As fireworks exploded outside the offices of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Asom Gana Parishad in Guwahati and the Bodoland People’s Front in western Assam, party workers and leaders cheered a victory which a year ago seemed unsure. The Congress, meanwhile, licked its wounds as silence entombed its citadels. The scale of the victory of the alliance led by the BJP has significance beyond the state and it will boost plans to expand influence across the Northeast, an area where barring some pockets, the party does not have much to show yet. The win also confirmed that winning seven seats two years back was no mere flash in the pan.
This was a victory which the BJP and its allies won virtually across all ethnic and linguistic lines in a complex state. The only vote it did not get was probably the vote of Muslims of Bengali origin which was divided between the All India United Democratic Front and the Congress. The win was no doubt especially sweeter after the controversial manner of its acquiring power in Arunachal Pradesh. Well-ensconced with a share in the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland in that state, the BJP now has its sights firmly set on Manipur and seeks to make an impact in Meghalaya too, where the BJP ally, Conrad Sangma of the Nationalist People's Party and son of the late Lok Sabha speaker, Purno A. Sangma, cruised past Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma’s wife in the Tura Lok Sabha by-election.
Four factors played a formidable role in the results: the first was the leadership provided by a partnership between two very different, young politicians—chief minister designate Sarbananda Sonowal, Union minister for sports and youth affairs; and Congress rebel Himanta Biswa Sarma, who designed and ran the BJP campaign. They drew strong support from Modi. Sarma, a one-time right-hand man of Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi and a highly regarded former health minister, joined the BJP and campaigned strategically thanks to his knowledge of Congress’ weak spots. The second was the pro-change mood in the air which was visible at BJP rallies and the clear anti-incumbency wave that the Congress was struggling against, even though its leaders—especially Mr Gogoi were in denial—younger people, urban centres, adivasis and the large tea garden community have voted in favour of the BJP. A third was the alliancewith the AGP, which gained new life after being out of power for 15 years, and the Bodo People's Party. These parties helped the BJP ease across the magic majority mark of 64. The Congress, refusing alliances, fell apart.
The fourth factor was the silent, hard work over several years by party workers and RSS members in key areas. In contrast, the Congress largely lacked a game plan. A senior political analyst said that the BJP’s call for ‘inclusive growth and governance’ also played a key role in its victory. The role of one of the architects of the win, Sarma, is unclear though the word out there is that he could be tapped for a top party role at the central level or a cabinet position. Meanwhile, Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav Gogoi attributes the loss solely to anti-incumbency sentiment. Whatever the case, two power centres in Assam could still be of concern for the BJP national leadership.
Several challenges await the new government. How will it handle the vexed issue of ‘Bangladeshis’ which it pushed so vigorously yet ensure that no genuine members of minority groups are troubled? The issue of immigration from (then East Pakistan and now) Bangladesh into Assam has been a problem for nearly 80 years—it figured as a Congress poll concern in 1946!
As the results came in, Sonowal took a position which was reassuring: immigration is a national problem, so the situation would be clarified by the publication of the national registrar of citizens this year even as central security officials got skittish about minority groups which may find their names missing. But then there’s unemployment, which is driving thousands of young people every year to jobs outside the state and the social sector challenges of poor health and education.
Another key problems are those of unemployment which is driving thousands of young people every year to those paying jobs outside the state and the social sector challenges of poor health (the state’s MMR is the worst in India) and education.
(Sanjoy Hazarika heads the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia)