Frontier politics: On identity issues in Assam polls

Identity issues have taken centrestage in the Assembly election in Assam

The BJP’s rise to power in Assam in 2016 was remarkable, and the party has set an even higher goal this time, to win 100 of the 126 Assembly seats along with its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad, United People’s Party Liberal and the Rabha Joutha Mancha. The electoral landscape is significantly different this time, with rearranged alliances and the emergence of new issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Going by 2016 figures, the Mahajot of parties including the Congress, the All India United Democratic Front, and the Bodoland People’s Front has 48.81% share of the votes. The combined vote share of the Congress and AIUDF was higher in 17 seats the BJP had won last time. An alliance of regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal, both formed six months ago following the anti-CAA movement, could make the contest triangular, at least in the eastern parts. The Congress is facing a leadership vacuum and tussle at the same time; and the BJP has to reconcile with the friction arising out of the fact that its most effective and popular leader is Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congressman. The BJP claims Assam saw fast-paced development and there is no noticeable anti-incumbency. The outcome will be determined by other issues, and particularly identity questions that have become more fraught this time.

Regional variations in political trends are sharp, and the BJP’s attempt is to construct a Hindu identity that subsumes ethnic and linguistic ones. Mr. Sarma has been targeting Muslims in his rhetoric. The CAA, along with the National Register of Citizens, got the religious fault line intertwined with the ethnic one, denying the BJP any clear advantage. The fear of illegal migrants overrunning indigenous populations has been a perennial issue; but this time, the focus has shifted from migrant “Bangladeshi” Muslims to “Bangladeshi” Hindus, whose side the BJP sought to take through the new citizenship regime. The party is now trying to underplay the CAA as an electoral issue, but the other two alliances are trying to keep the focus on it, and put the BJP on the back foot among the indigenous population. The issue is also a red flag for a majority of Muslims, who constitute 34% of Assam’s population. The BJP has been trying to mobilise sentiments around the encroachment by ‘Bangladeshis’ of forests and swathes of land belonging to Vaishnav monasteries. Floods that wash away farmland and dwelling areas, and the distress among plantation workers — a voting block, particularly in 45 seats in eastern and southern Assam — are also campaign issues. Sadly, such material questions are only secondary in a campaign overwhelmed by identity issues.

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