With just one phase of polling remaining in the seven-phase general election, all eyes are on May 23, the day the results will be announced. Assam too went to the polls over three phases: on April 11, 18 and 23. Three main political parties contested: The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The BJP has formed a pre-poll gathbandhan with regional parties that include the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo Peoples Front (BPF). Until the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, where it won seven of the 14 seats, the BJP has never been successful in Assam.
Assam has a complex and deeply heterogeneous society, with different communities having varied priorities. However, across the decades, Assam has been witnessing elections that are fought and hotly contested only over a single issue — ‘illegal immigrants’. The BJP understood this pulse of a major section of the people of Assam, and used it to its advantage in a convincing manner.
To exploit the constructed xenophobic fear of a major section of Asomiyas, the BJP designed a slogan —‘jati, mati, bheti’ (community, land, base) which gained substantial ground. The party assured to protect ‘jati, mati, bheti’ from ‘illegal immigrants’, and this assurance, compounding with the anti-incumbency factor against Congress, won the BJP seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
Soon after winning, the BJP retracted from its stand on the issue and shifted its target from ‘illegal immigrants’ to Muslim ‘illegal immigrants’, thus communalising the entire issue of citizenship in Assam. It is in this backdrop that the Constitution (Amendment) Bill (CAB) was introduced.
Through this bill, the government’s intention is to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 and to award citizenship to all the Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsi and Buddhist illegal immigrants from the neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Notably, Muslims are excluded from this bill.
This attempt of the BJP government has attracted sharp criticism and widespread protest from various quarters across Assam. Whether this dissatisfaction translates into vote erosion for the BJP remains to be seen. Many people who voted for the BJP in 2014 with the hope of change are likely to correct that mistake this time.
On the other hand, Assam’s Bengali Hindu community by and large are supporting the bill and are predominantly favouring the BJP. The support for the bill among this community is clear when one sees the stand taken by Sushmita Dev, Congress’ MP from Silchar. Though the grand old party opposes CAB, Dev has openly supported the bill—this could be in fear of losing ground among the Bengali Hindus who constitute a sizeable voters in Silchar.
The AGP appears to oppose the bill, and left the BJP-led NDA when it was passed in Lok Sabha. It re-joined the alliance once it lapsed without being introduced in the Raj Sabha. This exposes an indomitable greed among many AGP leaders to remain in power.
The Congress is vehemently opposing the CAB and as the BJP claim, they have come to an understanding with the AIUDF. Since Independence, the Congress smoothly sailed through multiple elections in Assam relying on the Muslim votes. However, the party never took care of the basic issues such as health, education, development and employment of the community. Congress’ monopoly of minority votes was decimated with the rise of the AIUDF which won three Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
The Congress lost multiple seats to the BJP due to the vote divisions of Muslims between the party and the AIUDF not only in 2014 but also in assembly elections of 2016, which ultimately led to the defeat of the party. Interestingly, in this election the AIUDF has fielded candidates only in constituencies where they have sitting MPs, and left the rest of the constituencies for the Congress to contest head-to-head with the BJP and its allies.
Assam is grappling with numerous issues—some of which are unemployment, educational backwardness, an extremely impoverished health sector, underdevelopment, lack of connectivity, massive poverty, gross human rights violations, citizenship crisis, etc. Post-May 23 there is an urgent need for these to be addressed.
One such issue is the revocation of the CAB, and the shut down the detention centres, where hundreds of Indian citizens are forcibly incarcerated. The implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being updated with many irregularity, and irrational exclusion of millions, will be a challenging task for the next central government. Many are expecting a humane approach on the NRC from the next government in New Delhi.
Nazimuddin Siddique is an Assam-based independent researcher. Views are personal.