While the mutual dislike between Rahul Gandhi and Assam CM goes a long way, what will be the electoral impact of the yatra in Assam?
“The most corrupt Chief Minister of India is the Assam Chief Minister,” said Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Jorhat district when his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra entered the northeastern state in mid-January.
Assam Chief Minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma retaliated by saying that the Gandhi family is the most corrupt in India and that this yatra is a Miyan (derogatory term for Muslims of Bangladeshi origin) yatra.
Thus began a war of words that continued for the next few days as the Assam leg of the yatra attracted significant national media attention.
While the mutual dislike between Rahul Gandhi and Himanta Biswa Sarma goes a long way, and no one was surprised by the way things turned out, the bigger question that remains is, what will be the actual electoral impact of the yatra on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in Assam?
Out of the total 25 seats in the northeast, Assam has 14, and in the 2019 elections, BJP won 9 and Congress 3, while 1 seat each went to AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front) and an independent candidate.
Can the yatra alter that equation? Any engagement with this question will require us to delve into the following major factors that will impact the elections.
Assam began delimitating its constituencies in mid-2023 as it could not do that in 2008 with the rest of the country because of law and order conditions. The delimitation could not change the number of seats. Its basis was the 2001 census. This delimitation was to be applicable only for two upcoming elections — the 2024 Lok Sabha and the 2026 Assembly elections.
For these reasons, it was widely opposed by most of the political parties other than BJP and its allies for being unnecessary, as a fresh delimitation will render it obsolete, scheduled in 2028. However, the delimitation was completed by August 2023 and got the nod of the election commission.
The delimitation has significantly redrawn political boundaries and majorly altered the political equations in the state. BJP increased the number of seats in areas where it was confident and reduced them in areas where it was difficult to get support.
Silchar-based political analyst Joydeep Biswas, a keen observer of Barak Valley’s political development, says, “The Barak Valley has suffered majorly due to the delimitation as the number of ACs in the region has come down from 15 to 13 under the new delimitation, but who cares.”
One probable reason for doing so was that the Barak Valley had many Muslim voters, making it difficult to make inroads there.
Assam Congress Legislature party leader Debabrata Saikia said, “This delimitation intended to consolidate BJP in the state for both Lok Sabha and assembly elections. To do this, the exercise either eliminated, changed reservation or severely redrew the boundaries of seats from where Congress leaders were winning.”
Some political commentators also alleged that the delimitation consolidated Muslim votes on fewer seats to reduce the overall influence of Muslim voters. For example, two Muslim-dominated Dhubri-Bilasipara East and West seats were merged to form a single seat. Same with Abhayapuri North and South, which were both Muslim-dominated.
Due to all this, while many Congress leaders, including vocal party MP Gaurav Gogoi, MLA Rekibuddin Ahmed and Nandita Das, have lost winning chances on their seats, the influence of Muslim voters has also come down significantly in the state.
A BJP leader, on condition of anonymity, accepted that the new delimitation will help the BJP maximise its chances in this Lok Sabha election. Party spokesperson Pankaj Borbora said, “The new delimitation is in the greater and long-term interest of the indigenous people of Assam.”
The BJP has been investing heavily in Assam since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when it won 7 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats of the state. Since then, it has won two assembly elections in 2016 and 2021.
Political analyst and senior journalist Sushanta Talukdar says, “BJP did make inroads into newer communities like smaller ST groups and the Tea Tribes, which helped it keep an upper hand in elections.” BJP spokesperson Pankaj Borbora said, “The BJP still retains the support of a majority of communities of Assam and is well prepared for the Lok Sabha elections 2024. We will win not less than 12 seats, and our allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodo-based party UPPL might be given 2 to 3 seats in seat sharing.”
According to a survey conducted in Assam by survey agency People’s Pulse after the delimitation, the BJP and its allies are still better placed than the Congress regarding popular support across communities and regions- except minorities and Ahoms. In this scenario, the survey predicts no significant loss or gain for the saffron party in 2024, projecting its tally to be around 9 to 10 seats.
The People’s Pulse survey asserts that the Dhubri MP led minority based party All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) was experiencing constant decline in terms of popularity among Muslim voters (especially Bengali speaking Muslims in Barak Valley and lower Assam).
Ajmal’s bonhomie with Himanta Biswa Sarma was found to be a point of general discussion among Muslim voters in even the remotest locations of the state. Muslim voters across the state said that Ajmal is just a businessman interested in protecting his empire and only Congress can give a tough fight to BJP. The Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra further emboldened this sentiment.
Currently, Assam has 3 Muslim-dominated Lok Sabha seats — Dhubri, Nagaon and Karimganj. If AIUDF’s declining popularity continues, Congress will have an advantage over these seats. In this situation, it appears that Congress may cut into the vote base of AIUDF, and AIUDF may find it necessary to defend the lone seat of Dhubri it holds in Assam.
A BJP leader, on condition of anonymity, said that the saffron party is trying to build a narrative that Congress is a Muslim party to isolate it from the majority non-Muslim voters of the state. “That’s why Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra was termed a Miyan yatra,” he said.
The statement is actually quite misplaced as Ahoms, the most influential Hindu OBC community of the state, is still inclined towards the Congress rather than the BJP as it has allegedly snatched away the economic-political influence this community enjoyed under the Congress rule.
The popularity of Gaurav Gogoi, who is seen as a future community leader across districts, is also enhancing this factor. It could be why Gogoi shifted to Jorhat for the Lok Sabha elections, as Ahom voters might rally behind him on this seat.
On the other hand, the Congress is banking upon corruption allegations labelled against the incumbent Chief Minister and his coterie of supporters in the state and the Prime Minister’s reported closeness with Adani and Ambani nationally, as evident from Rahul Gandhi’s scathing attacks.
Highlighting his party’s efforts to regain its lost base, party president Bhupen Bora said, “Over the past couple of months, we have launched several initiatives to win the support of tea tribes, ST voters, etc. The massive corruption of BJP Chief Minister Himanta is now making common voters realise that BJP is against the interest of Assamese people, and this Lok Sabha election will prove it.”
As the narrative war of appeasement vs corruption continues in full swing just a few weeks before Assam goes to polls, probably in March, only one outcome seems certain. It would largely be a bipolar fight between BJP and Congress, with smaller parties, including the AIUDF, losing their earlier status.
(The author is a political analyst associated with Peoples Pulse Research Organization. Views are personal.)