assam.

The massive erosion of support for the Congress amongst the tea garden community in upper Assam was another major factor in the BJP’s electoral sweep. Years of neglect, rising unemployment and pitiable health and education indices contributed to the alienation of tribal workers in tea gardens from the Congress. The BJP took advantage of this in 1985 and the result was evident in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when BJP candidates scored victories in constituencies like Dibrugarh and Jorhat where a large section of the voters are tea garden labourers. The BJP continued its consolidation in tea garden sector that finally gave it an advantage in all the 35 assembly constituencies where tea garden labour votes are the determining factor.

Master Move

Apart from its understanding with the AGP, the BJP leadership made another master move in bringing within the fold of the BJP alliance the Tiwa and Rabha organisations. This gave the party a tribal-friendly face and helped its fortunes not only in Tiwa and Rabha areas but also in the hill constituencies of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Here it virtually replaced the Congress that had held power for decades. Thus, while the AGP partly neutralised the BJP’s communal image, its understanding with the plains tribal organisations and the BPF, in particular, gave the alliance an edge. Not only did the BPF bring in 12 seats from the Bodo Tribal Autonomous District (BTAD) area but it also helped secure support from Bodo voters spread all over the state, especially in Mangoldoi, Sonitpur and Lakhimpur districts.

Despite this, it is significant that the Congress, which suffered heavy losses throughout the state, retained its hold over several Muslim majority constituencies in the three lower Assam districts of Goalpara (57.52% Muslims), Barpeta (70.74% Muslims), and Dhubri (79.6% Muslims) and also wrested several seats from the AIUDF. In Barpeta district, the Congress secured four out of the eight constituencies, having taken the Baghpat and Jania seats from the AIUDF by large margins, while retaining the Sarukhetri and Chenga seats. As a result, the Congress virtually neutralised the AIUDF which could hold on to just the Bhabanipur seat. In Goalpara district too the Congress registered wins in two out of the district’s four seats. It took the West Goalpara constituency from the AIUDF while winning the East Goalpara seat by defeating the BJP candidate by a margin of over 5,000 votes. The AIUDF succeeded in holding on to only the Jaleswar seat and that too by a small margin. Thus, in both Barpeta and Goalpara districts, the Congress succeeded in marginalising the AIUDF. Only in Dhubri district did the AIUDF register some gains, having secured three out of the district’s seven seats. The Congress and the BJP alliance won two seats each.

However, the Congress party’s most impressive win was in South Salmara, considered the bastion of the AIUDF. Here, the AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal was defeated by his Congress rival Wajid Ali Choudhury by over 16,000 votes. What is interesting is that in Darrang district (64.34% Muslims), the Congress defeated the AIUDF in the predominantly Muslim constituency of Dalgaon, but lost all the other three seats to the BJP combine. Immigrant Muslim votes were divided between the Congress and the AIUDF in most of the constituencies of lower Assam, with the former registering wins against the latter. It is evident from this voting pattern that a large section of the immigrant Muslim voters shifted their preference from the AIUDF to the Congress, thereby rejecting the former’s attempt at polarisation along religious lines.

That the AIUDF’s attempt at such polarisation did not succeed can also be seen in the voting pattern amongst Muslims in constituencies where they are either a majority or form a substantial section of the electorate. In as many as 36 of such constituencies, the BJP combine got some 16.6% votes, a substantial increase from the 8.3% that it had secured in the 2011 elections. On the other hand, the vote share of the AIUDF in these constituencies came down from 29.7% in 2011 to 27%. The vote share of the Congress in the minority-dominated constituencies also went down from 35% in 2011 to 32%. These are significant figures because they point to the fact that the BJP combine has succeeded in garnering a substantial number of Muslim votes without which victory would not have been possible in the four lower Assam districts of Goalpara, Barpeta, Dhubri and Darrang where it secured a total of nine seats against the AIUDF’s four. Moreover, without substantial support from Muslim voters, the BJP combine would not have been able to secure all the three seats in Nalbari district.

It is clear that the BJP combine has made major inroads into the Muslim-majority constituencies of lower and middle Assam, while at the same time making a clean sweep of all the eight seats in Sonitpur district, which has a large Muslim population. Hence the claim that the BJP combine has won the support of the state’s indigenous Muslims, especially after its success in constituencies like Barkhetri and Patacharkuchi of the Nalbari district where indigenous Assamese Muslims voted in large numbers for it.

Winning the Muslim Vote

The BJP combine’s win in Muslim-majority constituencies of the state has come as a surprise to many analysts and seems to have disproved the notion that Muslims vote in a polarised manner. In the Muslim-majority districts of Dhubri, Barpeta, Darrang, Goalpara, Nagaon, Mogaigaon, Hailakandi, Karimganj and Bongaigaon, the BJP combine did much better than expected, with a tally of 22 seats. According to a report published in the Hindu,2 in the 49 Muslim-majority constituencies spread over the nine districts of the state, the BJP by itself won as many as 15 seats, while its allies the AGP and the BPF secured five and two seats each respectively. The Congress won 14 and the AIUDF 12.

This success of the BJP combine cannot be attributed merely to division of votes between the Congress and the AIUDF, though that certainly is a major factor. According to the Hindu report, while the BJP combine did not do well in constituencies where Muslims constituted over 60% of the voters, in constituencies where Muslim voters ranged from 30%–50%, it did much better. In the three constituencies of Hailakandi district in the Barak Valley, all the seats were won by the AIUDF. But in Bongaigaon, it was the AGP, which claimed two out of the four seats, while the BPF got one. This shows that apart from a major consolidation of Assamese, Bodo and Bengali Hindu votes, a substantial number of Muslims have also voted in favour of the BJP combine.

The same may be said about Nagaon district where seven out of the 11 seats were won by the BJP combine. Between the Congress and the AIDUF, they secured four seats. The division of Muslim votes alone could not have led to such results in Nagaon district. In Darrang district, with its 64% Muslim population, the BJP and the BPF together got three of the four seats, with the Congress securing only one. Here too the consolidation of Assamese and Bodo votes helped the BJP combine but the combine’s win cannot be attributed only to division of Muslim votes, although the AIUDF acted primarily as a spoiler for the Congress.

Though it was expected that the BJP combine would do well in the upper Assam districts, the complete decimation of the Congress in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, which with a substantial number of tea garden workers have long been its bastion, was a bit of a surprise. In Dibrugarh, the BJP combine secured all the seven seats (BJP six, AGP one). Of the five seats in Tinsukia district in upper Assam, as many as four went to the BJP, while the Congress secured one. The lone seat which went to the AIUDF in upper Assam was from Naoboisa in Lakhimpur district. In Sivasagar district, one seat each was won by the Congress, the BJP and the AGP. The former speaker of the Assam assembly and Congress leader Pranab Gogoi barely managed to retain his seat by a few hundred votes and that too because he has the image of an Assamese nationalist. That the BJP combine could register major gains in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts points to the support it has received from the plains tribal population in these districts. Similarly, in the Jagiroad and Morigaon constituencies in middle Assam, the inclusion of the Tiwa organisations in the BJP combine brought it substantial dividends.

Role of RSS and VHP

The role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindutva bodies like the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in the Assam elections have been commented upon in several circles. While it is true that RSS activities in Assam, particularly in the Brahmaputra Valley, began in the 1940s, it is also a fact that the RSS was never a major factor in the society and politics of the state where identity politics centred on immigration, land and language has overshadowed all other considerations. Added to this is the highly syncretic and plural nature of Assamese society that has made it difficult for organisations like the RSS to push forward the agenda of religious polarisation as it has done in the Hindi heartland.

From the beginning, RSS activities were patronised by the Marwari business lobby and the organisation did not have many local leaders. In the popular imagination, the RSS in Assam was linked with Hindi-speaking Hindus and seldom perceived as an organisation with a local base. This explains the near absence of support for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in Assam. Similarly, issues like a ban on cow slaughter and vegetarianism have never touched a chord amongst the Assamese people who prefer to identify themselves with their hill neighbours in matters of food and culture. A small core of Assamese high-caste Hindus were attracted to the RSS–VHP ideology but their influence in the sociopolitical life of a composite Assamese people has been minimal. All this notwithstanding, the RSS–VHP combine has time and again tried to appropriate Assamese religio-cultural icons like Srimanta Sankardeva and war heroes like Lachit Barphukan in order to advance its Hindutva programme. But given the highly inclusive nature of Sankardeva’s school of Vaishnavism, it is unlikely that the RSS agenda of religious polarisation will work. Even when it comes to appropriating heroes like Lachit Barphukan, the average Assamese knows that the Ahoms did not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims when it came to defending the “cause of the nation.” In fact, Ahom kings did not hesitate to appoint Muslims in important official and army posts. Although some heads or satradhikars of the Vaishnava satras or monasteries have long been associated with the RSS, it would be simplistic to conclude that RSS influence has percolated to the common people associated with such satras.

During the 1979–85 movement on the foreign nationals’ issue, RSS functionaries tried to infiltrate the AASU and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad front but with little success. Despite many aberrations and the rise in anti-Muslim feelings during certain phases of the movement, the AASU leadership of that time succeeded in steering the organisation along largely secular lines. Even on the foreign nationals issue, the AASU has consistently maintained that any post-1971 migrant, be he a Muslim or a Hindu, must be detected and deported. The Modi government’s decision to regularise the stay in the country (Assam included) of post-1971 Hindu refugees was met with stiff opposition by the AASU and other ethnic student bodies. It is, however, a separate matter that neither the BJP nor the AGP made the issue of the Bengali Hindu refugees a major one in the elections, perhaps keeping in mind the large voter base of Bengali Hindus in the state.3

Role of RSS Exaggerated

Finally, it is significant that amongst the BJP candidates during this election, there seems to be no one with a solid RSS background, even though RSS activists have been working in the state for several decades.4 BJP leaders have credited the RSS with preparing the ground for the electoral victory. Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju praised the dedication of some 25,000 RSS volunteers who worked day and night to secure the BJP victory, especially in the tea garden areas. Even if this is true, the question remains as to whether the RSS would be able to translate these electoral gains into ideological success. Given the complexity of social formations in the state, this appears highly unlikely.

Role of the RSS has been exaggerated to strengthen the impression that the Assamese have finally succumbed to the ideology of Hindu nationalism. This is certainly not borne out by the background of most of the successful BJP candidates as well as the overall voting pattern of the state. The Congress, on its part, has credited the RSS with winning the elections merely to deflect attention from the fact that people voted against the Tarun Gogoi government because of widespread corruption and blatant encouragement of family dominated politics. Working out successful election strategies is one thing, but to impose a narrow ideology of Hindutva on an inclusive and plural society is quite another task.

Despite this, we cannot rule out the fact that with the BJP wielding power in a state where both the AGP and the BPF are relatively minor partners, the RSS and its fringe elements could get additional leverage to push forward their agenda. As it is, there are signs that the RSS–VHP section within the BJP is trying to pass off the verdict of the Assam elections as a victory of the forces of Hindutva, even though during the entire election campaign the central BJP leadership skilfully avoided highlighting the Hindutva agenda plank of religious polarisation and encouraged the Assam BJP leadership to focus almost entirely on regional issues. Attempts by the RSS to saffronise Assam politics are bound to be resisted by the BJP’s partners in government, the AGP and the BPF. Moreover, as long as Assamese nationalist organisations like the AASU and the Asam Sahitya Sabha stick to their secular credentials, the going will be tough for the RSS. We must watch how within the state BJP, the large number of leaders drawn from the AGP, the Congress and the AASU will react to RSS attempts to influence government policies and programmes. It will be simplistic to conclude at this stage that the overwhelmingly Hindu content of the coming BJP government will automatically strengthen the RSS and other fringe right-wing groups. The innate secular strength of Assamese society will hopefully prevent such a rightist slide. Nonetheless, the presence of Hindu spiritual leaders at the swearing-in ceremony of the new government is bound to send a wrong signal to all those who voted for a change in government, not because of religious reasons but because they hoped that the new government would seriously address the major issues confronting the people of Assam.


1 It was at Saraighat near Guwahati that the Assamese led by the Ahom General Lachit Borphukan finally defeated the Mughals in a crucial river battle on the Brahmaputra in 1671.

2 “How BJP Escaped the Tripwire in Assam,” the Hindu, 21 May 2016.

3 According to conservative estimates, the total Bengali Hindu population in the state is some 40 lakh.

4 Malini Bhattacharjee, “Tracing the Emergence and Consolidation of Hindutva in Assam,” Economic & Political Weekly, 16 April 2016. The first time an RSS functionary became a minister in Assam was in 1978, when Lakheswar Gohain became the revenue minister in the Janata Party government led by Golap Borbora. Gohain had fought the 1978 assembly polls as a Janata Party candidate from the Kampur constituency of Nagaon district.