After wresting Assam from the Congress in 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to retain the State in the recently concluded Assembly election, thus strengthening its eastern footprint. In 2016, the BJP successfully consolidated Hindu votes in a State where elections were largely governed by the multiple ethnicities it hosts. The story after five years remains more or less the same, with religious identity yet again emerging as one of the key determinants for electors, albeit on a slightly muted level. Of course, the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey data indicate relatively high satisfaction with both the Central and State governments among voters and the absence of a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, but whether these favourable sentiments were driven by the religious divide remains a moot point.
Though the Congress forged Mahajot , a grand pre-election alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and Left parties, the ruling alliance managed to defeat it. In fact, the Congress’s tie-up with the ‘Muslim party’ AIUDF seems to have helped the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) cause, helping them keep Hindu voters firmly on their side and wean away a small but sizeable chunk of Assamese Muslim voters. The two local parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal (RD), had a limited impact, and the latter could win just one seat in Upper Assam. Their influence remained confined to Upper Assam.
Religious polarisation, particularly Hindu consolidation, is one factor that helps in making sense of the election verdict. Over two-thirds of Hindus (67%) rallied behind the NDA (the proportion was 57% in the 2016 Assembly election for the current NDA). The Congress alliance, on the other hand, managed to secure only two of every ten (19%) Hindu votes (down 13 percentage points since 2016). Given the religious profile of Assam, where the Hindu share in the State’s population is around 62%, this consolidation proved to be a decisive point once again. Further, the support for the BJP among Hindus cut across linguistic-ethnic differences and came both from the Assamese- and Bengali-speaking communities — 67% of Assamese Hindus and 74% of Bengali Hindus favoured the NDA this time, as opposed to 64% and 63%, respectively, in 2016.
One of the major reasons why Hindus did not show much inclination towards the Mahajot was the Congress’s alliance with the AIUDF. Most Hindus in Lokniti’s post-poll survey were found to consider the AIUDF communal, as many as six of every ten (57%) people surveyed. This also made a majority of them (58%) strongly oppose the Congress-AIUDF alliance. In fact, the survey found a major dilemma among Congress’s traditional Hindu supporters on this count — three of every ten (30%) of them were found to be opposed to the Congress-AIUDF alliance, and around four-fifths of them ended up voting for the NDA. Interestingly, a plurality of Assamese Hindus also considered the BJP communal, but this was not a guiding factor in their vote choice.
The Congress-AIUDF alliance, however, successfully managed to consolidate the votes of Muslims around itself. Overall, four-fifths of Muslims (81%) rallied behind the Mahajot . In previous elections, in the absence of an alliance between the two parties, Muslims were badly divided between the Congress and the AIUDF. This time, their votes came together, giving the alliance victories in many Muslim-concentrated seats. However, our survey found the consolidation to be far stronger among Bengali Muslims than Assamese Muslims. While as high as nine out of 10 Bengali Muslims backed the Mahajot , among Assamese Muslims, two-thirds backed it. Notably, a quarter of Assamese Muslims (24%) backed the NDA, and around 11% voted for the AJP-RD front and other parties and candidates. The fact that the AIUDF is a party primarily of Bengali Muslims coupled with the growing distance between indigenous Muslims and the so-called ‘Miya Muslims’ may have had a role to play in this. In fact, in our survey, on the communal-secular question, as many as two-fifths of Assamese Muslims considered the AIUDF to be communal. Interestingly, whereas in the Congress-contested seats, 16% of Muslims voted for the NDA, in AIUDF-contested seats, only 4% did. The shift was mainly among Assamese Muslims. One-fourth of Assamese Muslims (26%) voted for the NDA in the Congress-contested seats, as against 11% of Bengali Muslims.
Most other explanations become only supplementary to this massive religious polarisation. Yet, it must be noted that there was an absence of any negative sentiment regarding the performance of the Sarbananda Sonowal-government in the State and the Narendra Modi-government at the Centre. The survey found that while 58% of voters reported satisfaction with the Sonowal-led BJP-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government in the State, 56% expressed satisfaction with the NDA-led government at the Centre. Dissatisfaction with the two governments was a good 20 percentage points less, at 34% and 38%, respectively. Once again, however, satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the government were also dependent on religion. Hindus were twice as likely to be satisfied with the State government as Muslims — 72% to 36%.
The absence of any major dissatisfaction with the State government translated into a pro-incumbency sentiment. There was no overwhelming desire to get rid of the government among the electorate like there had been in 2016, when more people (49%) had wanted the Tarun Gogoi-government out than back in power (40%). This time, on being asked if the incumbent government should get another chance, more than two in five (43%) favoured the status quo, while 38% desired change. Not surprisingly, the NDA swept the pro-incumbency vote, securing about four-fifths of their support. Once again, Hindus and Muslims took polar opposite stands on this question as well — 62% of Hindus wanted the government back, 68% of Muslims did not.
Another factor that perhaps explains the NDA’s win over the Mahajot was its ability to woo non-committed voters. While close to nine in 10 traditional supporters stood by their respective parties, the NDA managed to win over non-committed voters, just enough to ensure a marginal advantage.
It is noteworthy that as high as two-thirds (63%) of voters did not count themselves as traditional supporters of any party; 43% of these voters backed the NDA, 4% more than the Mahajot.
The power of having a ‘double-engine ki sarkar’ (having the same party’s government at the Centre as well as the State) was emphasised by the Prime Minister and other leaders time and again during the Assam election campaign. Our survey indicates that the Assamese seem to have favoured this idea. Over three-fifths (63%) agreed that for the State’s development, it was necessary to have the same party ruling at the Centre and in the State (the proportion of such voters was 70% in 2016). Among them, the NDA enjoyed a comfortable majority, with 54% stating to have voted for them.
Moreover, the desire to have a double engine government seems to have also been a factor in how most people voted. On being asked whose performance they had kept in mind while voting (the State government or the Central government), one-third (33%) said they looked at work done by both governments. Of such voters, nearly 63% chose the NDA over others. In fact, around 11% of voters voted solely on the basis of the Modi government’s work at the Centre, and an even higher proportion of them (70%) preferred the NDA. On the other hand, of the 16% of those who only looked at the Sonowal government’s work, just a little over half (54%) voted for the NDA, while close to one-third (32%) of them backed the Mahajot.
In sum, Assam, while joining West Bengal and Kerala in returning the incumbent, had probably a very different logic to that choice. What did not happen in West Bengal on a larger scale, Assam witnessed it for the second time in a row: the consolidation of the Hindu vote and as a corollary, the consolidation of the Muslim vote, too. It is debatable whether the Congress would have been able to retain some of its base among the Hindus had it not tied up with AIUDF. But the way alliances worked out certainly added more strength to religious polarisation in the State.
Dhruba Pratim Sharma and Vikas Tripathi teach at the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University; Manjesh Rana is a Research Assistant at Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi; Suhas Palshikar is the Co-Director of the Lokniti programme