A vote counting centre (representational image)

By Sanjukta Basu

In the Assembly polls held in both West Bengal and Assam, the key question was how much dividend the Hindutva card would pay for the BJP.

In Bengal, the saffron party has never been in power so there was no question of contesting on a track record, and the election campaign was entirely about its Hindutva agenda.

In Assam, the BJP was the incumbent party, so the contest should have ideally been based on the party’s five year report card.

But Indian elections have not been fought on development issues for a while. The new normal is to contest on hyper-emotional populist agendas and cult figures.

On emotive issues, Assam was expected to go against the BJP given that the state saw one of the most bloodied anti-CAA protests in which several Assamese protesters lost their lives and many are still facing jail and prosecution. CAA was therefore one of the central issues in this poll.

During the poll campaign, the influential student body All Assam Students Union (AASU) had asked the political parties to take a clear stand on the CAA. The Congress party was the only one to do so. “No CAA in Assam if Congress comes to power,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said in one of his rallies. Congress leaders wore gamchas around their neck displaying a big cross mark on the words ‘CAA’, making the proclamation loud and clear.

BJP was up against a grand alliance of eight parties which included the Congress, Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), CPI, CPI-M, Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation, Anchalik Gana Morcha, and RJD. The total vote share of these parties going by the last election was more than the BJP’s vote share.

In addition, the breaking up of the BJP’s alliance with BPF was seen as a strategic event because many believed the party could swing votes in favour of the alliance in the Bodoland Territorial Region, which is governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and roughly translates into around 15 Assembly seats.

The Cong-AIUDF alliance, however, became the BJP’s key weapon in its Hindutva politics armoury. Ajmal was targeted as a figure epitomizing Hindutva’s ‘us and them’ narrative. “Badruddin Ajmal is an enemy of India”, Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowalhad said.

A 36-second selectively edited video clip was circulated on social media with the false claim that Ajmal had said Hindus would be wiped out if AIUDF comes to power. Even though fake, it had put Ajmal on the backfoot, compelling him to give an explanation, “I am an Assamese first, then a Muslim.”

BJP leaders also claimed that Ajmal was calling the shots in the grand alliance, an idea that solidified the “Hindus would be in danger” fear psychosis.

Poll experts say that the alliance mathematics was countered by BJP’s communal spins and fake news industry.

“A counter consolidation of Hindu votes worked in favour of BJP in upper Assam,” said a Congress worker reacting to the poll results.

“The results have exposed the hidden bigotry of those people of Assam who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act. When we met them at various protests sites in Mumbai or Delhi or UP, they told us that their protest was not about any religion, but about the indigenous Assamese identity. They vouched for secularism. Yet, upper Assam has voted for BJP. What does that say about their secularism? Surely, they were always influenced by the Hindutva agenda,” said Fahad Shah, an anti-CAA protester from TISS, Mumbai.

The tea garden workers’ wages seemed to be the other issue that could have played an important role. The tea tribe community comprises 17 per cent of the state’s population and was a deciding factor in almost 40 Assam assembly seats out of the 126.

The daily wage of the tea garden workers has been a long standing poll issue. In 2017, an advisory board formed by the Assam government recommended an amount of Rs 351 as minimum wage but it has been enhanced only up to Rs. 217 so far.

Priyanka Gandhi visited the tea gardens during the poll campaign and made their wages a poll issue. Rahul Gandhi had announced that the daily wage would be enhanced to Rs 365 within six hours of formation of the Congress government.

A cursory look at the district-wise results on the Election Commission website reveals that the tea garden seats have not gone to the Congress party as overwhelmingly as expected despite the party’s efforts which included the ‘Congressor 5 Guarantee Yatra’, a campaign to raise awareness about the party’s five poll guarantees in the manifesto.

The result, therefore, indicates that BJP’s politics of communalisation and polarisation has paid off in Assam and no amount of issue-based campaigning by the Opposition worked.

It is noteworthy, however, that Hinduvta politics did not yield as much dividend as the saffron party might have hoped for in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Further, as pointed by columnist Archis Mohan, in the last 23 assembly elections since 2018, BJP has won a comfortable majority on its own in only 3 states: Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, and now Assam.

The results of the five Assembly elections show that there is still space for liberal-secular politics in India, and that Hindutva politics has its limits.

This story first posted in nationalheraldindia.com