Growth, Assamese identity key issues in polls: Sarma
Guwahati Assam finance minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Himanta Biswa Sarma said that identity and development will be the key issues in the assembly polls scheduled to start on March 27.
The party, head of the ruling coalition in the state, has set a target of winning over 100 seats along with its allies in the 126-member Assam assembly, he said. The BJP itself, Sarma claimed, would improve its tally “significantly”.
“The BJP is contesting more seats than the last time; our allies have given us more space,” Sarma added.
In the 2016 state polls, the BJP won 60 of the 89 seats it contested. In the upcoming three-phase elections, the party is contesting 92 seats, while its allies, the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), will contest eight and 26 seats respectively.
“This election will be fought on the issues of identity and development in equal measure,” Sarma said.
While the party is facing anti-incumbency and a backlash in some regions of the state over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Sarma said the state government’s welfare schemes will help the BJP increase its tally.
The party is banking on improving its tally in 47 seats in the Upper Assam region where anti-CAA sentiment was a major concern for the party. The BJP won 35 of these 47 seats in 2016.
“Our target is to add at least 5 to 6 more seats here. Whether we will be able to maintain the lead in the second and third phase we will have to see, because there is a chance of losing about 10 seats in the second and the third phase [where the opposition has more strongholds]. At the end, the party will eventually make up for the losses because we are contesting more seats,” Sarma said.
Violent protests erupted in 2019 after Parliament approved the Citizenship Amendment Bill which seeks to fast-track the grant of citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. In Assam, where fear of outsiders translated into a seven-year long protest ending with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, some people saw the law as an instrument that would legitimise the claims of outsiders. The Assam Accord set the deadline for foreigners or outsiders entering the state to be treated as residents (and granted citizenship) as March 1975. CAA shifted this to December 2014, creating a stir in the state.
Two regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal, are hoping to dent the BJP’s vote share in the region, banking on the anti-CAA sentiment.
Sarma, however, dismissed these concerns. “They will not affect our traditional vote bank. These parties [AJP and RD] will dent the Congress vote bank by about 2000-3000 votes in all the constituencies.”
The updated NRC for Assam, released in August 2019, excluded 1.9 million of the nearly 33 million applicants. Calling the list faulty, the BJP said that the names of many genuine citizens were left out. The NRC is yet to be notified.
In lower Assam, where there is a significant Muslim population in constituencies such as Barpeta, Bongaigaon, and Nalbari , the BJP is confident that alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF may end up hurting the Congress. While admitting that the Congress-AIUDF combine has a “good chance” in the region, Sarma said a shift from the “strategic alliance” between the Congress and the AIUDF to a “formal alliance” has upset traditional Congress voters.
“In seats such as Nazira, which were once seen as strongholds of the Congress, people are not voting for them because of the alliance [with AIUDF],” Sarma pointed out, adding that a “strategic alliance” or announcement of a deeper alliance after tge first phase of polling may have actually helped the Congress.
The BJP believes the Congress will lose between six to seven seats in its strongholds. “The alliance may help them in lower and middle Assam, but there is the loss that the party will face in the Northern and upper part of the state,” he said.
The Congress, which has come under sharp attack from the BJP for its alliance with the allegedly communal AIDUF, has said that the ruling party is trying to polarize voters. “They had no problems contesting the district council elections sitting in Ajmal’s lap. When they wanted seats in the Rajya Sabha they went to Ajmal for his votes and now when he has rejected them he has suddenly become communal. The BJP’s three principles of fighting an election are divide and rule, distract and rule and distort and rule,” said Congress spokesperson Gourav Vallabh.
Sarma said that the conflict with Ajmal is “civilisational”. “Our culture is different, and reconciliation is not easily possible. This conflict was not started by Ajmal, he is the symbol of what is inimical to us. He symbolizes civilisational conflict,” he said.
“He is an Indian but not an Assamese. From 1935, the late Gopinath Bordoloi started the Congress versus Muslim League fight, it was then taken up by the AGP and now depends on the BJP. This is a real battle in Assam, which we call a civilisational conflict.”