Assam Assembly Elections 2016: An overview

By Manisha Singh | Updated: Apr 27, 2016, 23:17 PM IST

By - Manisha Singh/Sanjeeb Baruah

In a nutshell

Going by some of the opinion polls and the trends that are emerging, probably the only state that the BJP stands a chance to win among the states where Assembly elections are being held - West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry – is Assam.

BJP would probably be also fancying its chances given the fact that two years ago it had swept the state by not just winning seven of the 14 seats, but also restricting the Congress to an all-time low of just three seats.

It’s also a state where the emotional quotient is running high and the voters appear to be divided on the lines of outsider versus the son of the soil, Hindu population versus illegal Muslim migrants and so on and so forth. In a nutshell, it’s a state where ethnic and communal fault lines have always existed and has once again emerged on the forefront.

Thus, while the BJP after the debacle in Delhi and Bihar must be desperate to win in Assam, the Congress must be hoping against hope, as losing another state elections would be nothing short of disaster for them. Needless to say, anti-incumbency is staring Tarun Gogoi in the face after ruling Assam for 15 years and maybe difficult to shrug off.

Following is a peek at the main issues that will have an impact in Assam polls, the advantage and disadvantage of major political blocks and the main players on whose shoulders much is riding.

BJP+ versus the Congress combine

The BJP has forged an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodo People’s front (BPF). On the other hand, the ruling Congress has decided to more or less go alone. Besides BJP and Congress, parties like the AGP, AIUDF, BPF, CPI, CPI (M), CPI (ML), SUCI have also fielded their candidates. 

However, its a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP and its allies with AIUDF emerging as a third force. The Congress swept to power against a fractured Opposition in 2011 Assembly elections winning 78 seats in the 126-member house. However, Gogoi got a rude shock in 2014 when BJP won seven out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, while the Congress managed only three.

There are multiple questions that Gogoi needs to answer – lack of development in the state, issue of illegal immigrants, charges of corruption and so on. Congress is said to have support base among tea garden voters and tribal groups who have been provided special policies by the state government and Gogoi for sure may be counting on their support.

Certain reports have said that even though Assam has been a low performing economy for many years, it has been trending downwards over the last five years. This may not augur well for the Gogoi government. Another cause of worry for the Congress may be the fact that it won only 42 percent of the Muslim votes in the 2014 election.

At the same time the exodus of nine MLAs from the Congress before the polls, including that of Himanta Biswa Sarma was definitely a huge loss to the party organisation. In such a scenario a small group of swing voters could move to the BJP giving it a landslide victory in Assam.

Moreover, Congress failed to form a pre-poll alliance with the Muslim-dominated AIUDF, led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal. This may just work against the grand old party, as per experts. Political analyst Nani Gopal Mahanta was quoted by a Daily as saying - “A divided Muslim vote is the Congress' worst case scenario and that will help the BJP.”

Perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal launched a pro-minority political party in 2005 his party the AIUDF is the principal Opposition party in the Assembly with 18 seats. Its base is mainly in lower Assam and in some areas of BTAD. While Ajmal is in a position to topple the apple cart, some media reports have said that he has asked his followers to support Congress wherever they are not fielding candidates. The party should not be taken lightly as at the height of so-called 'Modi wave', AIUDF had managed to win three seats during the Lok Sabha elections.

Certain alleged scams, including one involving Rs 1000 crores in the Dima Hasao hill district, as well as the Saradha scam and the Louis Berger scam may come back to haunt the Congress. But there is a catch - while the corruption happened during Congress rule, the BJP is not able to highlight them as much as it may have wanted to as the name of Sarma, who joined the BJP and is its its campaign committee chief, was often dragged into some of those alleged scandals.

For the BJP, winning Assam will be as satisfactory for them as was winning 25 seats in Jammu and Kashmir elections and managing to come to power there. The very fact that BJP along with its allies is eyeing Assam speaks volumes of the ground covered by the saffron party when one thinks that it had won only five seats in the last Assembly elections in 2011 and had a vote share of 1.1% in 1985 Assembly elections.

An alliance with the BPF may just help them a handful of seats out of 16 from the BTAD region, where its presence is negligible. To be noted is the fact that BJP’s rise seems to have come at the cost of AGP’s popularity. Nani Gopal Mahanta, an associate professor of political science at Gauhati University, was quoted in a Daily as saying that the BJP slowly hijacked AGP’s principal electoral plank of “detection, deletion and deportation of foreigners” in Assam.

And while minorities are not known to vote for the BJP, both BJP and AGP have also fielded a number of Muslim candidates in this election.

However, BJP will also have to answer some of the questions to the electorate. For example, the non-fulfilment of some of the promises made during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign like the granting of scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six tribes which had played an important role in BJP’s good performance in the upper Assam Parliamentary constituencies like Tezpur, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur and Jorhat. At the same time, the central government’s recent move to allow Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants to stay in Assam, has not gone down well with a certain sections as the move is against the Assam Accord of 1985 (the accord states that foreigners who entered Assam after the midnight of 24 March 1971 would be detected and deported).

It is also being said that while PM Modi had, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, had said that the infiltrators would have to leave once he assumed office, that has really not happened.

Issues that could change the course of elections

There are multiple issues that may decide the outcome of the polls in Assam, namely, cross border influx, complete sealing of the India-Bangladesh border, floods and land erosion, lack of development, growing unemployment problem, dipping agricultural production and so on.

However, infiltration and overall development of the state are two factors that the BJP is harping upon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been emphasizing on the development agenda in all his rallies. In one of the rallies he categorically told the voters – “I have three agendas. Development, fast development and all round development.” He had added, “My fight is against poverty, unemployment, corruption, absence of education, sickness, backwardness and Assam's destruction.”

And highlighting the infiltration issue, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh promised to the voters that the NDA government would ‘completely seal’ the Indo-Bangladesh border within a reasonable time frame to stop illegal immigration from Bangladesh even as he accused Congress of having failed to check intrusion. “Assam has only 263 kms of border with Bangladesh. It will be sealed with the active cooperation of the state government,” he had said.

The BJP has also been painting a grim picture of tea plantation workers in Assam, saying that if Congress had fully implemented the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, the plantation labourers' life would have been much better.

Another issue that may have an impact in the state is the Assam Accord. It was signed between Rajiv Gandhi government and the All Assam Students Union post the six-year old Assam agitation in 1985. However, the accord’s clauses (like effective border mechanism, stopping infiltration of illegal immigrants, due maintenance of birth and death registers) have still not been implemented. It was reported that the All Assam Students Union had voiced their demand for the implementation of the clauses during PM Modi's recent visit to the state.

Face off between Gogoi and Sonowal

Sarbananda Sonowal is no political novice

All eyes are on Assam BJP chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal as the two-phase balloting on April 4 and 11 successfully concluded in the state and people are keenly waiting for the D-Day on May 19 when the verdict will be announced. Sonowal is contesting the elections from Majuli constituency.

After the drubbing in Bihar elections, BJP is treading cautiously in Assam. The saffron party has pinned its hopes on the 53-year-old, who is also its state unit chief, to get them across the finishing line. Man of few words and always with a smile, Sonowal, whom people lovingly calls him dada (elder brother), began his political career with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in the 1990s.

Sarbananda Sonowal is no political novice. After joining the AGP, the political avatar of AASU, in 2001, he was elected to the state Assembly in the same year. He entered the Lok Sabha in 2004 after defeating former Union Minister and Congress leader Paban Singh Ghatowar. He returned to the Lok Sabha in 2014 polls, and subsequently made a Minister of State in the Modi government.

Sonowal joined the BJP in 2011 after having differences with the AGP. He has been credited with successfully challenging the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, which was struck down by the apex court as unconstitutional in 2005.

Will Assam CM Tarun Gogoi be lucky for the fourth time?

Three-time Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi faces an uphill challenge in the 2016 elections. Despite recent set-backs such as revolt in the state unit, Gogoi has managed to put up a brave face. His rivals have labelled serious allegations against his leadership and his party for the persistent problems in the state.

Gogoi's biggest USP is perhaps the marked improvement in the law and order situation in Assam over the past one decade. And perhaps this is the reason why the Congress party has once again entrusted him the elections. If he wins, he will become the CM for the fourth time. The 81-year-old political veteran has fought many a battles but will this be his final one!

Post Script:

Sonowal has said that its 'Mission 84' for the BJP. Gogoi has said that he is 100% confident of winning in Assam. Who will have the last laugh - The answer on May 19.