Assam voted for change to end 15 years of Congress rule and install a BJP-led alliance government in a keenly fought election that centred on the issue of locals versus demographic invaders from Bangladesh.
The BJP achieved its Mission 84 – number of assembly seats targeted out of a maximum 126 – albeit with help from regional allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The alliance won 87 seats, with the BJP bagging 61, only three short of the majority mark. The AGP won14 seats and the BPF 12.
The pro-BJP sentiment was similar to what the AGP enjoyed in its debut 1985 election after a six-year agitation for detection and deportation of illegal migrants, primarily Bangladeshis.
The issue helped the BJP storm the Congress bastion, leaving the outgoing chief minister Tarun Gogoi with a score of a mere 25 seats.
Perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) underperformed to win five seats fewer than the 2011 high of 18.
Mandate 2016 was projected as the now-or-never battle for a state threatened by illegal immigrants. The fear of Bengali Muslims taking over the land and its resources and undermining the Assamese identity worked for the BJP, a party keen on shedding its Hindi belt aggressor image.
The saffron surge in Assam came as a much-needed victory for the BJP smarting over the electoral debacle in Bihar. It approached the polls as a party with a tempered Hindutva agenda, one that was attuned to Assamese and tribal cultural values whilst also being sympathetic to issues of non-Muslim settlers, primarily Bengali Hindus. Importantly, the BJP showcased the issues through local faces – chief minister candidate Sarbananda Sonowal and his poll manager Himanta Biswa Sarma, formerly with the Congress.
The strategy paid off, blunting Gogoi’s self-projection as a modern-day Lachit Barphukan out to thwart Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mughal army’ from Delhi. Lachit was a medieval Ahom general who defeated the Mughals at the Battle of Saraighat near Guwahati.
“The people have given us a great responsibility of taking Assam forward and safeguarding their interests from inimical forces,” Sonowal said.
Ram Madhav, BJP’s general secretary in charge of Assam, refuted allegations that polarisation on religious lines helped his party win. “Our focus was on Congress misrule and rampant corruption. And we will try to deliver on the development front, as Modiji asserted during the campaign,” he said.
Other factors that worked for the BJP included the acceptability of Sonowal, a tribal, among the mainstream Assamese and settler groups.
The managerial skills of Sarma, who was crucial for Congress’ fifteen year run, came into play too, as did the consolidation of traditional BJP and AGP votes.
Gogoi, who was confident of a Congress win, said his party would try to come back by working among the masses. “It is tough for any party to rule for 15 years. I thank the people for giving us the opportunity,” he said.