BJP and its allies’ comfortable win in the complex state of Assam makes history — it is the first non-Congress party to win back-to-back elections to the 126-seat assembly.
Assam, once seen as a Congress bastion, is bisected by the Brahmaputra which divides the land into the north bank and the south bank. The southern belt is also home to hill districts where local parties are significant contenders. There is also the Bengali-dominated Barak valley where BJP has long had influence. Barring a handful of constituencies, the saffron party retained much of the gains it had made in 2016. The dumping of its old ally, the Bodoland People’s Party of Hangrama Mohilary (which had earlier allied with Congress under Tarun Gogoi), late last year did not slow its advance to office.
BJP’s surge was not unexpected. Its allies, AGP and the United Peoples Party Liberal (UPPL), which is strong in the Bodo areas of western Assam, played their roles. Congress, which stitched together the Mahajot of nine parties, came under blistering attack along communal lines for tying up with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF. The Citizenship Amendment Act, which had triggered statewide street protests in 2018 and 2019, did not make much of an impact either.
Showing public fatigue with a narrative which had driven decades of political activism, voters showed the door to newbie Lurinjyoti Gogoi, the former head of the influential All-Assam Students Union which had spearheaded the anti-CAA movement. However, the other prominent figure from that ideological block, Akhil Gogoi, the peasant leader who has been in jail for nearly two years for campaigning against CAA and faces anti-terror charges, scripted a remarkable battle from prison to handily defeat his BJP rival.
While AIUDF held on to its bastions, it could not expand them as expected. Congress faltered.
There are several factors behind NDA’s victory, most of them being ‘local’ or regional. One is that the opposition did not have a leader of the stature of the late Tarun Gogoi. A second, a consequence of the first, is that the opposition had none to match the Sonowal-Sarma combination. Both men are popular figures with the latter almost single-handedly building the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance of the small states of the region.
The third was the expectation that the duo’s strong equation with the Centre would help get the state special support and concessions. A fourth was that the voters were prepared to give it another five years since the state government had developed a reputation of service delivery in several sectors. Another was that BJP had prepared well at the ground level, stitching a strong alliance with UPPL in the Bodo Territorial Council areas. There was also tiredness with the older Bodo leadership which had been continuously in office for 15 years.
The top priority of the new government must be to prioritise the health concerns and tackle the spread of the pandemic, which is showing an upswing. As the Centre has been urging, the state government must work robustly with CSOs in the field for many NGOs go where governments don’t. Other issues can be placed on the backburner — whether the National Register of Citizens or the CAA. The right to life is most critical and for that the narrative must move away from prejudice, demonisation and fear.