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Assam polls: BJP’s silence on CAA gives Congress, regional outfits room to manoeuvre

In Assam, the citizenship debate is much more complicated given its links to the questions of identity and indigeneity

March 25, 2021 / 05:08 PM IST

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) strategic narrative that CAA is not a poll issue in Assam has been countered by the Congress-led ‘grand alliance’ as well as two newly-floated regional parties. The Congress manifesto unveiled by party leader Rahul Gandhi in Guwahati last week “guarantees” to repeal the controversial citizenship law if it is elected to power.

Needless to say, CAA sparked nationwide protest and large-scale violence in some states. Four people were killed in Assam in police firing during the December 2019 anti-CAA agitation.

However, the key questions remain as to how effective the Congress’s strategy would be and whether the opposition bloc can turn the tide against BJP in this election or not.

Apart from the CAA repeal, the Congress poll manifesto has promised 5 lakh government jobs, financial assistance to women, increased daily wages for tea garden workers, farm loan waiver, free electricity, among others.

The sticky issues of CAA and NRC

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CAA finds no mention in BJP’s election manifesto for Assam. This is in stark contrast to the party’s poll pledge in the neighbouring West Bengal where it announced the implementation of the law “in the first cabinet meeting” itself.

This is a carefully crafted strategy given that CAA, which essentially grants Indian citizenship to Hindu migrants from neighbouring countries, has different connotations in Assam and Bengal. While CAA is seen as an instrument to polarise the voters in Bengal, in Assam, the citizenship debate is much more complicated given its links to the questions of identity and indigeneity.

Assam and the rest of the Northeast were up in arms against the legislation fearing it would disrupt the ethnic demography in the region. Assam, particularly, had witnessed massive protests in December 2019 against CAA with the civil society and ethnic organisations arguing that it violates the 1985 Assam Accord of detection and expulsion of illegal immigrants on the basis of a March 24, 1971 cutoff date.

Besides, the law is in conflict with the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, aimed at weeding out illegal Bangladeshi settlers irrespective of their religion. However, with the updated NRC failed to live up to expectation, BJP has now promised to deliver a foolproof NRC.

By promising to repeal CAA, Congress has hit the BJP where it hurts the most. Even if it tries to skip the issue, the Congress and two newly-floated regional outfits, both borne out of anti-CAA protest of 2019, would remind the people about a law that tends to increase the demographic burden on the state.

Jailed activist Akhil Gogoi, the leader of the newly-floated Raijor Dal, is contesting from two upper Assam constituencies. Upper Assam, dominated by indigenous communities, was the epicentre of anti-CAA protests. On Wednesday, social activists Medha Patkar and Sandeep Pandey joined Gogoi’s 84-year-old ailing mother in a rally taken out by several thousand sympathisers in Sivasagar in upper Assam.

Peasant leader and anti-corruption activist Gogoi is currently facing charges under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019 for allegedly instigating violence during the protests against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act in coordination with Maoists, last December.

Economic agenda

The Congress seems to have set its poll agenda keeping in mind the current economic slowdown and the massive job losses triggered by last year’s nationwide lockdown. The Narendra Modi government has drawn criticism for what critics called a ‘poorly planned lockdown’ that triggered a huge exodus of migrant workers from cities, many of whom walked hundreds of miles under the scorching sun to reach their home states.

Assam alone had witnessed the return of around 2.4 lakh skilled and unskilled workers from across India after the Covid-related lockdown was imposed, according to a government estimate. While the overall unemployment rate in India has improved after the restrictions were lifted, Assam continues to be plagued with the lack of jobs for the educated unemployed.

The BJP-led state government had itself admitted that there were around 17 lakh educated unemployed people in Assam as of December 31, 2018.

Earlier this month, the Assam Congress opened a job portal and the party claims that more than one lakh youth have already registered their names, promising to provide 5 lakh government jobs if it is elected to power.

In Contrast, the BJP, which released its party manifesto on Tuesday, promised two lakh government jobs (1 lakh before March 31, 2022) and making Assam an entrepreneurial hub in the country.

Eyeing tea garden vote

Assam boasts a 180-year-old tea industry, which alone produces more than half of India’s tea. There are more than 800 tea gardens in Assam, on which the livelihood of nearly 10 lakh workers are dependent. However, low wages, lack of access to quality healthcare, clean drinking water and education have impaired the all-round development of tea workers, called tea tribe in Assam, a 2019 Oxfam report showed.

The community, whose ancestors were brought in from present-day states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal among others by the British tea planters between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, accounts for roughly 6.5 million or 18 per cent of Assam’s total population. Currently listed as Other Backward Class, the tea community has long been demanding scheduled tribe (ST) status along with five other ethnic groups in Assam.

Traditionally with the Congress, the tea garden voters have started shifting towards the saffron party since 2014. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP bagged four out of five Lok Sabha seats that have around 40 per cent of tea tribe population. The party managed to repeat the trend in 2019 as well. Assam elects seven representatives to the lower house of Parliament.

In the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP grabbed 18 out of 23 seats with a sizeable presence of tea workers’ population. To woo this community, the BJP government had last month hiked their daily wage to Rs 217 from Rs 167, but failed to implement the same after tea garden owners challenged the order in the Gauhati High Court.

Although the Indian Tea Association, a pan-India body of tea owners, later increased the wages to Rs 193,  the Congress has promised a daily wage of Rs 365 per day “within six hours of coming to power”.

Despite such promises, one area where Congress seems to be on the backfoot is its alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The latter, led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, is seen as a party sympathetic to suspected illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, something that has provided the ruling BJP with enough ammo to target the grand old party.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is projected to get 57 seats compared to the 67 for the BJP-led NDA, according to the most recent Times Now and C-Voter opinion poll. In 2016, the NDA had bagged 74 and the UPA 39 seats in Assam.

The election to the 126-member state assembly will be held in three phases -- on March 27, April 1 and April 6.

Moneycontrol’s full coverage of 2021 Assembly elections
Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. He writes on issues related to India’s Northeast. The views expressed are personal.
first published: Mar 25, 2021 04:57 pm

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