What is Assamese or Ahom nationalism

Elections in Assam: Everyday life after the party

The clear election victory of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the largest Indian state of Assam is of particular importance. An analysis by Ash Narain Roy, journalist and director of the Institute for Social Sciences in New Delhi.

“Exotic, breathtaking” and “a metaphor for poverty, economic neglect and institutional disintegration” - the first two terms see Assam, actually the entire north-east of India, through the eyes of the tourist, while the rest of the sentence describes the true state of the region. But politics in Assam was and is exciting. There was a time when turmoil was the only thriving industry in the region. Some of the Northeastern states developed a model of governance that no democracy in the world could be proud of. In the Manipur of the 1980s and 1990s in particular, concepts such as “horse trading” and “political blackmail” were virtually redefined. Parliamentary instability is a well-known factor in the state: Manipur experienced five different governments between 1967 and 1975, and four between 1996 and 2002. What was once considered the political special case of Manipur is now normal in the entire north-east of India.

For a long time, the states in the Northeast chose either the ruling party of the center (mostly the Congress Party) or flexibly supported the central government in order to ensure the continuous flow of funds - also into the pockets of the political elite. Today, however, the BJP has had important political successes in Assam. The victory of the BJP in the last elections in Assam - together with the alliance partners, 86 out of 126 seats could be won - shows the attraction of the BJP to all sections of the population. The BJP has succeeded in forging a rainbow alliance to which virtually all social groups belong: Ahom, Bodo, Rabha, Mishing, Bengalis and North Indians.

Smart strategic alliance

The reasons for the success of the BJP are obvious. The spectacular election result of the BJP in Assam is primarily due to the alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Party (BPP). In the past, these two groups were adversaries: the AGP represented the Assamese nationalist movement, while the BPP is a tribal group that rejects the AGP and demands more autonomy for the Bodo. The BJP leadership was smart enough to forge a strategic alliance with these two major regional parties that secured votes from groups that used to be hostile: the Assamese nationalists and the Bodo, who are believed to be the first residents of Assam. The BJP captured 60 seats, the AGP 14 and the BPP 12.

Equally important was the BJP's decision to bring in a fresh chief ministerial candidate: Sarbananda Sonowal. The party had taken such a step either too late (Delhi) or not at all (Bihar) in other elections. Pitting 53-year-old Sonowal against Tarun Gogoi, the old warhorse of the Congress party, was a political masterpiece with which the BJP appealed to young voters. For the BJP, Sonowal was a big catch. He is an important face of the Assam movement and was president of the state's student organization from 1992 to 1999. Between 1979 and 1985, the Assam movement was primarily concerned with tracking down and deporting illegal immigrants, but also with the neglected treatment of what Prof. Tilottoma Mishra called the “colonial hinterland” by the central government. Sonowal joined the AGP a few years later and was elected Member of Parliament in Assam in 2001. In 2004 he was elected member of the Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament. After disagreements with the AGP, Sonowal left the party and joined the BJP, where he quickly rose to become the party's president in Assam. Sonowal vehemently opposed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, a 1983 law to identify illegal immigrants that de facto made expulsions difficult. Since then, many migrants, many of whom have voter ID cards, have supported the Congress party. Sonowal sued the law in the Supreme Court in 2005 - with success: the Supreme Court overturned the law. This made him the darling of the middle class in Assam. The real hero of the BJP's election victory is Sonowal, who was legitimately appointed Chief Minister.

Political losers lose everything

The BJP's victory is often interpreted as a consequence of the consolidation of the Hindu nationalists, although some Muslims, especially those who have lived in Assam for a long time, have chosen the BJP-AGP alliance. This polarization could be an obstacle to the expansion of the BJP into other Northeastern states. The election victory of the BJP in Assam is also the result of a long-term strategic plan in the state and in the rest of Northeast India. Radical Hindu RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - "National Volunteer Organization") and affiliated organizations have established a number of low-cost schools across the state. While these schools provide efficient education for the poor and marginalized population, the state schools are in a desolate state. Graduates from these RSS schools are, as a seasoned commentator from the Northeast said, very receptive to the "vicious propaganda of the Hindutva Brigade." The mass media have also contributed to the rise of these forces.

Politics in India is becoming an increasingly brutal game in which the loser loses everything. That can be seen clearly in the Congress Party. The party is in free fall and regularly loses seats in elections. First it lost its base in the Hindi-speaking center of the country, then in the south and now in the northeast. After the defeat in Assam, the Congress Party recalls a deer blinded by the headlights of a car: frozen, it doesn't know where to jump. The greater the distance to the BJP - the Congress Party has to recognize this - the steeper the path back to power will be.

Some of the advantages of the BJP in Assam were detrimental to the Congress party. At one point it looked like the Congress party would manage to split an alliance with the AGP and the BPP. But then Tarun Gogoi decided to pursue dynastic politics and heave his son into the party - a move that was very displeasing to many party members and voters. The Congress Party paid a heavy price for failing to keep Himanta Biswa Sarma, a dynamic leader whose migration to the BJP strengthened it. That was probably the most important reason for the Congress party's poor performance. Since voters were increasingly critical of incumbent Tarun Gogoi, it would have been all the more important for the Congress Party to win allies who would bring votes. Gogoi was apparently too sure of his popularity with Assam's electorate after three consecutive electoral victories. His inability to forge alliances with the regional parties hurt him and the party, which paid a heavy price for it. A success in Assam would certainly have boosted morale within the Congress party, and a decent performance would have been good. But the drop from 78 to 24 seats was a humiliation.

The signs of the times not recognized

Thanks to its powerful local party grandees Hiteswar Saikia and Tarun Gogoi, the Congress Party was able to dominate the political landscape of Assam for two decades. The party lost the 2016 elections because precisely these grandees did not want to see the signs of the times. Only Gegong Apang in Arunachal Pradesh and Pawan Chamling in Sikkim (two smaller states in Northeast India) have been in power longer than Gogoi was. Chamling is in power for the fifth time in a row.

Did the Congress Party really do that badly? Judging by the number of seats, definitely. However, the party recorded a higher percentage of votes than in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, in which it received 29.5% of the vote, because despite the incumbent penalty, it received 31% of the vote in the elections in Assam. But the pitfalls of majority voting are well known.

The alleged imminent demise of the Congress party is a popular horror story in the media today. But is the state of the Congress Party really that dire? The BJP has undoubtedly made enormous gains, but howl of triumph is premature. The Congress Party must reinvent itself in order to win the hearts of the people again. Or as the Chinese proverb says: "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away."

The BJP can look forward to its success in Assam, but it has a difficult task ahead of it. If she doesn't keep her promises she can quickly become a victim of her own success. It should remember the experience of the AGP: When the AGP came to power in 1986, it did so on the wings of the promise of a "Bangladeshi-free Assam". Three decades later, the BJP-AGP won with exactly the same promise.

Migration as an unresolved issue

It is worth taking a look at the economics of migration: migration from Bengal to northeast India has been going on for more than a century, and it has accelerated since the 1970s. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh come by land or sea: they swim, row, climb or run. Bad borders, it is said, make bad neighbors. The border was drawn at the Green Table over the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of an undivided Bengal. Long before the Supreme Court threw down the IMDT Act, which made it difficult to expel illegal immigrants, in 2005, government after government promised to repeal the law, in both Delhi and Assam - but nothing happened. Identity politics is at the core of the problem in Assam. The AGP lost many voters because it did nothing against illegal immigrants. For too long it has stuck to the demand for a clear definition of what an “Assamese” is, without considering how the “illegal other” should actually be defined.

Those who want to deport illegal migrants generally equate Muslims in Assam with (illegal) Bangladeshis. That is historically and legally wrong. A 2012 Supreme Court ruling banned the use of summary profiling to remove illegal migrants from the electoral roll, as it would also harass Indian Muslims. In their rationale, the chief judges said, “The requirement that 410,000 allegedly ineligible voters be identified and removed from the 2006 electoral roll due to religious and linguistic characteristics would be prima facie unlawful, arbitrary and would be a violation of the principles Representing India as a secular and democratic state ”. This ruling does not make it easier for the new government to keep its promise to expel illegally immigrated Bangladeshis.

Immigration central election campaign issue

Assam has already experienced such a deceptive departure. When the AGP came to power in 1986, it installed a very young and promising cabinet. 200,000 people saw the swearing-in of Prafulla Kumar Mohanta. But the government failed in all respects. She had stressed that she would expel hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. But nothing happened. Worse still, the inability to resolve the problem of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has radicalized the Assamese nationalist movement. The rise of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was the result of this identity politics.

The leaders of AGP and BJP have again made the issue of immigrants from Bangladesh a central theme of their campaign. Now it will be very difficult for them to rhetorically disarm again. During the election campaign, Sonowal said they would "stop illegal immigrants at the border and close the borders". Modi himself also leaned far out of the window in his 2014 election campaign: On the day he was sworn in, he said that all Bangladeshis pack their things and leave. This is probably the biggest challenge facing the Sonowal government. The exploitation of this issue and an aggressive deportation policy could compromise Prime Minister Modi's course towards the government of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.

In the Indira Gandhi era in the 1970s, the political destabilization of the opposition-ruled states in the northeast was the order of the day. In the decade of UPA administration, the situation had calmed down and a variety of state governments were tolerated. This could change now. The BJP could try to secure its power through persuasion and trickery, through carrot and stick, against vulnerable parties and members of the regional parliaments in the northeast. That would be a game of destabilization with fire.

The Sonowal government has to extinguish numerous fires, unemployment being perhaps the most difficult. The election success of the BJP cannot be denied. Nevertheless, the media exaggerated the party's performance: it was in no way the “BJP tsunami” that the Assamese-language daily Asomiya Pratidin claims to have seen.