India elections: Perils & possibilities of outcome in Assam

By Sanjay Barbora
Photo by Krishna Kant on Unsplash

All eligible adults in Assam are set to participate in the 15th quinquennial assembly elections between March 27 and April 6, 2021 in three phrases. They will elect 126 members of into the legislative assembly, who then shall be tasked with framing laws and governing the most populous state in Northeast India for the next five years. Given all that has happened Assam in the past year, I reflect on: (a) what issues animate people as they go to vote in Assam, (b) how the elections are likely to be conducted by the political parties and candidates and (c) what these elections mean for the people of the state.


Growing up in Assam in the 1980s, I recall the Assam Agitation (1979-1985) being a moment of complete polarisation of the two valleys—Brahmaputra and Barak—with the newly formed Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) winning most seats in the Brahmaputra valley, while the Congress retained almost all its seats in the Barak valley in the elections that were held in 1985. The preceding six years had seen a student-led movement against the presence of settlers in the electoral rolls. The movement had a massive impact in the Brahmaputra valley, where most caste-Hindu, Muslim and Christian Assamese, along with the various indigenous communities came out against the presence of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh in their lands. This sentiment did not resonate much in the Barak valley, where a majority of the people were Bengali-speaking and had some roots in erstwhile East Bengal.

As the elections came by every five years, one could chart the trajectory of politics in the state by focusing on issues that were foregrounded through popular struggles and agitations. Hence, in 1991, the elections were held against the backdrop of President’s Rule and the deployment of the army into rural areas of the Brahmaputra valley and the two hill districts, for the purpose of conducting counter-insurgency operations against separatist guerrillas. It brought the Congress back to power and the next five years saw the government pursue an aggressive policy of attempting to split the armed movement by offering lucrative contracts to those who were willing to come overground, as well as promises of autonomy to those seeking ethnic homelands. This policy led to a lot of resentment among the people.

Coupled with ongoing counterinsurgency operations, it led to the return of the AGP and its allies in 1996. However, no sooner had the party come to power, the people of the Brahmaputra valley were witness to a brutal campaign of extra-judicial executions of families of rebels and their sympathisers by the government. This resulted in the return of the Congress in 2001, as they promised to constitute a commission of inquiry to fix responsibility on the perpetrators of this policy. The party then stayed in power for three consecutive terms, during which it weathered campaigns against it by anti-dam advocacy groups.

The Congress was voted out of power in 2016. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), teamed up with regional parties like the AGP and Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF), promising to bring out an updated list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that would leave out all undocumented settlers from Bangladesh. The NRC, far from being a localised demand, was introduced as an issue through a Supreme Court order demanding that the exercise of updating the list be undertaken within a specific period of time in 2013. This task involved a massive logistical and political upheaval of politics, bureaucracy and society in the state.

The outcome was politically contentious. Most communities, including those who self-identify as Miya (descendants of Muslims of East Bengal origin), welcomed the exercise in the Brahmaputra valley, while Bengali Hindus in the Barak valley opposed the NRC. Commentators in Assam, many of whom were known for their secular, progressive positions on human rights, were genuinely surprised when mainland, metropolitan liberals referred to their support of the NRC as evidence of ethnocentricity and xenophobia.

Riding surreptitiously with the NRC rollout in Assam was the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, that was introduced in Parliament by the BJP and its allies. The Bill was the legal response of the party whose ideologues see India as the natural homeland for Hindus. People in the Brahmaputra valley reacted angrily when the Bill was passed as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Parliament on December 10, 2019.

The army was called back into the capital city, internet services were shut down and five young men lost their lives in the protests. Instead of agreeing with the majoritarian, nationalist logic of creating a Hindu homeland, the people of the Brahmaputra valley resolutely refused to accept more undocumented persons from Bangladesh. The situation was markedly different in the Barak valley, where many Bengali Hindus and political parties, welcomed CAA. All of this is happening against a backdrop of growing unemployment, stress migration from rural areas, closure of public sector enterprises and simmering tensions between linguistic and religious communities.

In a counter-intuitive move, the government of India signed a peace accord with all factions of the Bodo leadership to try and address the autonomy issue in western Assam in January 2020. Coming at the back of the abrogation of autonomy for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, this move received a tepid response from civil society of the newly created Bodoland Territorial Region (comprising four existing districts of western Assam).

Hence, the main issues in Assam in 2021 are old ones. We went back to discussing citizenship, settlers and indigeneity, after having had three decades since 1985 to put these issues to rest. In doing so, we have allowed other pressing issues that animated the 1990s and 2000s – autonomy, environmental conflicts and the capture of collective resources by big corporates – to pass into the back burner. Do I therefore think that the BJP will be voted out of power in the Brahmaputra valley?

How to calculate the outcome of an election

It will be difficult to dislodge the BJP from power this year. In the past, when elections were about a combination of the individual’s convictions, commitment and community support, it was possible to have uncharacteristic politicians in the state assembly. However, things have changed today. The idea of community has been broken down into demographic constituencies that vote as a bloc. This allows smart politicians to think about securing the votes of just enough people to win the election. It requires an intimate knowledge of the district, and the support of agents to persuade voters in an area to vote for the candidate. Often, the difference between winning and losing depends on the kind of cajoling, coercing and promises that agents make on behalf of the candidate. Hence, the wealth that a candidate is able to throw into the process – before, during and after the election – impacts their ability to win.

Here, the BJP has a clear advantage over others. It is by far the richest party, having secured much of their campaign money through the issuance of dubious electoral bonds. This wealth, along with shifting personal loyalties, have led many local leaders from the Congress and AGP to join the party, thereby complicating the idea of regional politics and local issues. Community support might offset this undue advantage, as in the case of candidates working at the grassroots, with farmers, plantation workers and different communities around Kaziranga National Park.

Assam is a densely populated state, especially along the two valleys. Unlike the hills, where near homogenous communities live in discrete areas of their forebearers, the valleys have seen much migration and settlement since the early 20th century. This diversity makes it necessary for candidates to seek support from their own communities, as well as those who are allied with them. It can be a difficult task given the last three decades of violence and inter-community conflict. Hence, unscrupulous politicians polarise existing grievances as a tool for securing their constituencies. Will this change the future of political mobilisation in Assam?

What happens after?

One of the unnerving lessons of the anti-CAA curfews and pandemic-induced lockdowns has been the food precarity of the growing urban/semi-urban population in the state. In December 2019, people scrambled to groceries and wet markets for rapidly dwindling supplies of food, when there was a short let up of curfew in Guwahati. A few months later, the hastily announced national lockdowns further drove home the point that there was a vast difference of experiences of urban and rural people in Assam.

The rapidly growing towns and cities are all connected to a national market and distribution system. In the past, towns were connected to their agricultural hinterland and to supplies of local grain. Assam was a surplus rice growing state that had a very high standard of life during independence in 1947. Part of the reason the Assam Agitation dragged on for close to six years, was the fact that the agitators were assured of food supplies. Over the last few decades however, rural livelihoods have changed drastically, with many young people leaving home to work in states all across India. The violence of the 1990s and 2000s, the falling rural incomes from agriculture and the lack of jobs contributed to the phenomenon of rural youth find jobs outside the state. As a consequence, there was very little political resistance when Assam slipped into becoming a grain, vegetable and fish importing state in the 1990s. Hence the scramble for food in urban areas was not unexpected.

Unaccounted numbers of youth had to return to Assam as a consequence of the national lockdown in the spring of 2020. Sociologists like me had no access to official data and were unable to go to the field to interview people. I read media reports that suggested that the vast majority of working class and lower-middle class people in Assam were resentful. Yet, these are the same people who are coming out in droves to every rally being organised by some of the most reviled figures of the anti-CAA agitation.

So, in sum, it seems as though the BJP might just return to power. As elections become less about ideologies and issues, it is difficult to find a connection between collective anger and voting habits of individuals today. The party has very deep pockets and an even more astute sense of booth and media management that will help persuade the voters to give it one more chance. Its strategists have studied the voting patterns and voter profiles as minutely as one might expect. They are reasonably convinced that they do not need to persuade everyone, especially those who cannot forgive the party for bringing in CAA. Unfortunately, it will not be able to resolve the deep rooted and varied grievances of the people of the state and one can expect more conflicts in the future.

(Sanjay Barbora is visiting scholar, Australia India Institute, Melbourne)

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