Assam politics: a primer
How the battle between the BJP and others is playing out
In the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, political temperatures are rising and electoral alliances are breaking and shaping up throughout the nation. The north-eastern region of India is no exception to this.
Of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the north-east, Assam alone accounts for 14, making it politically the most significant state of this region. Traditionally considered a Congress stronghold -- the party had three successive governments in the state -- politics in Assam shifted towards the BJP over the past couple of years.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP cornered half the seats while the Congress’ tally came down to three, equaled by the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal, a party supported primarily by Muslims of Bengali origin. In the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP emerged as the largest party, forming a government in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodo People’s Front (BPF). However, in the aftermath of widespread protests against the Centre’s move to get the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 (CAB), passed, experts are opining that the politics of the state is shifting again and the BJP may suffer heavy political losses. Let us put these claims and counter-claims in perspective.
Political Geography of Assam and Institutions:
Assam is broadly divided into three regions -- Upper Assam, the Brahmaputra valley or Lower and Middle Assam, and the Barak valley, or Southern Assam. Upper Assam comprising seats like Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, etc., is populated by tribal communities that migrated in past centuries from Jharkhand to work in tea gardens (popularly called tea tribes); ethnic Assamese people (or the Khilojiyas); Muslims of both Bengali and ‘ethnic’ origin, and some other tribal communities like the Misings, Kacharis, etc. Southern Assam or the Barak valley comprising seats like Silchar and Karimganj is dominated by people of Bengali origin, both Hindu and Muslim, while the Brahmputra valley has a mixed population. In Dhubri and Barpeta parliamentary constituencies, Muslims of Bengali origin are politically dominant. Kokrajhar area has a huge Bodo population. The middle region between Guwahati, Nowgong (Nagaon) and Karbi Anglong (autonomous district parliamentary seat) has a number of communities ranging from Khilonjias to Bengalis to tribes like Karbi, Dimasa, Koch Rajbonshis, Rabha, and some tea tribes.
Assam also has autonomous councils of different tribes that play a major role in the state’s politics. These autonomous councils, located somewhere between the Centre and the state in hierarchy, are politically elected bodies of different tribes operating as per the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution that calls for special provisions to safeguard the interests of tribes. The Bodo Territorial Development Council (BTAD also called BTC), Karbi Anglong Autonomous District and the Rabha Autonomus Council are examples of this. They have their say in local development matters and are influential among their communities. Since these bodies have to depend a lot on the Centre and state government for funds, they try to keep them in good humour. Parties that control these governments have various means to influence them and, thus, these tribal communities.
Traditionally, the tea tribes and a number of other tribal communities were Congress voters. The AIUDF had a huge following among Muslims of Bengali origin. Bengali Hindus were divided between the Congress and the BJP. Khilonjiyas and some tribes were divided between the AGP and the Congress. It is in this set up that the new political developments are taking place.
Issues and the Changing Political Equations:
Issues like illegal immigration, floods, welfare, etc., have a long history in the politics of Assam. Due to its proximity to Bangladesh, Assam had to bear a huge influx of refugees (both Hindu and Muslim) not only during Partition but also around the Bangladesh war. As immigration continued on a significant scale illegally even after that, both tribal and non-tribal ethnic Assamese started worrying that this may cause a demographic shift, making them minorities in their own state. Thus arose an Assamese sub-nationalism, demanding deportation of illegal immigrants. The Centre’s reluctance to do so finally led to the Assam movement (1979-85) that witnessed breakdown of law and order and normal life. It finally ended with the Assam Accord that gave guarantees to safeguard “indigenous” culture and society and initiated the process of deportation of illegal immigrants. The recent publication of the draft of the Supreme Court-monitored National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify genuine citizens and illegal immigrants is a major milestone in this process, identifying lakhs of people, both Hindus and Muslims, to be of doubtful status.
It is for this reason that when the BJP government tried to give citizenship status to the illegal immigrants belonging to the minority communities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan through the CAB, there was a huge hue and cry.
As its partner AGP severed ties with the BJP on this issue, other significant organizations like the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the Krishak Mukti Samgram Samiti-led multi organization alliance and some other tribal bodies led statewide protests, even showing black flags to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Assam visit. As the Congress saw an opportunity in this to corner the BJP and consolidate Khilonjia support, it backed the anti-CAB movement and also made sure that the bill is not passed in the Rajya Sabha.
The BJP, which was looking to offer citizenship to Bengali Hindus -- a number of whom were left out of the NRC draft -- through this bill to further consolidate its hold among them, and also win Bengali sentiment in West Bengal, failed to get it passed in the Upper House. Its losses got compounded. It alienated the Khilonjia voters, to an extent.
It is for this reason that it is trying to consolidate its hold among the tea tribes and other smaller tribes so as to compensate for the post-CAB losses. A number of welfare schemes exclusively aimed at the tea tribes were announced in the past and in the current state budget. Experts believe that these are not failing to make an impact. The tea tribes, considered a captive vote bank of the Congress, have decisively shifted to the BJP. This is expected to help it in cushioning post-CAB losses, at least in Upper Assam.
Further, the BJP-led central government gave Scheduled Tribe status to six new communities (including the Tea tribes not having ST status till now) to win their support. However, this move has not gone down well with the other tribes. To mitigate the tribal anger, the BJP is trying the tribal autonomous councils’ route. This strategy may also give it some benefits in parliamentary seats like the Autonomous Council where anger against the inactivity of Congress’ sitting MP Biren Singh Engti is also no less.
Along with this, the BJP is also trying to channelize the anger of various communities against Muslims of Bengali origin, with ministers like Himanta Biswa Sarma alleging that Assam will go under the control of Bangladeshis without the CAB. These attempts to polarize society on Hindu-Muslim lines and target the Muslims were on since long and the AIUDF’s inability to intervene in this scenario is forcing Muslims of Bengali origin to shift to the Congress. In this scenario, the Congress is gaining Bengali Muslim votes in the Barak Valley and the Brahmaputra Valley. It is also gaining the Khilonjia votes in Upper Assam. Thus, the Congress is expected to do well not only in the Muslim-dominated Dhubri, Barpeta and Karimganj seats, but also in the ethnic-Assamese-dominated seats of Kaliabor and Jorhat. This gain of Congress is happening at the cost of the AIUDF, whose performance is constant declining since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
While the AGP is trying hard to consolidate the anti-CAB sentiment and turn it into electoral gains, parties like the Akhil Gogoi-led KMSS are also aiming for the same. And the Bodo and anti-Bodo formations are formulating strategies to capture the Kokrajhar seat, which went to anti-Bodo candidate Naba Kumar Sarania in the 2014 elections. As elections are still at least a month away from now, electoral equations have significantly shifted from the past and are constantly shifting with each passing day.
(Rajan Pandey is a Guwahati-based political analyst)