Riddle of Assam elections

BJP’s victory has little to do with development


The outright victory of the BJP-led NDA alliance in Assam in a marked departure from the national trend where in three states it was trounced rather resoundingly, might cause mild surprise. But it was not entirely unexpected given the unremitting and purposeful work by BJP and the saffron brigade for the last five years. This has less to do with the much-touted ‘Vikash’ which has drastically diminished the earning capacity of the working masses and led to naked plunder of natural resources and public goods of the state. But it has much to do with single-minded dedication to sustaining electoral gains. One may stress at this point that holding control of government by a party that brooks no constitutional niceties is a great help in scoring wins.             

First BJP and its saffron allies set about undermining the fairly strong regional community of interests by injecting potent doses of Hindutva narcotics. The new BJP led government spent crores of rupees on spectacular but sterile religious rituals including propitiating the river-god Brahmaputra with priests imported from Varanasi, though the god responded with a record-breaking flood. Dozens of schools under RSS-linked Vidya Bharati sprang up and were showered with state funds. Colleges were named after Deen Dayal Upadhyay until outraged protests put brakes on. 

And numerous other overt and covert attempts to accustom people to saffron culture and demonisation of Muslims followed. 

The media were both coerced and bribed to moderate or stop criticism and regularly echo and re-echo Hindu religious ideas and sentiments. Thus, the unconscious but fairly solid secular local traditions were badly eroded. This process was watched with resignation by secular forces except the Left and the staunchly democratic remnant of the elite. 

Thus, a favourable climate for further religious communal propaganda was created. Large chunks of liberal democratic elite did not contemplate resisting it in the name of tolerance.             

Secondly the entire neo-liberal Vikash had aimed at ruthlessly undermining all small independent livelihoods like farming and small trade in the interest of big capital. The result had naturally been a steep rise in the level of rural and urban poverty and indebtedness punctuated by suicides. People raged in frustration and anguish. In the year before the election the state government went about creating beneficiaries which appeared like welcome showers in a terrible drought. As many as 91 lakh beneficiaries were thus created, as was openly claimed by the state BJP president. The local and the state BJP leaders put their charm on beguiling the hapless people with a sudden acquisition of concern and sympathy for them. The campaign was too massive to be dented by criticism of the few local dissidents.             

Critics of the government and the opposition repeatedly warned that these blandishments might be transient, and the drought could return with menacing power. 

But the grateful people were induced by deceptive propaganda to ignore them.           

It has to be conceded that in a way the BJP has built on foundations laid during Congress neo-liberal political economy, like for instance the withering pauperisation of working people, but gave them an altogether vicious pitiless character. For example, it severed the traditional links among regional communities already weakened by postmodernist discursive excesses. Autonomies granted then are now being nurtured into airtight compartments more easily vulnerable to saffron hegemony.

The scope for united regional opposition to homogenized nationalism is shrinking by the day.             

In the meantime, Congress had entered into an alliance with the AIUDF, an outfit led by a Muslim cleric with much influence on populous immigrant Muslim areas, since it calculated that direct contest with it could help BJP emerge as the winner. It paid dividends in lower and middle Assam with sizable immigrant Muslim population ,but the BJP seized the opportunity to paint the cleric Badruddin Ajmal as a rabid Muslim with terrorist links. This vile campaign generated so much heat that even when exposed as baseless the stigma  still stuck. 

This is not to say that the party goes all the way towards secular goals, or that it is not rigid in some matters, but it believes in tolerance.         

Then the situation has been further confused by the benefits reaped by various old and new regionalist (‘nationalist’) outfits from the panic at the introduction of CAA. It was marked by widespread but dispersed outbursts of protest all over the state. The BJP cleverly exempted tribal territories from operation of CAA probably intending to deploy it in future. AASU was in principle opposed to it but in practice aligned with BJP in its wariness about immigrant Muslims. It got alarmed by the explosive passion in such outbursts leading to police firing killing five youths on the night of November 11, 2019 when angry crowds in tens of thousands defied the curfew and spilled over into streets in directionless fury. As I commented at that time AASU seems to have tried to tame the popular rage by confining protest in a particular playground  in town and ending all programmes by 5 PM every day. After some time it floated the idea of launching a new regional (Jatiyotabadi) party supposedly ‘in response to public demand’. After prolonged and elaborate ritualistic preparations which included a few prominent saffron sympathisers, it launched a new regional outfit the Asom Jatiyo Parishad led by its former general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi. Well-known agitator and mobiliser of massive protests against corruption and misrule of successive governments and leader of KMSS, Akhil Gogoi, also floated a new party named Raijor Dal.         

The Grand Alliance floated by Congress with the help of headquarters emissary Jitendra Singh, banked on support from the newly formed regional outfits and deliberately refrained from criticising them. But both resolutely kept on rebuffing these overtures on the ground that both the NDA and the Grand Alliance were equally communal, the latter particularly for aligning with AIUDF. Sober people pointed out there was a considerable difference in degree if not kind between AIUDF and hate-driven saffron army, but it fell on deaf ears.         

Actually, in the year leading up to the election the saffron army had mounted a huge offensive on the Congress-AIUDF alliance as a clear invitation to communal terror. Fake ISI plots rigged up by BJP were one by one proved false but a general alarm was the offshoot. People in upper Assam were still not fully aware of the complex realities on the ground in lower and middle Assam with heavy Muslim population, where there has been a long-drawn tussle between extreme Islamist orthodoxy and an outlook of co-existence, peace and accommodation. So this vile propaganda did sow seeds of suspicion. But these seeds sprouted luxuriantly thanks to Akhil Gogoi’s sustained invectives against ‘communal’ Congress and Grand Alliance. Many of the lies and fake videos floated by the saffron army were shot down by sceptics and critics, but the fact that both these immaculate ‘national’ parties supported the myth helped win credibility for it.             

The result is that in many crucial upper Assam constituencies with overall Assamese majorities the Grand Alliance was beaten. The interesting part is that in spite of this vicious vilification the Congress won a respectable share of the votes. (To this disadvantage must be added that of having been under an unremitting official and unofficial stormy campaign about its failures and scams and Muslim appeasement for five years and more.) In Jorhat it polled 61,833 votes against BJP’s 68,821 votes, in North Lakhimpur it won 67,351 votes against BJP’s 70,387,in Teok it polled 47,025 against BJP-led NDA’s 47,274 votes. Further, in about a dozen LACs had there been an alliance between the Congress and the new regional outfits the total votes polled by them together would have outscored the NDA and made the rival groups even in score, or even given the Grand Alliance a slight edge.           

Actually, the dour rejection by AJP of offers of alliance by Congress and the scathing attacks by Akhil Gogoi did not help them at all. AJP came a cropper in all seats it contested, with its president losing heavily in both the seats it contested and Raijor Dal of Akhil Gogoi drawing in only up to three thousand votes in all seats except Sivasagar where Akhil Gogoi won partly because people of good will thought the shining image of militant popular Assamese nationalism which was also secular must not be allowed to be darkened by defeat, and volunteers flocked to campaign for him.           

There was however one unlikely party that benefitted from both the sentiments generated by the anti-CAA movements and the vicious twist given to their outcome by saffron propaganda. 

This was the AGP which had been practically written off by critics for its tame and unprincipled surrender to CAA and several scams that discredited it. When the ‘ASSAM IN DANGER’ outcry seized the imagination of the Assamese and other indigenous communities, the insidious BJP propaganda machine succeeded in replacing the enemy in question as Muslims instead of aggressive Hindutva chauvinists. Since the fledgling new parties had little time to put in place minimal organisational structures, the older and well-oiled AGP party loomed into view as an alternative choice. 

Though people believed in the campaign of the new-fledged regional parties they persuaded themselves that the AGP was somehow better-equipped to secure regional interests. This about-turn in public sentiments goes to show that these days mainstream Assamese ‘Jatiyotabad’ is entirely about material interests and not at all about principles and ideals. 

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

Other pieces by Dr. Hiren Gohain: 

On academic and other freedoms 

When the State conspires against its Citizens 

Politics of Micromanagement




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