The BJP’s sweeping victory in Assam has been the most significant outcome in the five state elections. While the BJP was the expected frontrunner in Assam, the margin of its victory was stunning. The politics of Hindu consolidation -- bringing together Assamese, Bengali and tribal Hindus -- under the saffron flag has finally worked.
The BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad ( AGP) had come together in 2001. The coalition failed because Congress could use it as a scarecrow to play on the minority fears (Muslims constitute 35 percent of voters). It also sliced into the AGP citadels in Assamese areas by projecting Tarun Gogoi as a strong Assamese leader.
Gogoi’s hatrick in Assam was built on this syndrome and the success in tackling the separatist movements. But the rise of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) as an alternative for the Muslims after the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants Determination Tribunal Act (IMDT) steadily split the minority vote and weakened the Congress.
In this election, even as Congress and AIDUF competed for the minority vote, the BJP developed a strong ethnic coalition, pulling back the AGP and drawing the Bodoland Peoples Front (a former Congress ally) to its fold. So Assam’s tradition of ethnic polarisation has now translated into religious polarisation -- the better the BJP does, the better would be the prospect of the AIUDF as Muslims would be inclined to respond warmly to its message of ‘our own party, our own flag’.
But the BJP has to restrain its hardline RSS-VHP fringe who might be tempted by this mandate to take on the Muslims in the border districts.
An agenda of witch-hunt of minorities in a state bordering Bangladesh might create huge problems with India’s most trusted ally, Bangladesh. It would also be a poor substitute for development-driven politics that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly promised during his election speeches.
The other lesson from Assam -- the BJP’s capacity to eat into the support base of its regional allies -- will not be lost on Mamata Banerjee. It is not without reason why she left the NDA and has steadfastly refused to return to the saffron-led coalition. That is not only because she fears the loss of Muslim support but also because she fears a party like BJP will undercut her support base like in neighbouring Assam.
The victory in Assam may prompt BJP leaders to try form governments in neighbouring states like Arunachal Pradesh, where president’s rule was promulgated in rather controversial circumstances. Many in the BJP see the control of key northeastern states as important to the success of Modi’s “Act East’ policy.
(The writer is a former BBC journalist and a noted author. Views are personal)