Assam elections: Polarisation over Bangla immigrants led to BJP victory

Assam Elections

By Rekha Bhattacharjee

With the dust settling on a raucous election campaign and with a new regime taking the reins in its hands, an analysis of the Assam poll results becomes apparent. The passing of the baton from a well-entrenched Congress to a debutant (in the state) BJP should be seen as nothing less than a paradigm shift in northeastern politics. The Bhartiya Janata Party’s Sarbanand Sonowal has become the 14th Chief Minister of Assam, ending the unprecedented 15-year tenure of Tarun Gogoi of the Congress. There are a number of reasons which have seen BJP conquer another impregnable Congress bastion.

A polarisation of various sections of Assamese community (including tribal and non-Bengali Muslims) in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party is being cited as the major reason for what the BJP called the ‘Last Battle of Saraighat’ in Assam. “For the first time, Hindus have voted aggressively; Hindus and, you can say, the local Assamese people” – BJP campaign manager and former Congress minister in Assam Himanta Biswa Sharma was not mincing words when he made this statement in a media interview. According to the post-election analysis, the parties in the NDA alliance transferred votes to each other while taking on an isolated Congress and All India Democratic United Front (AIUDF). While the Assamese populace is clear about this polarisation, some confused commentaries are emanating from some leading centre-left media houses.

Sarbananada Sonowal’s and the BJP’s mercurial rise in Assam politics have been dismissed by many political commentators as mere “vote for change” made inevitable by the anti-incumbency factor. This conclusion is not only simplistic but also reveals the Delhi-centric media’s refusal to acknowledge BJP’s gains in the northeast. Issues like development and poor infrastructure did play a role but the reason which catapulted BJP from single-digit performance to near majority in the 126-member house is the consolidation of a vote against political groupings which depend heavily on the so-called Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants or settlers’ vote. The Amit Shah-led BJP think tank’s cause was made easier by a prominent section of the voting community. The Assamese youth, disillusioned and angry over the contentious issue of the “illegal” Bangladeshi immigrants, played a decisive part in voting 53-year old Sonowal and his party to power.

The anger and eagerness of the voters to replace the Congress was reflected in the high polling numbers. Nearly 85 per cent of Assamese voters exercised their universal adult franchise. The 2016 elections would be also remembered for the rejection by the ethic Assamese Muslims of sectarian politics. The number of seats won by the All India Democratic United Front (AIUDF) has gone down along with Congress, with which Assam’s Muslim community broadly aligned till the 2011 elections. While the polarization of the ethnic Assamese voting communities did take place, the two parties helped the BJP by not forming a coalition that everyone expected. In an ironical twist, AIUDF founder Badruddin Ajmal lost in his constituency, Salmara South, to a Congress candidate. The AIUDF’s seat tally reduced from 18 to just 12. Before the elections, Ajmal was being projected as a king-maker. As mentioned earlier, the lack of development and infrastructure in Assam did force the state voters to look for the alternatives. The promises made by youthful state BJP leadership would have made more sense to the electorate than the rusted wheel-barrow the incumbent 81-year old Tarun Gogoi was pushing. Assam’s new ruling dispensation would have to work strenuously to meet the voters’ expectations.

“We hope Sarbonanda Sonowal will bring in youthful resilience and new ideas to take Assam forward. But Sonowal needs to be vigilant that he does not sacrifice the unique indigenous distinctiveness of Assam – both in terms of culture, worldview and development,” social-activist Roshmi Goswami said while talking to this correspondent from Guwahati. Goswami’s views are shared by many among the hoi-polloi and the elite.

“Unfortunately, public perception is of widespread corruption at all levels, the ineptitude of the government machinery and lack of investment and employment opportunities, particularly in rural areas. These are the challenges facing the new government. We wish them luck and look forward to a new dawn for Assam,” Jayanto Chaudhary, a retired DG of the National Security Guard, said.

“The Sonowal government will be a steady government with little scope for corruption – development, improvement of the northeast is very much in the Agenda,” said Pradip G. Baruah, the publisher of Assamese journal “Prantik”. When the euphoria over the rise of saffron party ebbs, many would point out that the Congress has still managed to poll the largest number of votes in the state.

Many die-hard Congress followers blame the inept national leadership for the loss. It remains to be seen for how long the party cadre would continue to tolerate a leadership swimming an ocean of indifference. Whether said in jest or with seriousness, Narendra Modi’s promise to make India a ‘Congress-mukt’ country is fast becoming a reality. With every state election, the Congress graph is dipping southwards – a sign which should alarm those who would like India’s vibrant democracy to thrive.


(Rekha Bhattarcharjee is a senior journalist from Assam based in Sydney. She can be contacted at

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