The electoral behaviour of Assam’s voters is both curious and inscrutable. The lack of homogeneity in its demography is probably one of the reasons but it still doesn’t explain the dominance of the Congress in the face of a sustained “anti-mainland” discourse. Even in the highly charged atmosphere of a belligerent Narendra Modi publicity blitz, Assam seems to be loyal to the sycophant slogan that one of its leaders contributed to another authoritarian leader, ‘India is Indira, Indira is India’.
Issues like insurgency and alleged illegal migration from Bangladesh have been the centrepieces of Assam politics for over three decades. With insurgency on the wane and illegal migration relegated to only rhetoric, what is Assam voting for? Residents say it is “price rise” and “governance”. The projections, however, indicate that the ruling Congress, otherwise beleaguered across the country, is expected to do well in Assam. So what is Tarun Gogoi’s mantra that his counterparts in other states have failed to chant? Some say he’s just been lucky, aided with a weak opposition. He has also been supremely successful in containing dissidence within the ranks.
The BJP, for some mysterious reason, has repeatedly fielded candidates who have had no appeal with the voters.
The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), prodigal sons of the 1970s and ’80s, is now a political non-entity in the state. The BJP, for some mysterious reason, has never got its act together and repeatedly fields candidates who have no appeal with the voters (with the exception of Bhupen Hazarika who despite his huge popularity lost in ’04). No different now. With a few exceptions, most BJP candidates are virtually unknown. In the tea country of Upper Assam, the BJP has fielded two “tea garden community” candidates, but the party is yet to penetrate the ‘coolie’ votes of the estates. Billionaire perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, which emerged as a formidable opposition, has not expanded beyond its Muslim-dominated areas. So, Tarun Gogoi prevails.
The state government and the Centre can claim to have brought a number of underground movements to the negotiating table, but it must also admit to having legitimised extortion rackets (by the surrendered rebels) who have also managed to bag lucrative contracts aided by the government. The common man also ends up paying the price of such ad-hoc peace initiatives. Violence can never be measured only by bodybags; abduction, extortion and intimidation are violent too. Some reports say in 2013 Assam registered an average of 350 abductions every month, mostly for ransom.
But it is really in the Bodoland areas of Lower Assam where the 2014 election results will determine the next government’s first big challenge; the demand for Bodoland state and “50-50 division of Assam”. This is a demand that’s been going on since 1967 and the UPA decision on Telangana will now fuel the claims. Resistance has resulted in bloody battles with hundreds dead and lakhs of residents who are still homeless. The Bodo political formations have said in no unclear terms that they will go with whoever gives them statehood. During the NDA’s time, L.K. Advani as home minister had granted amnesty to one Bodo group and they have always had a working relationship with the BJP.
In postscript, Assam will not vote on issues that impact their daily lives but on emotional issues like subnational assertions or tribal and caste considerations. The Raghuram Rajan Committee report, 2013, puts Assam among the 10 least developed states. Its human development indices are abysmally low but it is unlikely that infant mortality or school dropout rates will influence voting.
Journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee is the author of Che in Paona Bazaar