In Assam, the election is all about the arithmetic
On the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River in Guwahati, we asked two vendors who they would support in this election. They answered simultaneously: “BJP,” said one; “Not BJP,” said the other.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter continued, “I am a Hindu, so I vote for BJP. Ask which community he (the other vendor) is from,” — intimating that the other vendor was a Muslim. We stepped in to prevent a confrontational situation, but it soon became clear that the two men were friends.
This “casual” and complete Hindu-Muslim polarisation was evident in most political discussions, wherein the assumption was that a Hindu votes for the BJP and a Muslim votes for the mahajot (the alliance between Congress, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and Left parties). In common parlance, most people refer to “Hindu constituencies” and “Muslim constituencies” along with purported proportions of Hindus and Muslims in the constituency.
This polarisation has surrendered Assam to electoral arithmetic, where voters are bound by their identity to vote for a specific party. In 2016, the BJP and its ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) won 74 assembly constituencies, and led in 78 constituencies in 2019 (the Lok Sabha elections, when disaggregated into assembly constituencies). Similarly, the Congress and AIUDF (contesting separately) were ahead in 39 and 38 seats in 2016 and 2019, respectively. This electoral stability is due to the fact areas with large Hindu or Muslim majorities have also generated large margins of victory.
In the 2019 election, the average assembly constituency-wise margin of victory for the winning party was 23%, with only 18 (14%) of Assam’s 126 assembly constituencies showing a margin of victory less than 5%. This is important because it demonstrates that even a moderate level of anti-incumbency or pro-incumbency is unlikely to swing many seats in Assam.
This election seems to be also closer due to the arithmetic of Congress and AIUDF joining forces, and the BPF dropping the BJP in favour of the Congress. But given the electoral stability in Assam, it will require serious anti-incumbency, particularly in upper Assam where politics around the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) became consequential and Hindu-Muslim divisions are less salient, for the BJP to lose power in the state.
Voters express disquiet at this state of affairs. In Katlicherra constituency, one of the few places that saw a low margin of victory in 2019, the Hindu shopkeeper of a stationery store tells us, “To be honest, the BJP selected a poor candidate here, but I’ll vote for him. The MLA here (from AIUDF) visits Hindus and Muslims alike, and he has done work, but people from our community cannot vote for him. We used to show respect for each other here; I don’t know what has happened.”
We meet a group of middle-aged BJP supporters at a restaurant a few kilometres away who are certainly not lacking in anti-Muslim sentiment. But even they are concerned, with one saying, “If a Muslim comes into the area we always make sure he crosses safely to prevent conflict. I fear the youth here are looking for a fight.”
As we move to lower Assam, the sheer cruelty of electoral arithmetic becomes evident. In Bongaigaon, we meet an elderly man in a tea shop. He seems agitated, “What does it matter? The AGP always wins from here anyway. This is a Hindu seat.” As we continue talking, anger gives way to despondence, “They put my 86-year-old mother in jail. She is from Alipuduars (in neighbouring West Bengal), but they wouldn’t accept her papers. We tried everything.” The government accepted his father’s and his documents for the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), but not those of his mother. Today, he must journey about 90 minutes each way to Kokrajhar to meet his mother at a detention facility. But there is no one to take up his fight. All around Assam, voters admit the NRC process was disruptive, messy, and unfair to the poor, but add that it is not a political issue — it’s only about demographics.
We visit the villages outside Gossaigaon, part of the Bodoland Territorial Region. In 2012, the homes of Muslim villagers were torched, under the watch of former rebel leader Hagrama Mohilarry and the BPF, in a bid to get them to leave their lands. Today, Muslims, who largely returned to the area, are being asked to vote for the BPF as a part of the alliance.
Outside a mosque, a man in his 60s tells us, “What other option do we have? (BJP leader) Himanta Biswa Sarma openly abuses Muslims now and says they don’t need our votes.” A Muslim man working at a local repair shop openly professes support for the BPF, “Of course I’m mad about what happened. But what will anger do? We have to live here and the BPF is the best party for us.” A quick survey of the area finds that the BPF is facing anti-incumbency and most of the Bodo population prefers the ascendant United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL). Ironically, if the BPF is to remain in power in the region, it will do so on account of the Muslim population that the party tried to remove from the area.
After all, it’s all about arithmetic.
Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal