Through late 2018 and early this year, when Assam—and much of Northeast—was convulsing under mass protests, sometimes violent, many in the region had written off the BJP’s prospects in the parliamentary polls a few months later. Those were volatile times and the BJP was facing a backlash over the contentious citizenship amendment bill (CAB). Party president Amit Shah appeared to have only stoked the fire when he announced at campaign meetings that the BJP, if re-elected, will bring back the now-lapsed bill in Parliament. Even the hardcore BJP supporter would have felt “betrayed” in a region where the fear of “outsider” runs deep. The proposal to grant citizenship on the basis of religion was unpalatable to many.
But the BJP’s policy heads and script-writers knew exactly what they were doing. They even put the “citizenship bill” on the party manifesto. And when the trends started trickling in on May 23, it was obvious that Assam had once again turned saffron. By the end of the day, the BJP had grabbed nine of the ten seats it contested, two more than what they won in 2014. Assam has 14 parliamentary seats and the Congress managed to win three, the same as in 2014. Scent merchant Badaruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF and an Independent candidate bagged the remaining two.
Across the Northeast, the BJP and its allies—that make up the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA)—won 19 of the 25 parliamentary seats in the eight states. But the BJP was not done yet. In the simultaneous assembly elections in Arunachal Pradesh, the party is set to take the lion’s share in the 60-member House. In Sikkim too, the Sikkim Krantikari Party (SKM), ended the record run of chief minister Pawan Singh Chamling of the Sikkim Democratic Front.
The Congress, once the only party that the Northeast trusted, was left with very little to show by way of a revival that many in the region had hoped in the wake of the CAB protests. Political commentator Sushanta Talukdar said the Congress paid the price of “negative campaigning” against the BJP. “They even couldn’t take the issue of citizenship bill to the grassroots. Other issues like unemployment and farmers’ distress were not highlighted…they were more into an anti-Modi campaign. Another crucial point was that the Congress failed to clarify doubts of the people about its equation with the AIUDF. Also, they could not match the organisational reach of the BJP,” Talukdar says.
The biggest win for the Congress came in Kaliabor where sitting MP Gaurav Gogoi—son of former chief minister Tarun Gogoi—won by a margin of over two lakh votes. Pradyut Bordoloi, a JNU alumni and former state minister, also won from Nowgong, albeit by a thin margin; it was the only setback for the BJP. Ajmal retained his Dhubri seat but his party, the AIUDF, lost two other seats it had won last time.
The biggest loser in Assam was the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which will now find it difficult to stay relevant while remaining in the BJP’s shadow. Pushed to a corner by the rapid rise of the BJP, the AGP perhaps paid the price of trying to be too clever. A day after the citizenship bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha, the party snapped ties with the BJP, only to renew the ties ahead of the polls. “No one knows what our leaders want. They are totally clueless. I am afraid, if the party will remain to fight another election,” said Deepak Sonowal, associated with the party since it was formed in 1985.
Electoral success stories make for fascinating read. More so when it’s about winning from seemingly hopeless situations. The story becomes even more interesting in Barak Valley, where the BJP used the citizenship bill to wrest the prestigious Silchar seat from Congress’s Sushmita Dev. In the Bengali-dominated constituency, the BJP made a strong case for the bill which has many takers among the voters. Dev was caught between her party’s opposition to the bill and her voters’ support for it.
BJP leader and the party’s strategist in the region Himanta Biswa Sarma could not hide his glee over the results. “In 2014, we gave 8 seats from the NE region…this time we have given Narendra Modi 19 seats (including those won by its allies). I believe the flow of development will come to Northeast more now.”
The other Lok Sabha seats for the BJP came from Arunachal Pradesh (two), including that of junior minister Kiren Rijiju, Manipur (one) and Tripura (two). That pretty much completes the saffron tinge in the northeastern rainbow.
- 1,055 Victory magin of NPP’s Tirog Aboh from Khonsa West assemblyconstituency in Arunachal Pradesh. Aboh was killed by militants alongwith 10 other people on May 21 in Tirap district of the state. He was a sitting MLA.
By Anupam Bordoloi with inputs from Abdul Gani