An air of inevitability

The BJP’s campaign script in Assam was written in the 2014 ‘Modi wave’.

May 20, 2016 01:25 am | Updated September 15, 2016 10:17 am IST

First things first. The Bharatiya Janata Party has had stints in government in the Northeast before. As far back as 2003 — in a script that played out almost similarly again a few months ago — Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Gegong Apang split the Congress and merged his party with the Bharatiya Janata Party to give it its first government in the region. In Nagaland, the party is a constituent of the T.R. Zeliang-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland. These are, however, what one would in boxing parlance call ‘technical knockouts’, a regional potentate engineering defections or manoeuvring behind the scenes to stack numbers in his favour. There is no such ambiguity in Assam this time; the > BJP has delivered a knockout punch to the ruling Congress in the Assembly elections.

A credible alternative

Abdus Salam

What the party has done successfully since then is scale up to capitalise on the exponential electoral windfall of 2014 — on its own for the most part, but aligning with other political forces as the logic of electoral winnability warranted in a State election, as opposed to a national election.

Far from the heartland, the party displayed an uncharacteristic nimbleness. Without the extensive network of its mother ship, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to lean on, the BJP needed to overcompensate for its lack of depth and spread as it suddenly emerged as a front runner for the Assembly elections. This it did by inducting > Himanta Biswa Sarma , outgoing Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s second-in-command and a man widely acknowledged as the architect of the Congress’s consecutive electoral successes in 2001, 2006 and 2011. With Sarbananda Sonowal, formerly with the Asom Gana Parishad, already in its fold since 2011, the BJP in effect went into the elections with a poached leadership but one that presented a stark generational contrast to the 81-year-old Gogoi. The projection of Mr. Sonowal as the party’s chief ministerial face lent BJP the local heft it needed to build on the political capital of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. And not willing to take any chances, the party went the extra mile in tying up with the Bodoland People’s Front and the Asom Gana Parishad, a regional powerhouse on the wane — and one that calls BJP communal when it suits it — but still consequential enough to be courted. Juxtapose this willingness to adjust with the Congress’s obduracy in going it alone, though its decision to spurn the overtures of the All India United Democratic Front stemmed from its realisation that an alliance would mean ceding the Muslim space.

The verdict establishes several things. It proves the resonance of development and identity among the Assam electorate, issues that the BJP’s electoral campaign primarily rested on. It shows how long a journey the State has traversed from the time Mr. Gogoi first assumed office, beyond the long shadow of separatist violence and Bodo militancy and into an era when mere containment of violence wouldn’t do; voters want economic growth and opportunities, and perceive the BJP as being better at delivering those. The result also negates notions of a monolithic Muslim vote, which was largely split between the Congress and the AIUDF as reflected in their vote shares. The ringing electoral endorsement also successfully melds the ‘sons of the soil’ rhetoric of the ethnic Assamese population with the BJP’s own logic of India (and by extension, Assam) being a receptacle of all Hindu ‘refugees’, thus marking out the illegal Muslim immigrant as the future locus of the ire against outsiders.

An irreversible opening In a sense, there is an inevitability to the > rise of the BJP in Assam , a frontier State with 34.2 per cent of the population Muslim and a long-running angst about illegal immigration from Bangladesh. For long, its prospects of exponential growth were capped by the dominant presence of the AGP — a party forged in the furnace of the six-year-long Assam Agitation against foreigners and that had two terms in power, the last ending in 2001. As successive electoral reverses at the hands of the Congress shrunk the AGP and the salience of regional politics waned, the door was prised open. Irreversibly, as we know now.

(Email: abdus.salam@thehindu.co.in)

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