India’s BJP Seals Historic Win in Assam

Akash Vashishtha and Vasudevan Sridharan
New Delhi and Bengaluru
160519-IN-Assam-1000 Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, greets supporters in Guwahati after his party won a majority of seats in the Assam state assembly elections, May 19, 2016.

For Saifuddin Ahmed, a Bengali Muslim who lives in Assam, one of his greatest fears materialized Thursday as India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in the northeastern state that borders Bangladesh.

“I am afraid, now with the BJP in power in Assam, I and many others like me, whose forefathers came to India from Bangladesh, will be rendered stateless. I am scared that all my rights as an Indian citizen will be snatched away from me,” Ahmed, 53, told BenarNews from his village in Kokrajhar district, some 220 km (136.7 miles) from state capital Guwahati, on the day the BJP was declared the winner in state assembly elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party won 86 out of 126 assembly seats in Assam to end a 15-year reign by Congress, its principal opposition party. During its electoral campaign BJP officials had promised to bar Bangladeshi-origin Muslims who had entered India between 1951 and 1971 from voting, if it won in the local polls.

Ahmed, whose father migrated to India from the former East Pakistan – later Bangladesh – in the 1950s, said that although he was born in India, he was scared that the BJP wouldn’t recognize him as an Indian citizen.

Ahmed is one of about 2 million Muslim immigrants living in Assam since before the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, who voted in statewide polls that concluded May 5 and who share the same fear.

However, soon after results were announced Thursday, the BJP said that Indian citizens like Ahmed had nothing to fear.

“Our main target is to protect the interests of bona fide Indian citizens, whether they are Hindu or Muslims it doesn’t matter,” the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, told reporters according to local news reports.

He said his party’s top priority was to seal the porous Indo-Bangladeshi border and check illegal infiltration.

“First of all, we will have to seal the Indo-Bangla border to stop infiltration. We have to prepare within a time frame the NRC (National Register of Citizens) with the names of bona fide Indian citizens. These are two big challenges,” said Sonowal, 54.

According to a 1998 report by the governor of Assam, the state’s Muslim population grew by 77 percent compared with the national average of 55 percent between 1971 and 1991, indicating large-scale cross-border migration. At 34 percent, Assam boasts the second highest number of Muslims among India’s states.

BJP loses in other 4 other states

Even as it created political history of sorts in Assam, the BJP lost out to All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) in West Bengal, another state that borders Bangladesh and where the right-wing coalition had also campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform.

ATIC’s Mamata Banerjee is set to be the state’s Chief Minister for a second term, with her party winning a staggering 211 out of 294 assembly seats.

Apart from Kerala, where the BJP pocketed only one of the 140 seats, it found no takers in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the two other states where election results were announced Thursday.

Even though the BJP bagged only six seats in West Bengal, the party has gained foothold in the state, increasing its vote share from 4.06 percent in the 2011 assembly elections to more than 10 percent this time around.

The crucial win in Assam and an improved showing in West Bengal will have a major bearing on the BJP’s performance in assembly polls slated for 2017 in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, experts said.

“The polarization pursuit, which bore fruit in Assam, will be carried aggressively by [the] BJP in other states also. It was not the promise of economic development or employment that worked. [It was that] Hindu voters fell for BJP’s promise on the Bangladeshi immigrants issue,” New Delhi-based political analyst Dushyant Nagar told BenarNews.

Dalits ensured BJP loss in Tamil Nadu: expert

In Tamil Nadu, where voters have always chosen between two regional parties – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – even seasoned BJP leaders failed to leave their mark.

The AIADMK, led by Jayalalithaa Jayaram, took 134 of the 234 assembly seats, retaining power for a second consecutive term.

According to political analysts, Tamil Nadu was never a BJP stronghold because of the state’s massive population of Dalits, a community considered the lowest rung of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy, and which feared the Hindu nationalist party coming to power in the state.

“Tamil Nadu has still not [been able] to identify any leader or party as being a real alternative to the two Dravidian parties to repose confidence. Dalits continue to vote strategically to choose forces that are seen least inimical to them,” R. Madhavan, a Chennai-based political observer, told BenarNews.

‘BJP gaining acceptance’

But despite the loss in four out of five Indian states where elections were held between April 5 and May 16, the BJP said the results indicated the party’s growing presence nationwide.

“This present victory is very much significant. It is a major win for the nationalist movement,” said BJP’s O. Rajagopal, who won the party’s only seat in Kerala.

Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley told CNN-News18: “Apart from Tamil Nadu, [the BJP is] gradually increasing its footprints in all other states.”

Prime Minister Modi, while addressing his party workers in New Delhi, described Thursday’s results as “extremely encouraging.”

“[The] BJP is fast gaining acceptance across the country. This is great for democracy,” he said.

Rohit Wadhwaney in Jaipur, India, contributed to this report.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.