The spectacular poll victory earned by BJP and its alliance in the 2016 Assembly Elections in Assam has made many pundits wrong, creating a new set of political yardsticks hitherto unknown in the state. The massive mandate in favour of the BJP with 60 seats of its own and its alliances wining 29 more has once again proved the usefulness of grand alliances, last witnessed in Bihar Assembly polls late last year. This verdict, which has put the BJP for the first time to form the government in Assam, needs to be analysed for a number of reasons including the question of the identity of Assamese nationality.
The success of grand alliances was first seen in Bihar where the incumbent JD-U forged an alliance with once time foe RJD and the Congress. The result was stupendous. The grand-alliance succeeded in routing the BJP which had made so many campaign blitzkriegs. Similar pre-poll alliances were on the cards in Assam much before the poll announcements and the sense on the air was a joint front by Congress, the regionalist Asom Gana Parichad and All India United Democratic Front. The Congress seemed to be considering that because of the strong anti-incumbency factor for its fifteen years in office. However, it was the Bihar result which made the ruling Congress party to go it alone sensing a same poll debacle by BJP in Assam. This political hegemonic stance and miscalculation cost the Congress for an unprecedented alliance with AGP which was also struggling with an existential threat after the 2014 Lok Sabha Polls. The Gana Shakti Party, which plays an influential role in four ethnic Mishing dominated LACs also could not come up with terms with Congress till the last time.
Opposite to this, just like the Bihar Mahajotbandhan, the BJP forged a tie-up with the AGP, the Bodoland People’s Front and two other ethnic parties of the Tiwas and Rabhas to appear as the common platform for all indigenous voices of Assam. The murkier role played by the AIUDF, a party which represents the religious minorities from the East Bengali migrants enabled this grand alliance consisting of a strong majority sentiments, regionalist ideology and ethnic aspirations to emerge as the stronger option before the incumbent Congress. The fielding of Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal as the Chief Ministerial candidate by BJP and its clear acceptance by all alliance members added more weight to their campaign for being a popular and young leader who is also a ST. The possibility of Congress forging a post-poll alliance with AIUDF also made voters to opt for the alliance for the protection of the Assamese identity.
It should be mentioned that the Assamese nationality is a linguistic one and inclusive of all castes and communities belonging to different faiths. The Baptist missionaries here regarded as the saviour of Assamese language officially during the colonial time and Muslims are inseparable part of this inclusive identity as the fifteenth century Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardev took them inside the fold along with other tribes of the hills. This was further strengthened by seventeenth century Sufi saint Azaan Fakir who bonded the Hindus and Muslims with his preaching conducted in folk songs. As a result the Brahmaputra valley never had an exclusivist society separated by caste, religion and ethnicity.
In the famous naval battle of Saraighat between the Mughals and Ahom kingdom near Guwahati in 1678, Lachit Borphukan led this inclusive army against Raja Ram Singh of Emperor Aurangzeb. In that decisive battle, the deputy of Lachit was Ismail Siddique alias ‘Bagh’ (Tiger) Hazarika. This unique identity of Assamese nationalism was tested time and again in the history and each time it remained true to the spirit despite some concerted efforts to make it look like different. The counter-narratives of this nationalism failed earlier in the 1979-85 Assam Movement, when a mass agitation rocked the state against infiltration of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
However the movement was clear about the identity of a foreigner, be it was a Hindu or a Muslim. A foreigner is a foreigner and he or she must be expelled from the country and their names should be deleted from the electoral rolls. This non-communal stand on foreigner’s issue has placed the modern Assamese identity to a heightened position which no political party can ignore. But the constant delay and sincerity by the Congress in implementing the 1985 Assam Accord over the issue of identifying and expelling the illegal immigrants has been affecting the state leading to various fringe elements. The delay in upgrading the NRC by the Congress also frustrated this national sentiment in recent times. Therefore BJP led alliance’s poll templates like ‘the last Battle of Saraighat’ attracted the young voters very much.
Staying on the same point is the politics played by AIUDF led by perfume magnet Maulana Badruddin Ajmal. The party was formed before the 2006 Assam assembly polls following souring of relations between Ajmal, a leader of quasi-political Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind, Assam and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. To score the political rivalry at the personal level, Ajmal took it to the state’s political area forming the party with a view to strengthen the immigrant Muslims of East Bengali descent of Assam, an important vote bank of the Congress. This community, which often face the burden of being alleged illegal immigrants or infiltrators has been weary of the politics of ‘fear and protection’ by the Congress over the years. Therefore the AIUDF quickly got their support in the assembly polls wining ten seats.
Ajmal’s rise and relevance was famously mocked by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi as “Who is Badruddin?”, terming him to be a sectarian leader. Despite the space given to different communities in AIUDF including some ethnic groups, the party remained as to be a distinctly religious party due to the apparent image of Maulna Ajmal. His activities like healing the sick with water aired with prayers also relegated the party to be a religious one despite its spectacular success in the 2011 assembly polls winning 18 seats. This image of AIUDF as a religious political party has been colliding with the unique Assamese identity and nationality in the last ten years created a sense of insecurity among the majority of the Assamese voters to vote for the grand alliance.
Similarly the erosion of Congress vote banks among the tea garden communities in upper Assam, the ethnic Nepalis and Hindu Bengalis also contributed to the election triumph of the BJP-led alliance in Assam this time. The defection of firebrand leader Dr. H.B. Sarma from Congress to BJP also fastened the fall of the party before the voters of Assam.
The win of this nationalist sentiment in Assam’s assembly polls should not be read as the triumph of the majority over the minority. Minorities have been the inseparable part of the Assamese mainstream since the past and this time too, they are part of this sentiment to retain their unique identity—eroded and homogenized by the ‘Bangladeshi’ tag and an increasingly active Islamist narrative.
(The writer is a columnist in Assam and teaches English at Lakhimpur Commerce College, North Lakhimpur, Assam. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)