For Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is a make-or-break election in Assam. Of the four states and one union territory going to the polls in April and May, Assam is the only one where the BJP—having suffered defeats in Delhi and Bihar—stands a decent chance of snatching power.
Except in the 2011 elections, when the Congress won power on its own, every government in Assam has been a coalition. This time, too, the BJP is fighting for 88 of the 126 seats in the state legislature, and has given its coalition partners the remainder. The April state elections are not likely to end tensions between ethnic Hindu Assamese and Assamese Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, and between the Assamese and the perceived hordes of illegal Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
If the BJP wins, it will be the first time that a government will be formed in the state without the support of Muslim parties.
As Assam votes today (April 4) in the first of the two-phase elections, here’s a look at the key players in the state.
The only thing going for Tarun Gogoi, who turned 80 on All Fools Day, is his longevity in electoral politics—six terms as a member of the Lok Sabha, stretching back to 1971, and three terms as chief minister of a state that saw the most brutal ethnic cleansing in India’s history.
Gogoi shrugs off allegations of corruption and inefficiency, but the state’s comatose economy is testament to the do-nothingness of prolonged incumbency. The state’s GDP grew by 5.87% in 2013-14. About a third of the population lives below the poverty line. About 86% of Assamese live in the countryside, but the share of agriculture in the economy has fallen steadily from about 55% in 1950 to about 17% last year. The share of industry has also been declining.
The 2011 Census showed that Assam was one of India’s worst-off states in terms of health and sanitation. Only 54.8% of households in Assam had access to drinking water within their premises, and only 10.5% had tap water. Assam is also one of India’s eight poorest states; a government document notes that it is “a unique example of poverty amidst plenty”.
There is little doubt that after decades of Congress rule Assam is a failing state.
Despite this dismal track record, nobody I spoke with is willing to predict defeat for Gogoi or the Congress. The chief minister maintains his hold on his Titabar bailiwick; his 35-year-old son Gaurav, a political rookie, easily won his father’s old parliamentary constituency in 2014.
The anointing of the son as the heir apparent triggered the exit of Gogoi’s closest lieutenant, health and education minister and fund-raiser, Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma, who joined the BJP in August last year with nine other defectors, was quickly made party campaign chief.
The 47-year-old ex-lawyer started his career as a schoolboy courier for All Assam Students Union (AASU) leaders during the 1979-85 anti-foreigner agitation, then moved to the Congress party in 1991.
Sarbananda Sonowal, youth and sports minister in Modi’s cabinet, is the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate. He masterminded a stunning setback for Gogoi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with the BJP winning seven of Assam’s 14 lower house seats. The BJP’s “vision document” promises to “(work) closely with central government to achieve complete sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam”.
Sonowal says the border sealing has been made easier by the Land Boundary Agreement signed by Modi and Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina in June last year. The pact led to the swapping of 162 pockets of land totalling just over 24,000 acres on each other’s territory, ending a decades-old dispute over demarcation.
As for deportations, which most Assam politicians doubt will ever happen, Sonowal hedges his bets. He says the Assam and Bangladesh governments will have to talk, immediately after alleging that the 34 tribunals set up by Gogoi were denied infrastructure and have done pitifully little to throw out foreigners.
Sonowal says he is serious about the honour of Assam and the expulsion of illegal immigrants. “We are talking about the Muslims who have illegally settled here,” Sonowal told me at the BJP’s crowded and chaotic office in Guwahati’s Hengrabari area. He also noted that there are more than four million Muslims who have lived in Assam for centuries. He should know his numbers–after all, he is a former president of AASU.
If the 53-year-old becomes chief minister, Sarma is sure to be a formidable presence and a possible thorn in his old AASU comrade’s side.
Will the savvy and multilingual Sonowal pull off another surprise?
If victorious, the BJP will have to contend with both a resurgent Muslim minority as well as growing restlessness among the state’s tribal groups—they number more than 80—and the tea-garden workers.
Assam’s most influential Muslim party is just 11 years old, but so confident that it is fielding 67 candidates. The All India United Democratic Front, signalling its national ambitions, has formed a “secular, anti-BJP” alliance with Bihar’s ruling partnership of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United).
Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, 66, a cleric, founded the AIUDF in 2005 immediately after the Supreme Court struck down the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983, which was applicable only in Assam, as being unconstitutional.
In the 2006 state election the AIUDF won 10 seats; in the 2011 election it won 18 to become the state’s main opposition party. In the 2014 parliamentary election the AIUDF won three of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, as many as the Congress party. In fact, it is now the largest Muslim party in parliament’s lower house. “If there is a hung assembly, we will be a decisive force,” says Aditya Langthasa, the working president of the AIUDF.
Ajmal, who also controls a formidable perfumery empire based in Mumbai and Dubai, owns huge Agar tree plantations in and around the town of Hojai. Alongside his business interests, Ajmal’s family political dynasty is also expanding rapidly, with his brother and two of his sons turning lawmakers.
The AIUDF seems unstoppable.
It was only a matter of time before Assam’s Muslims flexed their political muscle. Nine of the state’s 27 districts are now Muslim-majority. In the 2011 Census, Assam had India’s second-highest percentage (34.22%, up from 30.9% in 2001) of Muslims after Jammu and Kashmir.
The statistics are telling: Dhubri district, which Ajmal represents in parliament, is 80% Muslim and has a population density of 1,171 persons per square kilometre, whereas in Bangladesh, which Dhubri borders, the density is 1,101 per sq km (Assam’s density is 397; India’s 382).
So desperate has been the quest for power by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)—the state’s most indigenous party—that it formed a government in 1996 with the help of two groups it detested: the Left parties and the Muslim dominated United People’s Party of Assam.
This election, the AGP has agreed to be a junior partner to the BJP; it was allocated 24 seats.
Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the 63-year-old former president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), was the youngest chief minister in Assam’s 70-year history. The thorny issue of illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh was not resolved during his two terms (1985-89 and 1996-2001.
To make matters more complicated, the Modi government on September 8, 2015, issued an extraordinary executive order to amend India’s passport rules to read that “persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution and entered into India on or before the 31st December, 2014” would be granted citizenship, with or without valid travel documents.
This was a considerable U-turn by Modi, who had vowed during his 2014 election campaign to throw out all infiltrators.
The goalposts for immigration had already been moved from 1948 to 1971 by the pact that Rajiv Gandhi and the agitation leaders signed, and only for Assam. Now Modi was moving them to 2014 for all communities except the Muslims.
Mahanta is clearly unhappy about his party’s poll alliance with the BJP. “It was a decision of the party,” he told me at his quarters in the Old MLAs Hostel in the Dispur legislative complex. Mahanta and his followers in the AGP are also deeply suspicious about the Modi government’s offer of citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. “We want that the Assam Accord should be implemented in letter and spirit,” says the man who signed the accord in 1985. He says if Modi adopts a different policy, he should rehabilitate the migrants outside Assam.
“Otherwise local Assamese people will become a minority in Assam.”
Mahanta says Modi’s offer of blanket citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis is comparable with Israel’s embrace of the world’s Jews. Bangladesh’s Hindu minority totalled 20 million in 2013, and they could all seek asylum in India under the new citizenship rules. He asks how Assam can bear that burden. “Certainly I am disappointed…(Modi) swore he would not give an inch of Indian land to Bangladesh. Now he has also given away land to Bangladesh.”
Despite his disappointment, Mahanta says it was important for parties such as the BJP and AGP to come together to topple the Congress.
Assam’s economic backwardness and ethnic and religious animosities have not benefited the Left parties. In 1978, just before the anti-foreigner agitation erupted, the Left parties together won 28 seats in the state assembly. They have never tasted such success since.
In 2001 the communist parties did not win a single seat; in 2006 they won just two; and in 2011 they went back to zero. Their cadres came under fierce attack when the Bodo tribals launched their own protests in 1979 (the Bodoland People’s Front is now an ally of the BJP and the AGP).
Although the Left parties have put up 59 candidates this election, their leaders are not brimming with confidence.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) office in Hedayetpur in Guwahati is deserted. A red sign says “There is no alternative to socialism”.
Isfaqur Rahman, a senior member of the party’s state secretariat tells me that identity politics and ethnic divisions have made things difficult for the communists. Even in the tea gardens, which used to once be strongholds, trade unions have dwindled from 59 to 25. The CPI(M) has only 119 full-time workers in all of Assam, Rahman says.
“It is very difficult to attract the younger generation,” Rahman tells me as he lights up another cigarette. The senior leader complains good-naturedly that he himself has to get by on a monthly stipend of just Rs 5,000.
Rahman is still better off than the homeless in Guwahati.
Walking the crowded and ramshackle streets of the state capital, stepping carefully over cement planks covering open and stinking sewers, I remember what Dwijen Sarma, a Gogoi man who was refused a ticket for the coming election, told me was one of his major achievements as a Guwahati city boss and chairman of the Housing Board. “I have put up roofs at bus-stands so that the homeless can sleep somewhere at night,” he said.
It was time to look elsewhere for clues to Assam’s future.
This is the third in a series of reports on the political and social scene in Assam which goes to polls today (April 4).