What BJP got right in Assam

BJP’s Chief Ministerial Candidate Sarbananda Sonowal being greeted by party workers and supporters on May 19, 2016

Source: PTI

In its 36-year history, the BJP would have known few more satisfying days than May 19, 2016, when it won Assam. There are several reasons for this, both long-term and short-term, and they make the defeat of a three-term Congress government in the North Eastern state, led by a stalwart Chief Minister, that much more impressive.

First, the BJP demonstrated that its geographical expansion is a project that continues apace. It is now in power from Kutch to Kamrup, has a presence in the government in Jammu and Kashmir, and has planted its flag in Kerala as well.

Yet, this gain has not been sudden or episodic. In the case of Assam, the party is benefiting from efforts by the RSS network and the party itself over 20-25 years. It has worked hard to overcome the traditional image of a party of North Indians and Marwaris alone, and has today built a social coalition that is representative of a pan-Assamese identity.

Indeed, the manner in which the BJP planned the election — not ignoring its strengths but being pragmatic in understanding its limitations and the gaps that needed to be filled — is worth commenting on. Five years ago, the party had fought on its own, but had lost badly. It had not tied up with the AGP in 2011, concluding the regional party was much diminished, and that the bulk of it was moving towards the BJP anyway.

This time too there was pressure from the party and Sangh old guard in Assam to go it alone and ignore the AGP. It was also argued that the AGP was being given too many seats, but the BJP persisted and tied up with the AGP, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and a few smaller groups. This gave it the leadership of a broad-based social alliance. True, it probably bolstered the AGP’s numbers — the regional party riding piggyback on the bigger national party — but ensured Prafulla Mahanta’s party would not play a spoiler and take away votes in individual constituencies.

Second, the face of the social alliance in the state was Sarbananda Sonowal, a tribal from the Sonowal Kachari community, one of the oldest ethnicities in the subcontinent, comparable in age and history to the Bodos. That a tribal from a relatively small community was the face of the alliance and the Chief Ministerial candidate allowed the BJP to paper over old cleavages such as those between Assamese and Bengali-speaking Hindus — divided since the days of the Assam movement. Socially, Sonowal threatened nobody. The presence of the Bodos, the strenuous efforts to mobilise the tribal communities working as tea garden workers and so on only complemented this.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP President Amit Shah in New Delhi after Assembly poll results. Source: PTI

Third, the BJP learnt its lessons from 2015 and the Bihar debacle. It did not over-invest the Prime Minister’s political capital — Narendra Modi travelled to Assam only three times to address public meetings. It focused on local leaders, themes and issues. The bombast and rhetoric of Bihar, the playing up of so-called national controversies, was avoided. It was a tightly-controlled campaign that did not allow the Congress to divert attention from the debate on local governance and bring in extraneous concerns, as the JD(U)-RJD alliance managed to do so successfully in Bihar.

To the BJP, this is a ghar wapsi of sorts. The party’s growth in the past 15-20 years has in part been a response to its recognition of the federative instincts in the polity. It has thrown up a series of empowered regional leaders and allowed them to shape regional and state-specific narratives. It was only in the 2014 period that the national impact of Modi seemed to override such factors. Now the BJP has gone back to its model of promoting regional faces and mascots, backed of course by its national presence and infrastructure. In the years to come, the Assam template can be borrowed in neighbouring West Bengal, for instance.

For the Congress, Assam embodies its current-day challenge. It is a top-down party — just as the BJP is striving to find the appropriate mix of top-down and bottom-up impulses. The valiant but ageing Tarun Gogoi leaves behind no obvious successor. The situation is similar in at least one other state the Congress governs and will seek to defend in an election in 2017 — Himachal Pradesh. There too, there is no clear mass leader who can take over from Vir Bhadra Singh, who is pushing 82, about as old as Gogoi.

A national party is more than just a Delhi-based “high command”. It has robust and varied regional and provincial bases. That was once the Congress’ calling card. As Assam has established, it is now the BJP’s intellectual property.

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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Ashok Malik

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