Distorted discourse in Assam

Over 19.8 million voters in Assam are eligible to exercise their franchise in the two-phase polls on April 4 and April 11 to elect its 126-seat Assembly. The Assam election assumes importance this time round because of two interlinked reasons. Arguably, it is the only one among the clutch of States going to the polls where the Bharatiya Janata Party, a marginal player in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has a realistic chance of grabbing power.

The verdict in the State will be a barometer of the extent to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to retain his appeal. It propelled him to power at the Centre in 2014 and helped the party pick up an unprecedented seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam, but the Assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar thereafter put the brakes on the BJP’s momentum. As with Delhi and Bihar, where Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar went into the campaign as strong chief ministerial candidates, the BJP is up against a formidable local leader, the three-time Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress. Mr. Gogoi has striven hard to convert this into a ‘CM versus PM’ face-off, but the BJP announced Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial nominee as early as in January. Nonetheless, the Modi factor will be crucial for the BJP in Assam because the scale and depth of the party organisation in the State are not commensurate with its Lok Sabha harvest. Alliances with regional parties such as the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front have served to fill some gaps, rendering the election a three-way contest between the BJP-led front, the Congress, and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

While national issues, including the ongoing debate over nationalism, have found a resonance in the campaign, local issues are paramount.

The nature of electoral democracy has, however, distorted the State-level issues at play. The achievements or otherwise of 15 years of uninterrupted Congress rule in a State that brings up the rear on most human development indices find marginal mention. What is centre-staged is the insider-outsider binary, with the BJP-led alliance projecting itself as a grouping of ‘sons of the soil’ pitted against an evasive Congress, and an AIUDF that seeks to protect the interests of ‘illegal Bangladeshis’. Such rhetoric not only glosses over the nuanced reality of migration in Assam but also threatens to sharpen the religious lines in a State where over 34 per cent of the population is Muslim. Having largely left its troubled days of separatist and ethnic militancy behind over the course of Mr. Gogoi’s terms in office, the State cannot be allowed to be cleaved along ethno-religious lines for political gains. As campaigning reaches fever pitch, all parties ought to steer the discourse back to weightier issues of development and social harmony, instead of attempting to cobble up numbers based on ethnic and religious identities.

Posted by on March 25, 2016. Filed under State. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.