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Assam Polls: It's Advantage BJP But Tough Contest Ahead

01/04/2016 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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BIJU BORO via Getty Images
Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Indian National Congress party, waves to the crowd at an election rally in Diphu in Karbi Anglong on March 29, 2016, ahead of state assembly elections in Assam. Thousands of Indian voters will elect legislators for the 126 seats contested in 25,000 polling stations in the northeastern state of Assam in two phases on April 4 and 11. / AFP / Biju BORO (Photo credit should read BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)

The electorate's preferences have always been predictable in Assam. There was hardly any doubt that the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) would sweep to power in 1985, that the Congress would return in 1991 and lose in the next assembly elections. Since that time, though, the AGP has been on an irreversible downhill journey with a shrinking support base. With a weak opposition, it was hardly surprising that the Congress won the assembly polls consecutively for three times since 2001. However, much appears to have changed by 2016.

An anti-incumbency wave is palpable in the state which goes to the polls on 4 and 11 April. This holds not only for the ruling Congress but the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) as well which rules the autonomous council in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts. The United People's Party (UPP) which has joined hands with the Congress is expected to take away a sizeable chunk of the Bodo votes. No wonder the BJP has firmed up alliances with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and two smaller parties to ensure that it reaches the magic number of 64 out of a total of 126 assembly seats. A recent opinion poll also predicted that this alliance could get as many as 78 seats.

Soon after the general elections two years ago, the Congress's popularity graph had steadily come down but the BJP failed to keep its momentum...

The BJP and its allies are expected to perform better in the north bank of the Brahmaputra east of Darrang which is inhabited by a mix of Assamese tribes and other communities, Bengali Hindus and Nepalese. In the south bank where most of the major cities like Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Silchar are located, the saffron party seems to have an edge in the urban areas and their contiguous constituencies. However, they could be at a disadvantage in rural areas since their organization at the grassroots level is weaker. But it's again an unpredictable scenario in the Bengali dominated Barak Valley where the both the BJP and Congress are in a neck-to-neck contest in most of the seats. This is among the few regions in the state where polarization of votes is likely much like Dhubri and Goalpara in lower Assam.

assam elections

Soon after the general elections two years ago, the Congress's popularity graph had steadily come down but the BJP failed to keep its momentum thanks to the confusion in the state unit and the lukewarm approach of the high command to deliver on the promises Prime Minister Narendra Modi had committed to in Guwahati before the Lok Sabha elections. It could have been in a much more comfortable position had the Centre initiated faster action on granting Scheduled Tribe status to six indigenous communities. It was only last month that a committee was formed in New Delhi to suggest the modality for granting ST status to the six groups. These factors have undoubtedly helped the Congress to battle the anti-incumbency wave, helped in no small part by the internal weaknesses of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal.

[The BJP] could have been in a much more comfortable position had the Centre initiated faster action on granting Scheduled Tribe status to six indigenous communities.

Six months ago, analysts and intelligence officials were of the firm opinion that the AIUDF would secure not less than 30 seats given the abnormal rise of the Muslim population in the border districts of Assam as revealed in the 2011 Census. Ajmal was motivated to give a clarion call to all Muslims to unite against the Hindus for the elections. There were even efforts by some political parties to stitch an alliance between the AIUDF and Congress to ensure the defeat of the BJP. But the state Congress leadership had been accurate in assessing that voters would not decide only on the basis of religion. Instead of a pre-poll alliance, the party had made a case for a "grand understanding" among all non-BJP parties. Voters have a lot to complain about in most of the 18 constituencies where the AIUDF had won in 2011. The party continues to be identified with Bengali Muslims and has few fans among Assamese Muslims. Ajmal has hardly been heard speaking about Assam or any other issue in Parliament. If the grapevine is to be believed, many AIUDF workers are waiting to join the Congress after the polls.

[T]he existing trends so far indicate that Assam could be headed for a hung assembly and a coalition government.

Internal revolts have rocked all parties with many sitting legislators resigning and forming their own parties to contest in the polls. For the BJP and AGP, the rebellions were the outcome of their alliance since it meant giving up some seats to the ally and barring their own aspiring candidates from contesting. But for the Congress, the revolt was the outcome of many new candidates nominated for the polls. In Guwahati for instance, only one sitting MLA was chosen while the rest are new faces. Interestingly, Congress president Anjan Dutta himself was denied a ticket from a new constituency after he decided to nominate his daughter from Amguri from where he had won twice earlier. It is certain that many among those who have been disappointed might work for the benefit of the rival party as has been the case on several occasions earlier. Nonetheless, the existing trends so far indicate that Assam could be headed for a hung assembly and a coalition government. The BJP and AGP will probably increase their tallies from the previous assembly polls while the Congress, AIUDF and BPF could end up losing seats. The fragmentation of votes will further be reflected in the emergence of five small regional parties expected to win some seats in different parts of the state. So far, the BJP seems to have an edge over the Congress in forming the next government.

(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and the author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men and Lens and the Guerrilla: Insurgency in India's Northeast.)

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