The Congress has entered elections in Assam, a state with 14 Lok Sabha seats, from a position of strength despite the rapid expansion of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh —which helps prepare the political ground for the BJP — and BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi’s strong pitch.
“No Modi magic. Only Tarun Gogoi’s magic works here,” popular Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi told reporters. The reason for this smugness lies in some of his clever politics.
In the last assembly polls in 2011, Gogoi said he was ready to give asylum to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. Illegal Muslim settlers, however, weren’t welcome.
Reversing the Congress’s old stance of nurturing immigrant Muslim settlers, Gogoi has positioned himself firmly against millionaire perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, whose fast-rising Assam United Democratic Front, is seen as the protector of Bengali Muslims.
Many say Gogoi has been able to win a record third time by tilting to the right. He has appropriated the spaces of both the BJP and the AGP, a chauvinistic regional party that first grabbed power on a plank of pushing back Bangladeshis.
In 2013, when deadly rioting broke out between the Bodos, a plains tribe, and Bengali speaking Muslims, Gogoi was accused of reacting slowly.
Bangladeshi infiltration is an explosive issue in Assam, as the locals see the migrants as usurpers of the state’s scarce resources, besides altering the social complexion. Gogoi has responded well to that popular sentiment.
“This policy has worked well for the Congress,” says Sandhya Goswami, a psephologist who teaches in Gauhati University. Her opinion poll survey found 31% respondents preferred Rahul Gandhi as PM, while 21% backed Modi.
Gogoi’s strategies have all but destroyed the AGP – its vote share came down from 19.9% in 2004 to 14.6% in 2009 — and slowed down the BJP’s inroads.
As a result, the Congress has lost its immigrant voters, but retained 78% of Assamese Muslims votes in 2009. The BJP, however, is making newer inroads, such as the influential tea-growing belt.