Even up until three months back, there was barely any excitement for the elections in Assam. The ‘double-engine’ government of the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP in both the State and the Centre, appeared all too invincible while the Opposition completely fragmented and in disarray. Almost everyone gave the ruling establishment a virtual walkover and even those conducting opinion polls weren’t as excited for the elections. So much so that the BJP state unit diverted a substantial share of their funds to the neighbouring State of West Bengal, where the party is locked in a bitter fight with the incumbent TMC. “The party leadership felt that given the strong standing of the party in Assam, the funds could be better utilized in Bengal,” revealed a senior leader of the ruling party, on the condition of anonymity.
But with the first phase of elections completed in seats which are concentrated in Upper Assam, a BJP-AGP stronghold, the confidence of the party workers on ground with whom this writer interacted, remains shaky.
When the 2016 election results were announced, the NDA alliance managed to win 38 out of 47 seats in this region whereas in comparison the Congress managed to win only 6, AIUDF won 2 and another seat was won by an Independent candidate. This was when the Congress was facing 15 years of anti-incumbency in the State, Modi’s popularity was at its peak, the Congress’s charismatic and resourceful leader Himanta Biswa Sarma jumped ship and joined the BJP, AIUDF and Congress fought separately while the BJP cobbled together a strong rainbow collection with the AGP and BPF.
Come 2021, the dynamics have changed completely on the ground. While the BJP is still perceived to be ahead and the NDA might bag maximum seats in this phase, it is no longer confident whether it’ll be a complete sweep as they were claiming in public or as they had expected initially. During the elections while polling was taking place and even post that, this writer spoke to countless voters, on ground local journalists, polling booth agents, etc., to understand the dynamics and make sense of the complexities on the ground.
There is a large consensus that the NDA has underperformed in this phase in comparison to their 2016 tally, considering they’ll be losing a large chunk of seats to the Mahajot in the second and third phases. This is because the alliance between the Congress and AIUDF has resulted in a consolidation of their voter bases which will deny the NDA a win in many of their sitting constituencies. Take in case, the seat of Sorbhog, where the sitting MLA is Ranjeet Dass, the State president of the BJP. The arithmetic of the alliance is so strong that Dass had to abandon his current seat for the fear of losing and instead shift to a safer seat of Pathacharkuchi. While their ally AGP has a sitting MLA there, the BJP managed to convince them in giving up that seat for their State president. Similar trajectories are likely to haunt the ruling establishment in many seats of the Barak Valley and Lower Assam, which makes it an absolute necessity for the NDA alliance to win at least 35+ seats out of 47 in the first phase. Only then can they be comfortably ahead in forming a government post May 2.
So what resulted in the otherwise bastions being converted into such a close battle in many constituencies across Upper Assam? There seems to be multiple factors but we can highlight some crucial ones for the esteemed readers. First is the role of the Assam Jatiya Parishad-Raijor Dal combine (AJP+RD) in cutting votes of the NDA in many constituencies. As per the ground feedback, in seats like Dhemaji, Sadiya, Duliajan, etc., the fight is primarily between the AJP and Congress whereas in Sivasagar, it’s between the RD and BJP. These seats were earlier meant to be sure-shot wins for the NDA. Similarly in seats like Naharkatia, Doomdooma, Sarupathar, Dergaon, Teok, Tingkhong, Chabua, etc., a strong showing by the AJP and Raijor Dal combined can put the NDA alliance at the back foot. Even a 10-15% swing of votes towards them can spell doom for the ruling establishment and propel the Mahajot to victory. But in seats like Dibrugarh, Dhekiajuli, Rangapara, Behali, Khumtai, Majuli, Sonari, etc., the ruling alliance is comfortably ahead.
What is also intensely working as a big factor on ground but is under-reported in the media is the supposed factional fight for the Chief Minister post. Recently, a senior journalist tweeted how Lakhimpur MP Pradhan Baruah has been working hard to defeat the NDA candidates in Dhakuakhana and Naoboicha which fall in his Lok Sabha constituency. Such cases of internal sabotage are becoming increasingly more evident as the elections are slowly coming to a close.
Another crucial factor which seems to have worked against the BJP was the viral video of Assamese actor wife of a BJP leader where in an election rally, she claimed that those who don’t support the CAA will be thrown out of India. There isn’t a single Assamese voter who didn’t have this video on their mobile phones and this anger resulted in a huge shift of voters away from the NDA, especially towards the AJP. Hence, it needs to be seen, how much of all these factors have actually resulted in a shift of votes from the ruling establishment or whether their mighty election machinery will be able to control the damage efficiently. We’ll only get to know it on May 2.