‘Sarva-Ananda’ for Assam
The BJP has won Assam convincingly, its first win ever in the state and also in the North-East which has traditionally been a Congress bastion. Sarbananda Sonowal, took oath of chief ministership on May 24, 2016. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development agenda did woo the voters, demographic composition and anti-incumbency were some of the other important factors that worked in favour of the party. The saffron party’s triumph can be rivalled with the 1985 Assam Assembly polls, when the Assam Gana Parishad came to power for the first time immediately after the historic Assam Accord. Both polls have common grounds like Bangladeshi infiltration and development issues which formed the nitty-gritty of the electoral campaign. But despite being in power for two terms, the regional party AGP failed to improve the status of Assam, which then gave way to the Congress. However, after a prolonged period of dormancy, the regional party has finally revived its lost sheen as an ally of the BJP.
There are many factors which led to Congress’ demise; a significant one being Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s arrogance. His attempt to portray himself as a ‘blunt chief minister’ alienated the party in the state. The Congress’ decision to drive out leader Himanta Biswa Sarma to create space for Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav also cost the party dearly in Assam.
Assam was waiting for BJP
From being, a marginal player even less than two decades ago, the BJP has emerged as the biggest political player in Assam and if pshephologists are to be believed, it can put the Congress to the sidelines. But this has not been an easy ride for the saffron party. For 50 of the 69 years since Independence, the Congress has ruled Assam. Tarun Gogoi has presided over the Congress regime in the state for the past 15 years.
Till 1985 the Congress had been winning elections in Assam by an overwhelming majority. It was only in the 1985 polls that its strength was reduced to just 25 seats while the Assam Gana Parishad posted a landslide win of 92 seats.
The BJP made its poll debut in the state in 1991, winning very impressively 10 seats. This victory can be attributed to the Ram Mandir wave that swept across the country then. The wave, however, did not affect the rest of Assam and the Congress won a wafer-thin majority and formed the government.
In the next elections in 1996 that brought the AGP back to power, the BJP won just four seats. It was the next elections in 2001 that was significant for the BJP since it could break out of its stronghold in the Barak Valley of Assam and spread, to other parts of the state. That year, the BJP picked up seats in Upper Assam and the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Dhuliajan and Sonitpur districts respectively which had been traditional Congress strongholds inhabited by Assamese Hindus.
The BJP improved its tally to 10 in the 2006 polls and this time, too, it picked up additional seats in the north bank and Upper Assam. The BJP won the crucial Dibrugarh seat in Upper Assam and also two seats in Sonitpur, besides retaining its base in Barak Valley. The AGP won 24 seats, and though the Congress did not win a majority, it formed the government by stitching an alliance with other parties. The present BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was with the Congress then, was instrumental in winning over Independents and other parties to support the Congress government.
Surprise was in for the BJP in the 2011 election results. Once again, it could manage to win just five seats. It did not win any seats in the Barak Valley, where the newly-formed All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal did very well. Instead, the BJP won two seats in Lower Assam’s Barpeta district, one in Kamrup in Central Assam and two seats in Upper Assam. This signified the party’s growing acceptance among the Assamese as well as non-Assamese Hindus. The AGP won 10 seats, the AIUDF 18 and the Congress 78.
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’ record on peace, demands have gradually shifted towards issues of economic development. On this front, the the Gogoi government 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. Infighting and dissidence within the Congress, coupled with the continuing dismal performance of the Tarun Gogoi government on all fronts fuelled disillusionment among the people as the government was seen as inefficient, uncaring and corrupt.
Thus, in 2014, with the Modi wave sweeping across the country, the BJP picked up seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress could bag only three seats, the same number as the AIUDF, while the AGP drew a blank. The BJP kept up this tempo by winning a large majority of municipal bodies in the civic polls held in the state a few months ago. The party had won just two Lok Sabha seats in 2004 (Congress won nine, and the AGP two), and four in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls (Congress won seven and the AGP just one).
But beyond these numbers it is noteworthy here the selfless hard work and perseverance of hundreds of low-key and even faceless RSS workers and leaders. The RSS strategy of making the BJP an acceptable party in entire Assam, consolidating the Hindu vote in the state, winning over tea garden labourers and also a large section of the Ahoms the original inhabitants of the state was the key behind saffron party’s rise in Assam.But most importantly, the RSS successfully appropriated Assamese sub-nationalism, which had found wildly popular expression in the Assam agitation of the early 1980s, into its fold. The two most prominent and popular faces of the BJP in Assam—its chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal and master strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma (even Tarun Gogoi rues losing Sarma to the BJP)—are products of the AASU-led Assam movement. Sonowal was president of the powerful AASU and then joined the AGP. He was an MLA and then a Lok Sabha MP of the AGP before he joined the BJP in early 2011.Sarma was a very powerful and highly efficient minister till he quit in protest against Gogoi’s style of functioning and the latter’s attempt to foist his novice son in a leadership role over the heads of other deserving Congress leaders. Sarma formally joined the BJP in August 2015. Since then, he had relentlessly campaigned for the party all over the state and had a major role in crafting the BJP’s election strategy. Both Sonowal and Sarma are priceless assets for the BJP.
Now when BJP has taken the mantleship of the state, it is a victory not only for the party, but also for the RSS. In fact, most of the credit for such a victory is richly deserved by the RSS. Now BJP in power in Assam, it would only be a matter of time before the party gains power in some other states in the North-East.
By Nilabh Krishna