Politics in Assam in the year ahead seems to be moving along the polarising highway, political pundits in the state point out.
With Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma batting for the Uniform Civil Code and speaking up on love jihad and other polarising issues, understanding the signals do not require a high level of political acumen.
Although Assam does not have any major elections slated for next year, the political environment is hot with Sarma at the centre.
Three northeastern states — Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland — will go to the polls in early 2023. However, Assam will remain the epicentre of these state elections as Sarma, chairman of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), will be the primary pulling force for the BJP’s election machinery in these states.
Meanwhile, Sarma is also eyeing to win at least 22 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats in the N-E 2024. Assam has 14 LS seats, and in the last parliamentary election, the BJP won nine seats. This time the party leaders have set a target to win at least 12 seats, leaving one or two seats that have a large number of Muslim votes.
Sarma has formulated a strategy to achieve his target, which he tried and tested in the 2021 state election. He relies on the polarisation of votes. Assam has approximately 30% Muslim voters. The Chief Minister has stated unequivocally that he will not seek Muslim votes because they will not vote for the BJP anyway.
A clever politician like Himanta Biswa Sarma knows perfectly well that his provocative statements against the Muslim community will consolidate the Hindu vote bank. He will cultivate this further over the next year, and it may reach its peak before the Lok Sabha elections.
When in the Congress, Sarma was known for his liberal image. He enjoyed quite a good following among Muslim voters. Though he started his career with the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Sarma was never seen as an Assamese hardliner.
Rather, he was known to be soft towards the Bengali speaking community in Assam, which constitutes nearly one third of the population of the state.
Interestingly, in the run-up to the 2016 assembly elections in the state, Sarma garnered an image as a hard-core Assamese leader. He openly advocated for 1951 as the base year for updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which was a long pending demand from AASU and other organizations.
His statement caused a stir because, according to the Assam agreement, the NRC update process began with March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date
The Congress immediately condemned Sarma’s remarks, but the statement helped the BJP gain votes in upper Assam, where the party performed exceptionally well. Sarma also sent a message that they would come down heavily on immigrant Bangladeshi Muslims, which helped to consolidate the Hindu vote bank in favour of the BJP.
Sarma further changed his position after the BJP swept to power in Assam. He began to present himself as a Hindu hardliner.
On the other hand, opposition unity is at stake in Assam. After breaking away from the grand alliance, the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) are locked in a tussle. State Congress president Bhupen Bora continues to maintain that they will stay away from the AIUDF. There will be no more alliances while he is president.
Even after the Congress abruptly left the grand alliance last year, AIUDF supremo Badruddin Ajmal insisted on fighting elections together to keep the BJP out of power.
After the Congress repeatedly rejected his offer, Ajmal has made up his mind to teach the Congress a lesson in the Lok Sabha elections. Ajmal may field strong candidates in minority-dominated seats across Assam, where the Muslim vote is a decisive factor.
If Ajmal sticks to his stand, then it will make the Congress’ road more difficult in the Lok Sabha elections in Assam.
The state today has three Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha. Former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav Gogoi is the MP from Kaliabor, while Pradyut Bordoloi and Abdul Khaleque won on Congress tickets from Nagaon and Barpeta the last time.
The AIUDF has warned that it will field strong candidates for each of these three seats. If this happens, the Congress may face a debacle in 2024.
The AIUDF at present has one Lok Sabha MP, Badruddin Ajmal. He contested the election from the minority-dominated Dhubri seat and may win it again in the next election. The BJP has already kept this seat out of their calculations.
Himanta Biswa Sarma wants to consolidate the Hindu votes in the BJP’s favour, while he won’t mind if Muslims vote heavily for the AIUDF. This might be the trend in the future in Assam, where these two parties will shine in the polls with their polarising politics.