High stakes in upper Assam


On March 19, at an election rally in Doom Dooma in upper Assam, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “liar” for not fulfilling the promise he had made in 2016 to tea garden workers to raise their daily wages. The next day, at a rally in Chabua, 30 km away, Modi hit back, saying the Congress had a long history of lying to the tea garden workers. A day later, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, addressing a rally in Nazira, 100 km from Chabua, claimed that the prime minister had never felt the pain of “her sisters in the tea gardens”, working in extreme conditions.

Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and Bhupesh Baghel eating a meal with tea garden workers

Priyanka Gandhi shares a laugh with garden workers

The political rhetoric around tea garden workers is a clear indication of the significant role their votes will play in the 47 constituencies, of the total 126 seats in Assam, that go to polls on March 27, in the first phase of the state assembly election. Most of these constituencies, located in upper Assam, are home to a majority of the nearly 800 tea gardens in the state. The tea garden communities comprise around 17 per cent of Assam’s total population of 31 million. These votes will affect the outcome of at least nine assembly seats directly and have a significant impact in another 25 seats.

This also explains the deluge of images and slogans in the state, professing great love and concern for tea garden workers. Congress general secretary in-charge of Assam, Jitendra Singh, kicked off his first trip to the state by spending a night at the house of a tea garden worker. Rahul Gandhi was seen sharing a meal with tea garden workers while his sister Priyanka accompanied some in plucking tea leaves.

In Chabua, Modi raked up the issue of a “toolkit” that allegedly sought to defame Assam’s tea. “Won’t a chaiwala understand your pain?” he asked the tea workers. The prime minister’s desperate appeal is clearly a response to the Congress’s promise to more than double the daily wages of tea garden workers, from Rs 167 now to Rs 365. The BJP government had promised, in 2016, to increase their daily wages to Rs 351, but upped it only recently to Rs 217. The Congress hopes this issue will allow it to regain the ground it had lost in the gardens. In the rallies held in garden areas, the promise of an increase in daily wages earned the biggest cheers. “I have done multiple meetings in the garden areas. Please be ready for a surprising result,” says Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, who has been appointed as one of the election observers in Assam.

However, a mere promise may not be enough to dislodge the BJP as the saffron party has, in the past five years, tightened its grip in these areas thanks to several direct benefit transfer schemes, including cash for pregnant women and scholarship for meritorious students. Schools have been set up in tea gardens and funds given to the unemployed to set up businesses. Several freebies, such as mobile phones and bicycles, have also been handed out.

It is clear that the BJP has a certain amount of confidence in its performance in the tea gardens, considering not one of the 10 commitments in its manifesto deals with tea garden workers. “We don’t do photo opportunities or make impossible promises just before the polls. We work with them every day. They have seen what the Congress did for them before we came to power. So they can promise the moon, but nobody will buy it,” says Himanta Biswa Sarma, the minister of finance, education, health and PWD and the BJP’s chief poll strategist in Assam. In 2016, the party won six of the nine seats dominated by tea garden workers.

However, if the incumbent alliance of the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) wants to hold on to power, it has to, at least, repeat its performance of 2016. In the past assembly poll, of the 47 seats going to polls in the first phase, the ruling alliance won 35 (BJP, 27; AGP, 8), or 74 per cent of the seats. However, the alliance’s strike rate was below 50 per cent (BJP, 33; AGP, 6) in the 79 seats going to polls in the second and third phases.

As a large number of these 79 seats, located in Barak Valley and lower Assam, will see religious polarisation, the Congress-AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front) alliance is likely to gain in these areas from a consolidation of Muslim votes. These two regions account for most of Assam’s 40 per cent Muslim population. In the last poll, the Congress and AIUDF contested separately, resulting in a division of the Muslim vote, benefitting the BJP-AGP alliance. This time, that edge is likely to be blunted.

In upper Assam, the constituencies can be segregated into five categories, seats where Assamese-speaking people play a decisive role, seats dominated by Muslims of immigrant origin, swing seats with mixed population, seats where tea tribes and non-Assamese voters, including Bihari, Bengali, Marwari and Nepali voters, decide the winner and tribal-dominated seats. While the BJP seems to have an edge in the gardens and the Congress in Muslim-dominated areas, it is the areas where Assamese-speaking voters dominate that will see tight contests.

In 2016, the BJP-AGP won 22 of the 26 seats dominated by this demographic, but this time the saffron party is facing resentment in these areas over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). The state witnessed massive protests against the CAA by Assamese people who fear granting citizenship to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh will pose a threat to their identity. Sensing an opportunity, the Congress-led alliance has already promised that it will not implement the controversial CAA, as part of its five electoral “guarantees”. “People are hurt by the betrayal of PM Narendra Modi. He promised to throw out illegal immigrants in 2014. Instead, he now seeks to legitimise them on the ground of religion,” says Jitendra Singh.

The Congress is also playing up every symbolic act to appeal to the pride of Assamese identity—from Priyanka tweeting in Assamese and visiting the state dressed in a mekhela chador, to chanting “Jai Aai Asom (hail mother Assam)” in every rally and visiting the Batadrava than (a sacred place) in Bordowa. The Congress even started its Axom Basaon Ahok (come, let’s save Assam) Yatra from Batadrava in February. The constituency in Nagaon district is the birthplace of Assam’s most revered Vaishnavite saint, Srimanta Sankardev, and a focal point this election. The Batadrava than has often been in the news for being encroached upon by Muslims, most of whom are suspected to be illegal immigrants. Sarma has made this issue one of his polarising planks in his campaign, saying the BJP’s goal is to rid the satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) of encroachers.

With an eye on the election, Union home minister Amit Shah had inaugurated a Rs 155 crore beautification project of the than this February. One of the BJP’s 10 commitments in the manifesto is to set up a task force to recover the encroached land of the satras and offer financial assistance of up to Rs 2.5 lakh to each of the namghars, the places of worship and cultural activities set up by Sankardev. “It is the second phase of their 2016 promise to protect ‘jati mati bhati (nation, land and home)’ which is now in tune with the changed socio-political scenario. The objective is to appeal to the Assamese pride,” says Nani Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University.

However, more than these balancing acts by the BJP, what may prevent the Congress from taking full advantage of the anger against the CAA is their alliance with the AIUDF, a party seen as a protector of the interests of immigrant Muslims. Sarma repeats in every rally that to rule Assam, the Congress is taking the help of AIUDF president Badruddin Ajmal, who “leads the people responsible for encroachment of Assamese satras”. “By projecting Ajmal as the biggest threat to the Assamese people, Sarma is trying hard to dilute the CAA’s impact. His objective is to transform the issue from Assamese versus illegal immigrant to Hindu versus Muslim,” says Professor Akhil Ranjan Dutta, head of the department of political science at Gauhati University.

The emergence of two new political parties last year, Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal (RD), from the agitation against the CAA, will further hurt the Congress’s chances in the state. The two parties declined to be part of the Congress-led alliance, creating fertile ground for the division of anti-CAA votes. AJP chief Lurinjyoti Gogoi will be contesting from two constituencies and RD chief Akhil Gogoi from one in the first phase.

The two Gogois will also add to the division of the Ahom vote. Though this community, concentrated in upper Assam, accounts for only 6 per cent of Assam’s population, they have played the role of kingmakers in Assam’s politics since Independence. Leaders from this community, such as Hiteswar Saikia and Tarun Gogoi, did well under the Congress regime, even going on to occupy the chair of the chief minister. Interestingly, as Congress leader Rakibul Hussain alleges, there has not been a single Ahom member in the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP cabinet. The current regime has also not come through on its promise to grant Scheduled Tribe status to six communities, including the Ahoms. Referring to Sonowal as “Dhritarashtra”, Priyanka Gandhi said Sonowal betrayed the six ethnic communities.

The gains the Congress eyes from projecting Ahom leaders like Gaurav Gogoi may not come through because of the popularity of the other two Gogois in the fray. Lurinjyoti, former AASU president, has a large following among students, while Akhil is a popular RTI activist-turned-peasant leader. Gaurav Gogoi has appealed to the AJP and RD leaders to join hands with the Congress, arguing that if the three Gogois were to come together, it would decimate the BJP.

Finding a beat: Union home minister Amit Shah plays the khol during his visit to Bordowa in Assam

The decimation, though, is unlikely. Akhil has been languishing in jail for over a year on charges of inciting violence during the anti-CAA protests, while Lurinjyoti joined politics a little too late, in November last year, just six months before the poll, and lost visibility because of the pandemic.

The anger against the BJP was also diluted by the state government’s performance in the management of the pandemic. Health minister Sarma led from the front, travelling across the state during the lockdown to monitor the treatment of Covid patients. “This played a big role in making people ignore the CAA and reposing faith in the BJP government,” says Ankuran Dutta, head of the department of communication and journalism at Gauhati University.

What might be hurting the BJP in the state, though, is its silence over its chief ministerial candidate. Sarma’s dream of heading the state is well known and by not announcing a chief ministerial candidate, the party has kept open the possibility of fulfilling his ambition. The Congress has been quick to add fuel to the fire. “Though he is the incumbent chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal has not been projected as the CM candidate. This means they are not happy with their own CM, and the people of Majuli (Sonowal’s constituency) see this as an insult to them,” says Baghel. Sonowal and Sarma have been dismissive of any rift between them. “The decision on the chief minister will be taken by national party president J.P. Naddaji. We are focused on winning the election by a good margin and on that we are all in the same boat,” says Sonowal.

Knowing very well that identity politics and the BJP’s internal fault lines may not be enough to bank on, the Congress has attempted to target the BJP’s biggest strength—dole-oriented beneficiary schemes. The Congress has promised 500,000 jobs, 200 units of free electricity and Rs 2,000 for every housewife in the state. “These are not random promises. These are based on four 14,000 km bus yatras we did over 15 days, taking feedback from people on what they want,” says Jitendra Singh. The guarantees have forced the BJP to come up with its own promise of 200,000 government jobs and 800,000 private jobs over the next five years. Kaustav Deka, associate professor in the department of political science at Dibrugarh University, however, says that though these guarantees have given the Congress a campaign narrative, the BJP still holds an edge because of their targeted interventions in terms of delivery of welfare schemes.

But Singh and Baghel are not giving up just yet. If Singh has deputed the state Congress leaders to campaign in every corner of the state, Baghel has brought in a large contingency of party workers from Chhattisgarh to train the local workers and launched a massive mass connect programme. “Congress workers have tremendous power. We just had to awaken their power the way Lord Hanuman had to be reminded of his superpower,” says Baghel.

Yet, this pales in comparison to the massive poll campaign launched by the BJP’s one-man army, Sarma. For the past month, Sarma has been addressing at least three rallies and participating in one roadshow every day. His programmes have witnessed unprecedented public response, with men and women across age groups trying to embrace their mama, as he has come to be known since a young girl wrote a poem calling him “mama” during the lockdown. To turn this popularity into votes, Sarma has the backing of not just the BJP’s financial might and organisational network but also RSS volunteers. The final objective is to get voters to the booth on polling day. In this respect, too, the Congress may be found wanting. A senior BJP leader, though, has cautioned party workers against complacency: “A positive wave at times can be counter-productive. Many of our voters may not turn up assuming easy victory. That is why [ensuring a big] turnout will be key in this election.”

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