The Bharatiya Janata Party has made its debut in India’s Northeast by winning the Assam Assembly elections in a befitting manner, a victory that has managed to alter its image as a primarily Hindi-heartland or cow-belt party. Assam has been a traditional Congress bastion, except for a 10-year interregnum during Asom Gana Parishad rule, and a brief Janata Party tenure. The BJP, therefore, has a lot to cheer with this win, more so as it has managed to demolish the Congress government led by heavyweight Tarun Gogoi, who won three successive terms starting 2001.
Besides cashing in on the anti-incumbency factor against the 15-year-long Gogoi government, the BJP managed to engineer this victory as it projected and relied on two strong local leaders — state chief Sarbananda Sonowal and new entrant Himanta Biswa Sarma; stitched up alliances with influential regional parties, did not bring in its Hindutva ideology into the campaign, harped on development and livelihood options, and, of course, sought to protect Assam’s future by saving the identity of the state’s indigenous people from an onslaught by illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
The BJP also kept its radical breed of saffronites away from the Assam campaign, lest they make controversial remarks. The results were there for all to see — the BJP and its allies winning around 85 of 126 seats and a whole array of top Congress leaders and ministers losing the polls, leaving Tarun Gogoi with no option but to sit in the Opposition benches without his key aides. This has been a high-stakes election for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed 10 rallies in the state, and for BJP president Amit Shah as they knew that of the five states going to polls in April, Assam was the one where they had a real winning chance, one that could transform the party’s national profile.
The foundation, of course, was laid during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, where the Modi wave propelled the BJP to centrestage in Assam. From just three Lok Sabha seats that the BJP won in 2009, it managed to bag seven seats. The Congress’ tally declined from seven in 2009 to just three in 2014. When the BJP realised that during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls the party actually led in 69 of the state’s 126 Assembly constituencies and came second in 29 other seats, it started getting down to business. It came up with a “Mission 84” slogan, claiming it was going to win 84 Assembly seats in 2016.
The BJP knew, of course, that it was organisationally weak and lacked a leader with a pan-Assam influence, someone who could stitch up alliances and bring people into the party fold. The obvious choice was dynamic Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who as Tarun Gogoi’s one-time deputy and a key minister, had brought about a sea change in Assam’s health and education sector, besides being the main troubleshooter. Mr Sarma by now had revolted against Mr Gogoi and was demanding a change in leadership.
Neither Mr Gogoi nor the AICC paid any heed. The Congress high command did send senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge to seek the views of each of the 78 Congress MLAs. At least 50 of them wanted the chief minister replaced, but the AICC stood by Mr Gogoi, a diehard Nehru-Gandhi loyalist. Mr Sarma was pushed to the wall and was welcomed wholeheartedly by Mr Modi and Mr Shah. He quit the Congress and, along with him, nine other party MLAs joined the BJP.
The BJP straightaway took two big steps: it announced the name of Union minister of state for sports Sarbananda Sonowal, a party MP from the state, as its chief ministerial candidate.
This was a break from tradition, the only exception being when it had declared
Mr Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Having clinched the leadership question, the BJP was quick to accord Mr Sarma a status befitting his seniority and acumen. He was made convenor of the BJP campaign committee, a responsibility Mr Sarma fulfilled rather well by personally criss-crossing the entire state and addressing 270 rallies, drawing huge crowds.
The BJP strategy of forging alliances with the AGP and the Bodoland People’s Front paid rich dividends. Initiated by Mr Sarma, the alliance with the AGP turned out to be a masterstroke because the BJP approached the regional party at a time when it was sought to be dismissed as having become irrelevant in Assam politics. The AGP contested 24 seats as part of the seat-sharing deal and managed to win more than a dozen seats, becoming the party with the highest success rate in the state this time.
The BPF’s support to the BJP helped the saffron party maintain its hold in the Bodo heartland and bolstered its tally. The BPF, too, managed to be at par with its 2011 tally of 12 seats. Comprising 34 per cent of the state’s 3.12 crore population, Muslims are a dominant community in Assam. At least 30 to 35 constituencies, mostly in western, northern and central Assam, are dominated by Muslims, most of them of migrant origin, who have traditionally been Congress supporters. Of course, the All-India United Democratic Front led by perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal emerged as an option from 2006 onwards.
In 2006, the AIUDF won 10 seats and increased its tally to 18 in 2011. In this scenario, the Muslim vote has certainly split between the Congress and AIUDF this time as well, with BJP allies like AGP and BPF benefiting from this. But if the scale of the BJP’s victory is taken into account, it is possible the party or its allies managed to enlist the support of sections of Muslims too in several constituencies. That could be the reason why the AIUDF tally came down this time with its president and Lok Sabha MP Badruddin Ajmal himself losing his seat to the Congress.
The Congress, battling anti-incumbency, was devoid of a clear campaign strategy or star campaigners, with Mr Gogoi almost going solo in the campaign. Besides, the Congress suffered from a trust deficit with perceptions about the existence of several lobbies within, damaging its image. At the end of the day, the people’s general chant of “parivartan” (change) clinched Assam for the BJP, aided by an unprecedented 85 per cent polling.