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A vote for development, change

SAFFRON SURGE: “The BJP featured State-level faces like Himanta Biswa Sarma in its campaign.” Mr. Sarma with his wife Riniki Sarma in Jalukbari, Guwahati. Photo: PTI  

The trains were packed at Lumding station, and there was no way we would be able to board one despite having reserved berths. We pushed our way on to a packed bus for Silchar, which is a little more than 200 km away; they told us it would take five hours to get there. Soon any semblance of a proper road disappeared. Eight bumpy hours later, we arrived in Silchar feeling as if we had lost a boxing match.



Neelanjan Sircar
Ashish Ranjan
Ethnic and religious discord dominates the headlines about Assam, but most of the people we encountered complained about the poor infrastructure and the lack of economic development. The Congress has ruled Assam for 15 years, and it finds itself in a serious fight for the first time in many years. It is the issues above that undergird an election narrative that has been structured around development and political change.

The Congress in Assam
Tarun Gogoi and his Congress party came to power in 2001 during a period of severe insurgent violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the number of insurgency-related deaths in Assam dropped from 758 in 2000 to just 59 in 2015. Yet, while most are satisfied with the Congress’s record on peace, demands have gradually shifted towards issues of economic development. On this front, the present government has performed more poorly. According to the Economic Survey of Assam, incomes are growing much faster in the rest of India. Between 2004-2005 and 2014-2015, the per capita income (at 2004-2005 prices) of Assam grew from Rs.16,782 to Rs.23,392, as compared to a jump from Rs.24,142 to Rs.39,904 nationally.

But a party does not stay in power for 15 years through sheer luck. The Congress cleaned up many of the messes left by the previous Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government, like making sure State government employees were paid on time. Much like Nitish Kumar in Bihar, bicycle and scholarship schemes were created for school-going students. Most importantly, the Congress developed an efficient system of “booth management” across Assam. Congress party workers openly admit that their task includes making lists of who has and who has not benefitted from government schemes down to the polling booth. As a shopkeeper in Goalpara district told us during the election, “The BJP is ahead right now, but the Congress always wins the battle in the last 48 hours.”

The rise of the BJP

Like many parts of India, the BJP emerged as a significant player during the >“Modi wave” in the 2014 national election . In that election, the BJP was the largest party in Assam, winning seven out of 14 parliamentary seats in the State with its vote share jumping from 12 per cent in the 2011 State election to 37 per cent. Breaking down the 2014 results by Assembly constituency, the BJP was leading in 69 Assembly constituencies in 2014 while they had only won only five in 2011.

But winning State elections is not like winning national elections, >a lesson the BJP had to learn the hard way in Bihar . Unlike it had done in Bihar, the >BJP worked well with their coalition partners , AGP and Bodoland People’s Front. The BJP featured State-level faces, like Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, prominently in the campaign instead of relying on Narendra Modi parachuting into the State. It also stayed away, for the most part, from explicit appeals to religious polarisation, a strategy that proved to be disastrous in Bihar.

The BJP was no doubt helped by the defection of Mr. Sarma, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s former right-hand man in Congress, to their camp. Mr. Sarma, who emerged as a star in the BJP during this election, brokered the seemingly incoherent yet effective coalition of parties and leaders under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Perhaps most importantly, the BJP returned to a mantra that had served it so well during the 2014 election, development and change. Mr. Sarma was broadly perceived as an effective Cabinet Minister for Health and Education for the Congress. Coupled with Mr. Modi’s popular image, this strengthened >BJP’s case as a party for the development of Assam . But, if the BJP comes to power, it will have to perform. In Dibrugarh district, a young man in his mid-20s told us, “We had hoped that Modi would deliver on his promises to the State, but we have not seen anything yet. We have already given 15 years to Gogoi; we should give some time to Modi too.”

According to the last Census, Muslims make up 34 per cent of Assam’s population. It stands to reason that if the Muslim community would vote as a bloc, it would have the power to decide the election. Yet, our experiences showed that the Muslims are anything but a consolidated vote bank. Muslims in Assam are divided by region and language, not to say anything of the various political issues that matter to voters. Most salient issues in Assam, like land rights or citizenship, cut across religious boundaries in complex ways. Sometimes this manifests itself in counterintuitive ways. In Hajo constituency, we met a Muslim man who owned a small fishery, who said, “I will vote for BJP because they are good for development and will help my business prospects.”

The Muslim community in Assam is broadly aligned with one of the two parties, the Congress and the All India Democratic United Front (AIUDF). Although these parties did not form a coalition this time, one might wonder what would have happened had they done so, or if the Muslim community broadly agreed to vote for one of the two parties. Using 2014 election data, even if we consider the combined vote shares of the Congress and AIUDF against the combined vote shares of the BJP and AGP in the 116 Assembly constituencies of Assam (outside of the Bodo areas), the BJP/AGP coalition would have won 65 of these constituencies against 51 for the Congress/AIUDF coalition, sufficient to form the government.

The 2014 numbers explain why the Muslim community could not broadly affect electoral outcomes even if it coalesced behind a single party. It also shows that the Congress had much to do from 2014 to win in this State election.

The exit polls are predicting a relatively comfortable victory for the BJP-led NDA. Whatever happens, the themes of development and change have struck a chord with voters. The next government will have to perform and address the challenge of maintaining peace while ushering in economic development.

Neelanjan Sircar and Ashish Ranjan are based at the Centre for Policy Research. Bhanu Joshi of CPR contributed to the story. The authors would like to thank the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University, Sonepat, for assistance.


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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 1:24:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/A-vote-for-development-change/article14324696.ece

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