A massive uproar occurred in Assam against the BJP led central and state Government for enacting the Citizenship Amendment Bill that aims to give citizenship to a particular class of immigrants. The protest was more about indigenous Assamese people’s cultural and linguistic identity rather than religious freedom and secularism.
Five people lost their lives during the agitation and there was a complete shutdown of the internet for many days. During those days, people spontaneously came out to the street and showed their resentment against that act. The protest was self-organised and mass-driven rather than marshalled and directed by a single group.
However, as time progressed, the agitation was primarily taken over by the All Assam Student Union (AASU). The state BJP leaders, who were being defensive during the hustle and tussle, changed their gear from this phase.
To counter the CAA protests, peace rallies or “Shanti-Samadals” were organised in different parts of Assam by the state BJP. Clause 6 of the Assam accord was also highly publicised to show that the saffron party is committed to safeguarding indigenous people’s language and culture. At the same time, AASU continued to question the BJPs motive.
Amid such disarray, the main issue of protest, which was the identity crisis of ethnic groups, leaned towards a dull political squabble. By and large, the ruling party’s well-thought-out strategy worked very well in getting the situation under control. The Covid-19 pandemic also favoured the state’s cause, and anti-CAA sentiments got lost in the shuffle in the later stages.
The health minister of Assam, Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, took charge of the situation and did a decent job. The way the state Government manoeuvred the CAA protests gave the required undercurrent to the saffron party, just one year before the 2021 assembly election.
On the opposition side, anti-BJP forces are finding it very difficult to come under one umbrella. A fraction of the Congress party has proposed a pre-poll alliance with Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF. The alliance has recently contested the BTR election.
On paper, this combination looks detrimental to the saffron party in many constituencies. If we see some numbers from the previous 2016 Assam assembly election, BJP candidates got 46,343 votes in Batadroba constituency while AIUDF+Cong combined got 71,480 votes. In Bilasipara (East), BJP got 59,206 votes while Cong+AIUDF got 97,323 votes. In Sonai, BJP got 44,236 votes and Cong+AIUDF combined got 68,792 votes.
The overall vote share of BJP+ was 41.9% and that of AIUDF+Congress was 44%. This voting pattern strongly suggests that an alliance between the Congress and AIUDF would change their fate in the next election.
But the perception of this alliance is very different from the reality on the ground. Many leaders within the Congress party have shown their unhappiness regarding the alliance with AIUDF either due to their reservation or fear of losing candidacy to AIUDF members. Reportedly, some sitting congress MLAs are in talks with the saffron party and they may switch sides right before the election.
Former Congress Minister and sitting MLA Ajanta Neog and Rajdeep Goala are also set to join the BJP in the next few days. The loyal Congress voters of Upper-Assam are unhappy about the Congress’s love affair with AIUDF as they see Ajmal’s politics as pro-migrant-Muslims. So this crucial chunk of Upper-Assam voters might shift towards newly formed regional parties that emerged from anti-CAA protests.
The legislative assembly election of Assam is scheduled to be held in Assam in March–April 2021. In the 2019 Loksabha (LS) elections, AIUDF contested for only three LS seats out of 14 in Assam. There was a direct contest between Congress and BJP in 9 LS seats. Out of these, the Congress got only one while BJP won the remaining. This shows that the AIUDF-Congress combination did not work well in 2019.
In the recently held BTC election, the Congress and AIUDF combo got only one seat out of 40 council seats. The lone winning candidate of the Congress later joined the BJP. The Tiwa Autonomous Council election result was also an embarrassment for the Congress party as the party secured only one seat while the BJP got 33 out of 36 seats.
The political equation is not as easy as a simple mathematical equation for the Congress party. They must consolidate their vote base by empowering loyal party workers and AICC has to play an active role in doing so. The recent death of Tarun Gogoi, the fatherly face of the Assam Congress, may also give rise to lobby politics within the party.
The ruling BJP party, on the other hand, have massively strengthened their grass root activity. The Government also initiated schemes like Arunodoi and SVAYEM, which are engaging in nature with the public. With these schemes, an environment of belonging with the Government has been successfully created. In rural areas, everyone seems to be busy with these schemes of the Government. Importantly, these schemes have touched everyone in the state irrespective of religion and caste.
The state BJP is aware of the 34.22% Muslim population of Assam. Although communal politics is on the rise, the BJPs organisational structure has reached many Muslim populated areas. A recently surfaced viral video of minister Himanta Biswa Sarma talking with a villager of a minority community via Whatsapp indicates that the state BJP does not want to take a tough anti-Muslim stance. Their party is growing stronger in rural Muslim areas where communal polarisation or social media outbursts do not seem to penetrate. The only thing these villagers care about is “roti kapda aur makaan”.
A recent decision of banning High Madrasa schools by the State Government also created a massive nationwide buzz. But in reality, the banning applies to only state-run High Madrasas. The Madrasas that preach religious texts belong to private organisations such as Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, and these will still run as they were. In these circumstances, we should not be surprised if a few Muslim majority constituencies go to the Saffron party’s tally in the 2021 election.
To stand as a formidable electoral force, the Congress party must clear its stand on CAA and NRC. In Bengali-dominated Barak valley, they project a pro-CAA view while in Brahmaputra valley they oppose CAA wholeheartedly. Their alliance with the AIUDF is also very foggy.
Lack of loyal stature and trust deficit among party workers is another concern for the opposition. There was a tremendous opportunity for regional forces to grab the political space left vacant by Assam Gana Parishad after the CAA agitation. A delay in decision making and lack of political experience hindered their progress. Some anti-CAA leaders joined the Congress party; some joined BJP while others are busy forming political parties without thinking about political sustainability.
The campaigning drive of Assam Jatiyo Porishod (AJP) born out of the anti-CAA movement seems promising, but it is too little too late. The road for Sarbananda Sonowal to serve his second term as chief minister of Assam seems clear unless the opposition does something miraculous in the next few months.