Mandate 2016 was projected as the now-or-never battle – for the future of Assam facing a demographic threat from illegal Bangladeshi settlers and for the BJP keen on shedding its predominantly north India image.
Primarily, it is the fear of illegal migrants from Bangladesh taking over the land and its resources and undermining the Assamese identity worked to hand BJP and its regional allies a comfortable victory.
The BJP approached the polls as a party with local faces – chief minister candidate Sarbananda Sonowal and his poll manager Himanta Biswa Sarma, formerly of Congress – and attuned to Assamese and tribal cultural values while being sympathetic to issues of non-Muslim settlers, primarily Bengali Hindus who have been loyalists for long.
The strategy paid off, blunting chief minister Tarun Gogoi’sattempt to project himself as a reincarnation of Lachit Barphukan, tasked to thwart the ‘Mughal invasion’ from Delhi. Lachit was a medieval Ahom general – the community Gogoi belongs to –who defeated the mighty Mughal army at the decisive Battle of Saraighat near Guwahati.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gogoi’s idea of a Mughal invader, had invested in local generals to help change perceptions about the BJP.
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 had 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.
That Sonowal was the force behind the Supreme Court’s scrapping of the controversial IM(DT) Act, once considered the biggest hurdle in detection and deportation of illegal migrants, too came into play as the BJP drove home the issue of Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh.
The managerial skills of Sarma, who was crucial for Congress’ last three poll victories, came into play too. So did the consolidation of traditional BJP and AGP votes.