What Is Assam Thinking: A Look At The Word On The Streets, This Election

Posted on April 11, 2016 in Politics, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Minakshi Bujarbaruah for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

A woman smiles after casting her vote at a polling station in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra river, Jorhat district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam April 7, 2014. The first electors cast their votes in the world's biggest election on Monday with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi seen holding a strong lead on promises of economic revival and jobs but likely to fall short of a majority. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3KA4Y
Image source: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The current air in Assam is such that the election vibe is affecting even those who think themselves to be apolitical. If one drives around Guwahati city and further beyond, going past bus terminals, flyovers, and other hot-spots, one notices the political strategies used by the Congress and the BJP especially in their use of cartoon and caricature in hoardings that have been a unique feature of this year’s elections.

Utpal Datta, a film critic, thinks that the use of print and audio-visual advertisements has been the most striking aspect of this year’s elections in Assam. Dark humor and sarcasm pitted against the backdrop of the recent political developments have been very wittily used by campaign planners to generate public opinion and reach out to the masses.

College campuses like that of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Cotton College State University, Guwahati University, roadside tea stalls, adda joints and coffee shops are abuzz with political discussions, debates and critical thought. Megha Kashyap, a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus, who has also been socially vocal and active on issues of the youth and other social causes, finds the caricature politics in hoardings striking.

Megha elaborates, “For me the striking aspect of this election would have to be the big hoardings of the Congress and the BJP. It is amusing to watch this mud-slinging game in public. The witty cartoon caricatures are innovative and it is interesting to watch the parties wash their dirty linen in public.”

Angarag Bhuyan opines that there is nothing wrong in using cartoons and caricature as it appeals to people instantly. The popular dialogue of CM Tarun Gogoi- ‘baad diya hey‘ (‘Forget it ya!’) has been used in both a positive and a negative light to suit the need of both parties. For instance, the BJP has used this popular dialogue to depict his careless, callous ways whereas the ruling Congress has used the same to highlight his confidence and courage. “It could, however, have been more creative and fun had the parties not resorted only to mud-slinging through these cartoons. Change is inevitable and if the Congress beats the anti-incumbency, it will have to deliver. The same is with the BJP. Else the public will be non-forgiving.”

What The Public Has To Say

An American comedian Groucho Marx had very wittily once said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” In a countdown to the final phase of the Assembly elections in Assam, the political landscape is shaping up in a similar manner.

For many, the elections mean nothing but yet another form of propaganda in order to gain power and continue the exploitation of the poor and the marginalised in the worst possible manner. For another section, the election is crucial for the people of Assam in terms of expectations from the party that comes to power this time.

Many even say the political scenario in Assam is at crossroads.

The Asom Ganah Parishad (AGP), a regional party known for voicing Assamese sub-nationalism, allying with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a right-wing nationalist party, has indeed come as a shocker for many, leading even to a further split in the regional party which formed a separate faction- AGP Ancholikotabadi Moncho/Regionalist Platform, headed by former AGP youth President Sunil Rajkonwar.

Angarag Bhuyan, a young social activist and educator atMorigaon College opines, “Political alliances that are taking place at this juncture are out of compulsion rather than out of ideological similarities. Regional parties like AGP have allied with BJP only to save their skin from the impending debacle that they would have met otherwise.”

The manner in which alliance building is unfolding indicates a lack of serious ideological commitment on the part of parties and introspection regarding the same. Big talk, propaganda and partial truths, all flashed in the name of ‘poribortan‘ or ‘development’ of Assam without reflecting on the ironies of the same have appalled many.

Poonam Kakoti Borah, Assistant Professor at the Department of Women’s Studies, Guwahati University, who is also pursuing her PhD. from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal NehruUniversity, says, “The politics of alliance building in Assam is important and interesting at the same time as it shows a blurring of political arguments used previously by the parties. While the AGP might believe that this will lead to their resuscitation, the BJP knows that AGP will become almost non-existent by the next elections (with the AGP vote bank and candidates slowly shifting to BJP).”

The elections have also seen a massive participation of youth- as candidates as well as flag-bearers in campaigns for parties and candidates. This is yet another section that is highly critical of developments that are taking shape. Some say alliances are exposing the double standards of parties and their thirst for money and power.

Bitopi Dutta from Dhakuakhana sub-division in Lakhimpur district in Assam, who is currently pursuing her PhD. from Dublin City University, opines, “Yesterday’s apolitical (people) are becoming political today after BJP has come to power in the Centre and everyone suddenly seems to have an opinion. However, how informed is the opinion is hardly questioned. A more polarised campaign than before, this year’s elections portray a political atmosphere that is getting more about a binary affiliation – of being a nationalist or an anti-nationalist.”

In fact, concerned with the recent happenings across Indian universities on this issue, a joint public appeal/statement urging the people of Assam to vote sensibly and stop the divisive agenda of the BJP coming into power in Assam was sent across by noted academicians, scholars, youth activists, writers and conscious citizens. The statement signed by noted intellectuals like Prof. Hiren Gohain, Prof. Arupjyoti Saikia, Dr. Xonzoi Barbora, Udayaditya Bharali, Loknath Goswami, Prof. Baniprasanna Mishra, Shantanu Borthakur and many others, states in conclusion that:

“In such a complicated moment, the following signatories humbly request the people of Assam to reject the divisive, communal, fascist and corporate agent BJP in ensuing Assembly Elections. Let every conscious voter of Assam vote against BJP and stand by the interest of the people of Assam.”

But as Poonam K. Borah adds, with a strong anti-incumbency factor, this election may signify the advent of the BJP (in Assam) which doesn’t bode too well for the state: “Also, the rhetoric of larger nationalism used by the party subsumes the sub-nationalist voice that Assam has personified for a long time. If the BJP-led alliance forms the government, then there will be an obvious rise in corporate investment in the region. But through corporate instead of state investment, will come the concomitant danger of environmental degradation and ecological threat.”

Miguel Das Queah (Founder Chairman at UTSAH- Universal Team for Social Action and Help ), a passionate young child rights activist, is not too optimistic about the elections and change that is foreseen by many. Das explains that while the Congress has gone into a super-charity mode, the BJP is clinching onto the illegal immigration issue without having any concrete plans for addressing the same. “Each party is trying their best to milk electoral benefit capitalising on the sentiments of innocent people. This election means nothing other than the fulfillment of a mandated constitutional exercise. It lacks empathy, vision and foresight and has no conviction about addressing the real issues. The politicians, each one more desperate than the other, are hardly concerned about the good of the common people. The entire frenzy about elections is an attempt to cling to power and all that the politicians seek is a position that could help fill their coffers. Where are the voices demanding human rights? Where are the votaries of child rights? Have we seen any of these in the manifestos? Even these manifestos are a marketing exercise to woo the voters.”

A woman (L) casts her vote with an electronic voting machine as others get their voting slip from an officer at a polling station in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra river, Jorhat district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam April 7, 2014. The first electors cast their votes in the world's biggest election on Monday with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi seen holding a strong lead on promises of economic revival and jobs but likely to fall short of a majority. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3K8J6
Image source: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

What It Means For The Youth Of Assam

On the question of what this election has to offer or what it means to youth in Assam and those residing elsewhere in search of better educational institutions and employment opportunities, not many are hopeful of change in a post-election scenario in Assam. Monimoy Bujarbaruah, from Guwahati currently pursuing his undergrad studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay says that the youth should not be swept off by the wave of this election. Bujarbaruah adds, “Rather, I think the youth should focus on the concept of politics, democracy and social justice. These elections, with their inherent flaws and biases can make a young mind lose hope in the future of our state and our country. But, one should always know that with a Constitution like ours, we all have equal opportunities to think, work and flourish. The youth should be aware of the state of our politics, should be willing to work for the improvement of everyone regardless of their faith and caste and should avoid conflating political chauvinism with love for the nation.”

Navanil Baruah, a senior health professional also highly vocal about socio-political issues over social media, is cynical and argues, “The youth being positive, always are restless and look for that ethereal change. However, they sit back and fall into the rut as they grow old. This election has nothing to offer for youth, more so, when people (mostly men) above 50 years masquerade as ‘youth’.”

For yet another section of youth, the elections are significant and they would disagree with Baruah’s argument. Given the current political atmosphere and a new consciousness and rise of student voices across the country, the student community and youth in Assam are closely watching every small and big development in the course of this election as it unfolds and the drama turns tense.

‘Change’ & ‘Development’ – Not Really The Magic Words

Amidst this political frenzy, some feel ‘change’ and ‘development’ that have been the buzzwords of this year’s election are illusory. Promises and tall claims made are often far from the reality that gets delivered on ground. From the issue of ethnic unrest in Bodo Territorial Autonomous District, peace talks, the National Registration of Citizens (NRC), resource management, dam construction and environmental degradation, rhino poaching and encroachment in Kaziranga National Park and Pobitora Wild Life Sanctuary, to land rights, unemployment, education, rights of the indigenous and tea tribes, Assam has a lot on its platter.

Unfortunately, no party has spoken of ways to address these issues and think of concrete solutions for the same. Disability rights activist and Executive Director of Shishu Sarothi, Arman Ali, thinks that the elections this year are important and political parties have to look above their own party interest and keep people’s mandate as a priority and not forget the bio-diversity and ethnicity that defines the land. “The foremost thing would be to create and tap the potential of the state and to look within. The party that comes to power would need to focus on health, create employment avenues and entrepreneurship for its people by making use of existing resources.”

In a nail-biting turn of events, as the stage is set and the performance gets more measured, nuanced and calculated, it will be interesting to watch who Assam elects in this ‘Last Battle of Saraighat’ (as quoted by BJP enthusiasts).