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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 20, New Delhi, May 1, 2021

The Assam Assembly Election 2021: on the Verge of a Political Quandary | Nurul Hassan

Saturday 1 May 2021, by Nurul Hassan

by Nurul Hassan

Assam is considered as one of the Congress-ruled states of India. Although Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had ruled Assam for two terms after the historic Assam Movement (1979-85), but Congress was a close competitor at that time. However, in 2014, the Modi wave propelled the Congress to struggle for power in every sphere of politics. In 2016, there was anti-incumbency factor, massive Modi wave etc., and subsequently Congress lost its fabulous ground, but performance was not as poor as other states. If we apply similar notions to assess the 2021 election, there was neither a Modi wave nor pro incumbency for BJP and on the contrary there was a massive protest for repealing the ‘Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA)’ passed by the Central government. The anti CAA standing of Congress was provided an opportunity to regain its political strength in Brahmaputra valley but which was also a gamble for Barak valley as the Hindu Bengali were enthusiastic about the implementation of CAA with immediate effect. However, the newly born parties Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal (although failed to register in the Election Commission of India) targeted the anti CAA voters basically from Upper Assam. Hence, sharing of anti CAA voters between Congress Mahajot and the third front would be the spoiler for anti BJP standing. As a result, it would be advantageous for BJP Mitrajot particularly in Upper Assam. It is pertinent to mention here that the third front has limitation and would be restricted only in couple of constituencies across the state. Furthermore, it appears that the campaign of second and third phases was witnessed a massive communal polarization. Considering all these, on one hand, it becomes difficult to assess the mood of the silent voters across Assam and subsequently it would be critical to predict the result of the Assam Assembly Election 2021. However, if we go through the poll strategies of different political parties, we may assess the weightage of different alliances in Assam.

Politics of Aggression vs. Divisiveness 

Unlike others, BJP as a political party has settled very recently in Assam. Since 1991, with the two parliamentary seats i.e. Karimganj and Silchar and 10 Assembly seats to 2011 Assembly election, its maximum strength was restricted within 10. But in 2014, there was a change for Modi wave and won seven parliamentary constituencies. Later on, in 2016 Assembly election, it had gone through an alliance with the regional parties i.e. AGP, Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), Ganasakti,Rabha Jatiya Aikya Manch etc.

Ultimately, people from different walks of life were brought under the unified banner of BJP. Even the process continued up to the 2019 general election and subsequently, despite massive protest for CAB 2016, BJP could manage to win nine seats out of 13 once again. In a similar fashion, the election of autonomous councils, development councils, and the Panchayats, definitely BJP had performed well as a ruling dispensation.

Furthermore, through the process of a rainbow alliance, BJP could manage to construct its organizational base in every nook and corner of Assam. But the pertinent point is that the regional parties are failed to sustain and ultimately withering away due to the massively aggressive policy of the BJP. First of all, AGP is undoubtedly a major partner in the last election with 14 MLAs and three Cabinet Ministers; got enough space to strengthen their party position. But they failed to perform adequately in the last five years’ tenure and particularly their U turn on CAA really surprised the common people with the regional sentiment. Another interesting point is that in 2021, AGP was allotted 30 seats and wherein BJP has exchanged 20 constituencies with the maximum probability to win. Ultimately, it will destroy the organizational strength and also would be disastrous for AGP in the days to come. A similar strategy was applied in BTR region and despite their alliance with BPF in the State government, BJP fought against the BPF.

The induction of Bodo leaders in BJP and the presence of UPPL helped to divide the Bodo electorate contouring in a triangular setting. An interesting point is that BJP had maintained a reasonable distance with BPF up to the election result and later on formed the government with a juvenile party UPPL. Actually, BJP usually targets weak and immature parties so that the entire system would be remained dependable on BJP. It is one of their party strategies to grasp and grounding everywhere. Hence, at present, the lifespan of BTC government would depend on BJP’s desire. Similarly, the leaders of Ganasakti, ASDC, and the lone Rabha constituency, Dudhnoi etc. are now under the direct controlled of BJP. Hence, the regional sentiment is replaced with national sentiment in a surreptitious manner. Even the preservation of Hindu civilization in the context of Assam is nothing but their political gimmick. Undoubtedly, it would help to concentrate the Hindu voters, but from the demographic point of view, it would be a disastrous tactic for all including the BJP.

If we consider the poll strategy of Congress, it remained in a dilemma for quite some time whether an alliance with AIUDF is prolific or not in the long run as Congress had lost its ground not only in the Asomiya dominant upper Assam but Muslim concentrated lower Assam and Barak valley too. There are a few constituencies, due to the triangular fight, BJP+’s probability of winning remains quite high. Furthermore, in 2016, although Congress fought election of their own but had lost maximum seats in Upper Assam.

Therefore, Congress is forced to go for an alliance in 2021 with different parties i.e. AIUDF, Anchalik Gana Marcha (AGM), CPI (M), CPI (ML), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) etc. Despite challenges, Congress tries to lead from the front. However, with the presence of BPF, the entire equation has changed substantially.

With the emergence of two major alliances, Assam has been witnessing a tight confrontation across the spectrum, although the third front is formed by two newly juvenile parties has given blatant challenge in eight to 12 constituencies basically in Upper Assam and subsequently, the battle has remained between the BJP led Mitrajot and Congress-led Mahajot. Undoubtedly the BJP led alliance is successful in polarizing the entire system in accordance with their poll strategy, but the Congress-led alliance has tackled the situation very cautiously applying political arithmetic in every nook and corner of Assam.

Standing of Different Communities

Community politics is very meticulously applied from both ends. People are basically divided on religious lines but we can’t negate the significance of caste, community, ethnicity, and even politics of sentiment throughout the system. So, these are the major determinants in the politics of Assam, but notable point is that both the alliances are very calculative this time and remained neck to neck till the end of the election. However, with the inclusion of BPF had strengthened the grand alliance (Mahajoth) basically in Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) as not a single party from Mahajoth had political base in BTR. Apart from that, with the presence of Hagrama Mahilary, a substantial portion of Bodo voters of Gohpur, Gauripur, Sootea, Bihpuria, Dudhnoi etc. would have voted in favour of Mahajoth. However, it doesn’t mean that Congress is getting clear mandate in these constituencies. Here we can assess that with the absence of BPF, the Mitrajot has faced substantial challenge particularly in BTR region. One notable but interesting point has to be mentioned here as the mandate of people would determine the standing of Hagrama Mahilary in post-election period. Shifting the plank on the eve of the election was although a political compulsion but has remained skeptical as BPF has remained as a junior but crucial partner in every government since its inception. Besides, if the mandate is not clear and BPF is capable to gain a determinant position; definitely it would be an alternative option for the BJP to reinstall Hagrama as BTR chief replacing Pramod Boro. But the fight of BPF and BJP has grounded to the personal level and that is why the indication is not in favour of BJP at all cost. As a party, BPF has contested all the seats in BTR region (although a candidate had resigned on the eve of election), undoubtedly the earlier strength is disseminated; but, despite all efforts initiated by BJP in 2020 BTC election (Corona, Governors rule, packages, massive campaign etc.), BPF could manage 17 seats, only three short from the comfortable majority indicates the overwhelming presence across the region. Hence, the alliances with Congress and AIUDF; on the other end the UPPL with BJP, ultimately has sharpened the Hindu Muslim divide across Assam and BTR in particular. Hence, BPF is in advantageous position and ultimately their tally might be better than the BJP as well as UPPL in this election. Other tribal regions i.e. Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong where BJP has meticulously handled the electorate support in favour of them despite their resentment over the present dispensation. Undoubtedly different grievances will decrease the vote share of BJP but out of five, it is comfortable in four constituencies including the residue. The major political change is that the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), the sole regional party has become irrelevant in this election.

If we consider the standing of different autochthon plain tribes, the Bodo, the largest community of Assam is sharply divided with the presence of UPPL along with BJP. In accordance with the Bodo politics, the Mishing voters were also remained skeptical as different leaders including the founder of Ganasakti, a locally evolved party, had joined BJP on the eve of election. Despite resentment among the party workers, a substantial portion had shifted to BJP and others shared by the Congress and the third front. It paves the way for the end of Gansakti, a prominent regional force in Assam. Hence, BJP is remained popular in Mishing concentrated areas. Accordingly, other communities i.e. Sonowal, Deuri were acutely connected with the BJP. Pertinent point is that the six communities demanding for Scheduled Tribe status i.e. Maran, Matak, Tai Ahom, Chutiya, Koch Rajbongshi and Tea Tribes; undoubtedly their standing was remained complicated as despite their unresolved demand, the ruling dispensation had managed through different initiatives including formation of developmental Council. Apart from the Ahom and tea Tribes, most of the communities have remained close to the BJP. As we know that the Ahom and Tea tribes are a determinant factor in 25-30 constituencies, were remained politically fragile and fragmented for multiple reasons. Basically, the anti CAA movement has substantial influence upon the Ahom in different capacities. At the same time the Ahom leaders led parties has become an alternative option after Congress and therefore it would be witnessing a triangular contest in Ahom concentrated locality. On the contrary, the Tea tribes were partially satisfied with the amount provided by Central Government, but the issue of daily wage matters more and subsequently their pro BJP standing has weakened in the last elections. The Nepali, another marginal community presence across Assam but has influence in two-three constituencies and which have again extended support to BJP.

The second and third phases of elections were communally polluted and subsequently the BJP led Mitrajot was advantageous in Hindu concentrated area and Mahajot in Muslim bastion. The situation of Barak valley is sharply divided between Hindu and Muslims and therefore, if we calculate the constituencies, as many as 10 out of 15 are in favour of Mahajot. In middle Assam, Nagaon, Morigaon and Darrang, undoubtedly both the alliances are equally performed. The Tiwa Autonomous Council election already had given indication and this time the result is supposed to repeat in favour of BJP. The situation of Guwahati is different as the urban centric party BJP will sweep all the constituencies. If we come to lower Assam, the lone Rabha concentrated constituency, Dudhnoi has become critical as the presence of a Bodo candidate from Congress has changed the entire political equation. Even, the dissident former BJP MLA contested as an independent candidate and definitely it will lower the probability of BJP candidate. Here, the Rabha electorates are highest in number followed by the Bodo and the Muslims. Accordingly, apart from the BTR, most of the seats from the extreme west of Assam are Muslim concentrated area. Ultimately, Muslim will decide the fate of basically Mahajot as the statement of one stalwart leader from BJP frankly expressed his aversion for Muslim vote. But such type of statement helps in concentrating Hindu votes of Kamrup (M), Kamrup Rural, Nalbari and Bajali district of Assam. Hence, everything is remained within the orbit of political strategy including the divisive politics.

Winning Probability of major two Alliances   

The election of Assam has become quite interesting as not a single party is in a comfortable position but it doesn’t mean that there would be a hung Assembly this time. Both the Mitrajot and Mahajot are claiming to form the government and which is genuine demand in such a competitive political situation. The influence of third front is limited and would remain maximum 12 constituencies across the state. In the first phase, the politics in upper Assam, BJP+ is in an advantageous position, but their tally would remain at 30-32. Hence, Congress+ has performed better than the previous election with 14-16 seats. The winning probability of third front is 0-4 seats, but would remain second position in other constituencies. In Barak valley, out of 15, winning probability of Mahajot is 10-11 seats, this is the turning point for Mahajot. On the contrary, the Mitrajot is comfortable in the Hill area, probably will do clean sweep this time. In middle Assam, polled in first and second phase, (Nagaon, Marigaon, Hojai), out of 14, Mitrajot is winning only in 5-6 and rest will be with Mahajot. In BTAD, probability of BPF is up to 7 out of 12 this time. In lower Assam including Darrang, out of 35 (excluding BTAD and Guwahati Metro), 22 seats is in favour of Mahajot. If we come to Guwahati, the urban society once again voted probably in favour of BJP. So, all the seats would be in favour of BJP Mitrajot.

If we do phase wise analysis, in the first phase BJP+ is comfortable in 30-32 seats, Congress + is in 14-15 and others are in 0-4 seats. In the second phase, BJP+ is comfortable in 17-19 seats, Congress+ is in 21-23 and others are in 0-1 seat. In the third phase, BJP+ is secured in 16-17 seats, Congress+ is in 26-28 seats and others in 0-1 seat. Hence, the total tally depicts the BJP+ is slightly advantageous in position than the Congress+ as BJP+ is 63-67, Congress+ is 61-66 and third front is 0-6. However, we can’t negate the chances of improvement for both the alliances up to five seats at the end of counting. In a similar fashion, if we assess the vote share, Mitrajot would remain between 35% - 37%, Mahajot is going to secure 39% - 42%, and others 6% -8%. Both the alliances have the chances to increase up to 2% vote share in a reverse maneuver. Although, once again the vote share is in favour of Congress+; but it would be very difficult to convert it into seat share.

Observation

The competitive situation indicates multiple changes in the post counting period. Definitely, the chances of horse trading would remain high. The standing of new parties, if they open their account, definitely would determine the forthcoming government. The standing of Hagrama would remain skeptical; BJP may approach BPF once again and would ready to offer the Chief of BTR in coming days. The shortage of 5-7 seats is possible to manage for BJP and which is quite difficult for Congress. And finally, there will be a chaos for both the alliances for Chief Ministerial face. Finally, once again BPF is going to be the kingmaker in the politics of Assam. Another pertinent point is to be mentioned here that in this election, the maximum gainer will be AIUDF and loser will be AGP. At the end, for the BJP as well as Congress, government formation probability rate would be 55% and 45% respectively.

The Way Forward

From the above discussion, we can conclude by saying that not a single party is in a secure position. As a result, it would push the entire system into the realm of uncertainty. For Congress+, victory with small margin, would be difficult to sustain in coming days. However, to control any form of political arbitrariness, everywhere it deserves such type of competitiveness in politics.

(Author: Nurul Hassan (nurul.hassan88[at]gmail.com) teaches in the Department of Political Science, Kampur College, Nagaon and also supervised the Post Poll Study in Assam, 2021 conducted by Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi.)

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