New Delhi/Guwahati: The massive development work initiated under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s various central schemes combined with the politics of Hindu nationalism seem to have clinched victory for the BJP-led alliance in Assam.
On Sunday, the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) was leading in 79 seats while the Congress-AIUDF alliance was ahead only in 46 of the 126-seat legislative Assembly. Given these trends, it is clear that the BJP headed by chief minister Sarbanand Sonowal faced neither anti-incumbency nor rejection over the Citizenship Amendment Act (Act) from the electorate.
The reason for that is that the Modi government and the Sonowal administration in the last five years addressed the lack of development which Assam along with the northeast had faced under their predecessors for decades. The Centre made huge investments in infrastructure projects – roads, bridges, educational institutions, hospitals – as well as Prime Minister Modi’s welfare schemes including cash transfers to the poor.
Along with constructing 4000 km national highways including 21 two-lane roads, the Centre expedited and completed several bridges. Of them, the most significant is the Bogibeel bridge, India’s longest rail-cum-road bridge which connects the Brahmaputra river to Silapathar bordering Arunachal Pradesh.
The establishment of medical colleges, judicial academy and national law school earned the BJP lot of votes among youth in Assam. Just before the elections, the government distributed free Scooties to young women, earning their votes as well.
As a result, the opposition, the Congress party which ruled the state for most part of its history in independent India, could not persuade voters on the development front. On the other hand, the Congress seems to have harmed its base in the Upper Assam, because of its alliance with a Muslim communal party, All Indian United Democratic Front (AIUDF) headed by Badruddin Ajmal.
Geographically, Assam is split into two distinct areas – Barak valley (15 assembly seats) and Brahmaputra valley (106 assembly seats). Barak valley, lower Assam, is Bengali-dominated with almost equal denomination of Hindus and Muslims.
Brahmaputra valley is home to ethnic Assamese, indigenous tribes and other ethnic communities. But part of lower Assam in Brahmaputra valley has also provided shelter to considerable number of Bengali Muslims, mostly migrants from Bangladesh. With such a complex demography, Assam politics always revolves around ethnic and religious identities.
Even as the BJP had been claiming that the CAA was not a factor in the assembly polls, but on the ground both the ruling party and the opposition ran intense campaigns about a ‘culture war’ anchored around the CAA. The CAA is a central law that expedites citizenship process for migrants religiously persecuted by the three Islamic neighbours of India. Guwahati witnessed massive protests including some violence against the CAA.
Both sides accused each other of being a threat to Assam’s composite society. But in addition, the BJP also portrayed the Congress-AIUDF alliance as a threat to Assam’s Hindu civilization and inimical to Indian nationalism.
Given the poll results on Sunday, it seems the pre-poll alliance between the Congress and the AIUDF, which was forged to oppose CAA and to consolidate Muslim voters, did not go well with the Assamese Hindu voters in Upper Assam. While Muslim votes consolidated in favour of the Congress-AIUDF alliance in lower Assam, Hindu votes consolidated in favour of the BJP and allies in Upper Assam voters, indicating polarization along religious lines.
However, through the election campaign, what seems to have made a huge impact in Assam is Prime Minister Modi’s several rallies attended by thousands of voters.
Apart from Modi’s popularity as an agent of change and progress, what worked for the BJP in Assam was the strong partnership between chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. A structured election campaign organised under BJP’s national vice president Jay Panda, who had been appointed as party’s in charge of the Assam assembly polls, delivered the state once again to the NEDA.