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How Rahul let Assam slip from Congress' hand

By Archis Mohan
May 20, 2016 08:44 IST
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The BJP, on the other hand, learnt from past mistakes to clinch power, says Archis Mohan.

In Assam, the Congress might blame its defeat on a 15-year anti-incumbency. However, it was worsted as much by the effective strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the nonchalance of its vice president Rahul Gandhi in retaining talent.

A more audacious leader could have tried harder to keep Himanta Biswa Sarma and his group of rebel legislators in the party. After he quit the Congress last year, Sarma bitterly spoke about how Rahul would show more interest in petting his dog than focus on the discussion at hand when Sarma met him over several meetings in 2014-15.

In contrast, the BJP leadership had an eye on the Assam assembly polls ever since it won seven of the 14 seats and 37 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. BJP chief Amit Shah underlined the importance of the victory on Thursday. He said it was a huge achievement for the party as Assam is a border state, hinting at the over 30 per cent minority population in the state.

“A BJP government in Assam is as surprising for some people as our government in Jammu and Kashmir,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said.

Shah had put general secretary Ram Madhav in charge of Assam by end of 2014. Madhav worked tirelessly to woo Sarma and convinced Shah on the importance of BJP striking a pre-poll alliance with local parties like Asom Gana Parishad and Bodo People’s Front. The party also courted the Rabhas and the Tiwa communities.

The BJP leadership was also quick to learn from the mistakes it had committed in Delhi and Bihar. Within days of its embarrassing defeat in Bihar, Shah announced Sarbananda Sonowal as the party’s Assam chief ministerial candidate. Apart from the exception of Delhi where BJP had belatedly declared Kiran Bedi as its face against Arvind Kejriwal, this was a first in all the assembly polls since 2014 that the party had decided to go local.

The BJP not only junked its strategy of projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the face of its campaign but ensured he addressed merely eight public rallies. Compared to its Bihar campaign, the BJP’s canvassing in Assam was markedly calmer. In another lesson learnt from Bihar and Delhi, the PM and other leaders took care not to be insulting towards octogenarian incumbent CM Tarun Gogoi.

The focus of the campaign was on development. The party held several low key workshops under the banner of ‘Assam Nirman’ across Assam with eminent people of different communities, which were addressed by Union ministers from Delhi.

The BJP didn’t rake up the Hindu-Muslim issue as it is generally prone to and its own estimate is that at least 20 per cent of Assam’s Muslim population voted for the party. Its strategists claim it was the Congress that played the religious polarisation game, which boomeranged, while the BJP’s plank was that of protecting the Assamese identity.

Sonowal’s image as the president of the old All Assam Students Union, his successful challenge to the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, wedded to the PM’s promise of development, proved a clincher. Unlike its poll campaigns in Delhi and Bihar where Modi and Shah led from the front, the BJP’s poll campaign was led by Sonowal and Sarma, both sons of the soil, in Assam.

All its poll campaign material, including its catchy jingles, was in praise of Sonowal and not Modi.  The BJP believes its ‘outsider’ plank about putting a stop to ‘infiltrators’ from Bangladesh succeeded not only with Assamese and Bengali Hindus but also Assamese Muslims. In its vision document, the BJP promised to totally seal the Assam-Bangladesh border but also bring about a law to punish any who might employ “infiltrators”.

All India United Democratic Front’s Badruddin Ajmal has blamed the Congress for the defeat of ‘secular forces. Interestingly, the AIDUF managed to retain its vote share of nearly 13 per cent from 2011 assembly polls while the Congress vote share dipped from nearly 40 per cent to 30 per cent in this election.

The challenge with the BJP will now be to manage a government that will have both Sarma and Sonowal. Sarma has already gone on record to state he considers the victory his ‘individual accomplishment’.

Image: Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/ Reuters

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Archis Mohan
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