BJP’s Rising Fortunes in Assam: Will it Last?

December 19, 2015

by Debarshi Das

The map of seats won by different political parties in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections presents an interesting picture. Barring few patches in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir, an orange sea has engulfed the north, the central part and the west of the country. This orange sea represents the seats won by the BJP. In the east too it has submerged Bihar and Jharkhand. The orange sea has been contained by a barrier which runs along the east coast. From down south, this barrier stretches all the way up to West Bengal and Sikkim. This barrier is BJP’s frontier, comprising of disparate political parties most of which are regional outfits.

dd_2014_map

Source: http://indiaintransition.com/2014/07/08/voter-turnout-and-the-modi-wave/

There are two breaches in the barrier, the places where the orange sea has broken in. The first one is in Karnataka in the south and the other is in Assam in the east. Karnataka has had a fairly long presence of the BJP. The party has headed the government in the state in the past. Moreover, the brown patches in Karnataka are not disconnected from the similar patches in Maharashtra to its north. So, the breach in the south was not unexpected.

Assam presents a most curious case. The BJP has never been in the commanding position in Assam’s electoral politics. For example, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP had the best performance in its history, it won 4 out of 14 seats and received 17% of the votes. In contrast, in 2014 the vote share rose to 37%, seats jumped to 7. The fact that the orange segments in Assam are not contiguous to the orange sea in the mainland underscores the singularity of BJP’s performance in Assam.

What inner dynamic lies behind the result of 2014? Will similar results be repeated in the 2016 assembly elections? According to the party functionaries of the BJP, the RSS is giving high importance to the Assam elections. This focus on Assam is understandable given the back-to-back drubbings the party received in Delhi and Bihar recently. The other states which are to go to the polls in 2016 are Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and West Bengal. These states are unlikely to produce phenomenal electoral showing for the party. Assam could prove to be the saving grace for the BJP in 2016. But will it?

Communal Polarisation?

Some commentators have detected communal polarisation as a cause for BJP’s good showing (Mahanta 2014). Assam has had a troubled past of sectarian mass violence. A Hindu majoritarian party stands to gain handsomely in such a fragile political landscape. Did communal polarisation help the BJP? For instance, division of votes between the pro-Hindu BJP and a pro-Muslim AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front)?[1]

Before we attempt to answer the question, it is important to note that the sentiments which acted as the motor force of state politics in the past have often been anti-foreigner or anti-outsider. They have not been anti-Muslim or pro-Hindu. At the same time, however, a large number of the victims of Assam’s anti-outsider movements have been from the Muslim community. The reason could be that they are the largest and possibly the weakest (economically) section among the ‘outsiders’. In addition they belong to a religion which is different from the religion of the chief articulators of Assamese nationalism. The rage against the outsider refracted in terms of violence against Muslims of East Bengal origin. It is not surprising that in the biggest pogrom that the state witnessed, namely Nellie 1983, thousands of poor Muslims peasants were butchered.

That this happened at the height of an anti-foreigner movement, which did not have an overt religious colour is also noteworthy.[2] As if, the class identity, the religious identity and the outsider identity of Bengali-speaking Muslims got enmeshed with one other to conspire against them. It is difficult to set aside their Islam and their poverty, and pronounce that the residual – their non-indigenous identity – was the reason which done them in. The multiple marginalities overlapped and rendered a group vulnerable.

Historical Background

A sense of anxiety towards the outsider has informed regional nationalism in Assam for long. It goes back to the pre-Independence era. It is not difficult to discern its root. Since the British annexation in the early nineteenth century, the region, which had been relatively secluded thus far, experienced an influx of various population groups. These included indentured tea garden workers from the Chhotanagpur region, white-collar workers and petty traders from Bengal, Nepali herdsmen, Marwari traders, and peasants – mostly Muslim – from East Bengal. The migration flows had a profound and irreversible impact on the local economy and society. During the same time, articulation of Assamese nationalism was becoming common, which, at times, was apprehensive of the immigration tide (Das and Saikia 2011). Thus, the anxieties which have been on display in recent years are not new. They have been finding expression in political discourse and popular media since early twentieth century. Although nationalism is considered a product of bourgeois development, and the bourgeoisie in Assam is yet to come to its own, it would be incorrect to think that the advent of capitalism is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Articulators of regional nationalism in Assam came from the ranks of the nascent petty bourgeoisie, which germinated as the colonial state machinery and capital struck root.

It might be useful to examine the relation between regional nationalism and pan-Indian nationalism using the framework of Amalendu Guha (1977, 1979). “Little nationalism” which the regional bourgeoisie champions may not always move in unison with “great nationalism”, advocated by the pan-India big bourgeoisie. The big bourgeoisie see the development of a homogenous all-Indian market to their benefit. Establishment of such a level playing field to do business in is underpinned by a narrative of pan-Indian nationalism. On the other hand, the middle class manning the camp of little nationalism have reasons to be apprehensive of a unitary nation State. In the extreme it may choose secession. Normally, it would seek more independence for itself in terms of regional autonomy, a federal structure. While the little and great nationalisms may find a common cause at times, such as the anti-imperialist struggle, the conflicts and frictions are never far away.

During the colonial times, an early forum of Assamese nationalism, the Assam Association, dissolved itself to enable the formation of the Pradesh Congress in 1921. Borrowing from Guha, this liquidation can be seen a compromise of the “little” Assamese nationalism with the “great” Indian nationalism – both of which were in a process of evolution during that time. The Congress party, in its turn, returned the favour and accommodated the little nationalism’s aspirations. In the years leading to the Partition and Independence legislative politics in the state was buffeted by instability. The Congress party assumed the mantle of the defender of indigenous peoples’ interests thorough this period.[3]

Post-Independence Assam witnessed a long period of Congress rule. The formula which sustained this success is apocryphally known as “Ali-Coolie-Bongali” – an electoral platform comprising of immigrant Muslims, tea garden workers and Hindu Bengalis. It’s interesting to note that all three components of the alliance are non-indigenous. The fact that the party could continually rule for nearly three decades indicates that the party enjoyed support from a section of the indigenous population as well. At the same time it cannot be denied that the party was adept in managing the disparate coalition. By the late-1970s the compact was substantially strained and it disintegrated.

The Assam movement (1979-1985) marked a watershed in Assam’s politics. Little nationalism, contained so far within the organisational fold of the Congress party in a pact with the great nationalism, broke out of the mould. The contradictions between the regional bourgeoisie and the all-India bourgeoisie could no longer be managed within the Congress.

As mentioned before the Assam Movement has often turned anti-minority and anti-labour possibly because of its accent on identity politics. This aspect of exclusivity of little nationalism left a disturbing legacy. First, it gave boost to demands of exclusive geographical zones for many tribal groups that populate Assam. The massacre of Nellie would be replicated in these movements, although at a smaller scale. Thus from regional, exclusivity went micro to local exclusivity. The recurrent bloodsheds in the BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Area District) area are a most obvious example of such projects of establishing exclusivity. These endeavours have been termed as ethnic cleansing by none other than the Assam Government. Not surprisingly, in these cases too the Bengali-speaking Muslims have often been in the receiving end.

Second, exclusivity also went macro. The Assam Movement swore by the indigenous’ rights. Ironically, while its rhetoric attacked the colonising Indian State and its discriminatory policies, the victims of the Movement were often Muslim peasants. These visible adversaries on the ground, namely the Muslim peasants – their religion, their putative homeland (Bangladesh), are more real and therefore easy to target, compared to the Indian nation State and its crafty machinations which are more abstract. Hindu nationalists understood this early on (refer to endnote [2]). It is not surprising that the Assam Movement was succeeded by the growth of pan-Indian Hindu nationalism in the state.

The Rise and Fall of the AGP

During the churning of 1970s and 1980s little nationalism splintered and took on varied means of articulation and propagation. A section veered toward parliamentary politics and formed the political party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Riding the momentum of the Assam movement the AGP went on to form the state government in 1985. Thirty years down the line, this stream appears to have spent itself.

At the other end of the spectrum, armed militant groups were formed which articulated the politics of northeastern solidarity and of secession from the Union. After an initial run of populism, appealing to local petty bourgeois sensibilities, this stream encountered the military might of the Indian State. Of late, this stream appears depleted just like its parliamentary brethren. Thus the little nationalism, which came out of the shadow of the Congress, took a strident posture and drove a hard bargain with the great nationalism, is much diminished at present. Or, more precisely, its political endeavours are.

Did this decline imply gains for the Congress? For a while it seemed that the Congress party has reconsolidated its old base. Fifteen years of Congress rule from 2001 to 2016 suggests such an interpretation. However, this inference could be incorrect. Changes in the national politics must be accounted for in order to understand the political contours of contemporary Assam. The rise of Hindutva politics meant that the Congress is no longer the dominant party of the Indian big bourgeoisie. When the strident little nationalism peaked and gradually declined in Assam, an aggressive brand of great nationalism was tasting electoral success in the mainland. As the AGP diminished the vacuum it left behind could have been filled by the Congress as well as the BJP.

 Percent of BJP votesPercent of AGP votesPercent of INC votes
19851.161.5*23.2
19916.617.929.4
199610.429.730.6
20019.42039.8
20061220.431.1
201111.516.339.4
2014**36.53.829.6
*Independent candidates’ vote share. AGP candidates fought as independents in 1985; some overestimation is possible due to the inclusion of genuine independent votes in the 61.5%.

**Lok Sabha election data.

Table 1: Changing vote share of three major parties in Vidhan Sabha elections (source: Election Commission of India, various reports).

Table 1 illustrates the steady rise of the BJP and the concomitant erosion of the AGP in successive state assembly elections. The numbers of 2014 are of Lok Sabha elections. The 2014 numbers have been cited for illustrative purpose, to underline the severity of the decline of the AGP and the surge of the BJP. These numbers are not completely comparable to state assembly elections data of other years. Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections have different dynamics, voters have different considerations in mind while voting in each. A national party stands to gain more in Lok Sabha elections compared to a regional party. It is also to be remembered that 2014 saw a nationwide rise of vote share of the BJP: the so called Modi wave. These factors mean that the BJP may not do as well in the 2016 Vidhan Sabha elections as it did in 2014. However, it would not be unjust to expect that a part of the surge the BJP received in 2014 would remain with the party in 2016. The party’s victory in nearly half of the seats in the urban local bodies’ elections in 2015 is indicative of this retention (Goswami and Tripathi 2015).

From the table one can discern that the decline of the AGP benefited the Congress the most in the initial years. In 2014 the BJP gained at the cost the AGP, with some damage done to Congress as well.

A quick look at the region-wise performance of the BJP and the AGP in 2014 confirms this pattern: the BJP has done particularly well in the former bastion of the AGP, the Upper Assam region (Goswami and Tripathi 2015). Thus, in Upper Assam the BJP’s vote share has started from a low base and rose more than three times in 2014 compared to 2009 Lok Sabha elections. In contrast, the AGP’s share dropped in both Upper and Lower Assam, but in Upper Assam the fall was most severe: it became merely one-fifth of its former value. Upper Assam is the region where the BJP gained seats in 2014. In the rest of the state it in fact lost one seat compared to the 2009 elections.

The fate of the BJP’s electoral performance would be decided by how deftly it negotiates with little nationalism, which is reflexively suspicious of a pro-Hindutva, pan-India narrative of nationalism. It also depends on how successfully it stokes the sense of insecurity that little nationalism harbours towards Bangladeshi infiltration, or more precisely, the bogey of it. This is without doubt a tough and dangerous balance to maintain.[4]

The AIUDF Factor

There is another development which must be accounted for while we assess BJP’s chances. This is the rise of the AIUDF, a party which has attracted popular support of the Bengali-speaking Muslims. At present it is the second largest party in the state assembly, commanding nearly twice as many seats as the AGP. But the AGP has not been the main victim of the AIUDF’s success. It is perhaps Congress which has suffered the most. The fact that in 2014 both the grand old party the Congress and the new-comer the AIUDF got three seats each underscores the sea-change that has taken place since AIUDF’s formation ten years ago. Their combined vote share however surpasses the BJP’s share by a good 10 percentage points. A united opposition of the INC and the AIUDF can very well spoil the BJP’s plans in Assam.

Going back to the question we posed at the beginning, if communal polarisation has been a reason behind the BJP’s success, the answer is both no and yes. Polarisation would imply consolidation of Muslim votes under one party. This has not happened. Vote percentage of the AIUDF has in fact declined from 16.1% to 14.8%. This in a state where the Muslims constitute more than one-third of the population. At the same time, however, the BJP has made large gains in the eastern districts which have low Muslim population share. This perhaps indicates there has been a consolidation of Hindu votes under the BJP.

Final Words

The constitution of a pan-India nationalism has been a work in progress. This is not surprising in a country where the bourgeoisie, although gradually emerging as the dominant political economic force, is yet to achieve an undisputed commanding position at the helm. As different bourgeoisies belonging to different nationalities go through their motion, a constant negotiation goes on between them. The rising prowess of the pro-Hindutva version of great nationalism and the diminishing appeal of strident little nationalism is a critical point in this negotiation process. The success of the BJP in the 2014 elections in Assam points towards a certain tilting of balance between the two nationalisms. This does not augers well for a state with a varied ethnic, linguistic and religious population composition. Whether the BJP would be capable of keeping the balance tilted will have a bearing on its prospects in the 2016 assembly elections. From a long run point of view, the BJP would have to assimilate little nationalism in order to gain a solid, dominant position in the state. This is, perhaps, an impossible task. For, as long as capitalist development keeps on reproducing regional inequality little nationalism will not lose its appeal.

References:

Das, Debarshi and Arupjyoti Saikia (2011): “Early Twentieth Century Agrarian Assam: A Brief and Preliminary Overview,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 46, No 41, pp 73-80.

Goswami, Sandhya and Vikas Tripathi (2015): “Understanding the Political Shift in Assam: Withering Congress Dominance,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 39, pp 67-71.

Guha, Amalendu (1977): Planter-Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam 19261947, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

Guha, Amalendu (1979): “Great Nationalism, Little Nationalism and the Problem of Integration: A Tentative View,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 14, No 7/8, pp 455-458.

Mahanta, Nani Gopal (2014): “Lok Sabha Elections in Assam: Shifting of Traditional Vote Bases to BJP,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 35, pp 19-22.

Endnotes:

[1] By communal polarisation we mean clustering of votes in two extreme poles, with a shrinking middle ground.

[2] We use the word ‘overt’ advisedly here, for there are reports that right-wing Hindu organisations had infiltrated the movement. The glee of Pravin Togadia over Nellie killings suggests that these reports may have merit.

[3] Guha (1977) observes, “…the Congress policy of refusing settlement of wastelands with the post-1937 immigrants alienated the Muslim peasants”. Pradesh Congress’s staunch opposition, defying Nehru and Patel, to the Cabinet Mission Plan of a federal undivided India is another example. The Plan put Assam and Bengal together in Section C, where (a) the Constituent Assembly members from Assam were outnumbered by an overwhelming 6 to 1, (b) the Muslim members formed the majority.

[4] A recent Central Government notification of granting amnesty to undocumented Hindu migrants from Bangladesh is an example of how difficult this balancing act is. While the notification is in line with the long held RSS position that India is the land of the Hindus, it has touched a raw nerve in the nationalist quarters in the state.

A shorter version of the article had appeared in The Wire

Acknowledgement: I thank Amit Basole, Arupjyoti Saikia, Deepankar Basu and Ravi for their comments on an earlier draft.

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