Rough & Tumble – Patricia Mukhim
The problem with elections in India has always been that the educated, rational, pragmatic voter hardly makes a difference. It is the voter in the rural outback that calls the shots. And no matter how much we may discount the power of money during elections, the fact is that money wins elections.
Elections are India’s biggest fanfare and a token symbolism that democracy is alive and kicking. Voters in State after State going to the polls believe they are voting for change. That change may not necessarily mean a switch-over to another political party. It could mean voting the same party that offers a different set of promises. At other times it could mean voting a completely new political entity with the expectation that change is only possible from a new set of faces in a new political dispensation.
In 2018, the people of Meghalaya voted the National People’s Party (NPP), a key alliance partner of the BJP. The NPP is a softer version of the BJP and without its strident religious ideology. In States that have a Christian majority population, the BJP has come in through allies that think like it insofar as governance delivery is concerned but will stop short of taking on the strident Hindutva baggage. That happened in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. In Tripura and Assam, the BJP was able to ride to power on its own strength.
In 2016, the people of Assam had become disillusioned with the 15-year Congress rule. They wanted change. Also the BJP had made a firm commitment to deal with what is considered to be ‘Assam’s constant pain and sorrow’ – the presence of unaccounted numbers of illegal migrants. It was largely assumed that these were ‘Muslims,’ hence when the BJP promised to identify and deport these ‘illegal non-citizens,’ people voted enthusiastically for the party. In 2014 the Supreme Court-directed exercise for identifying Indian citizens in Assam had started with the update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). An election happening in the midst of this exercise could not but be influenced by its possible outcome. Finally the updated NRC for Assam was published on August 31, 2019. The enthusiasm waned when the updated document found that only 31 million names figured in the NRC out of the 33 million population of Assam. Roughly about 1.9 million applicants who were Bengali Hindus, Bengali Muslims and Hindus from various parts of India did not find their names in the NRC. This matter is still alive and not addressed till date.
The issues in 2016 were clear. People wanted a government that would have the spine to enforce the NRC. They had already decided that the Congress would never do that because it relied heavily on the Muslim vote bank. Somehow there was that illusion that every illegal migrant had to be a Bengali-speaking Muslim from Bangladesh who might have crossed over for purely economic reasons. That was a simplistic belief because the NRC proved this to be an urban legend. A large chunk of population that fell out of the NRC cracks were Hindus, and that posed an even bigger problem because in December 2019, the BJP passed the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The Act seeks to give citizenship to Hindus from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who suffer religious persecution. For Assam this is the Sword of Damocles. Already there was an all-pervading sense that illegal migrants consume both the space and resources meant for Indian citizens and the ‘indigenous’ people of Assam. But Assam also became a State divided.
Those in the Barak Valley feel that their kith and kin who were rudely bifurcated by a border drawn across what appeared to be land to its author, but was kinship bond that separated families, should be allowed to settle in India. After all, a line drawn by a foreigner – Cyril Radcliffe who had no inkling of what he was doing because he was in a distant place in London – cannot be sacrosanct. The feeling among the Bengali-speaking population is that Hindus from erstwhile East Pakistan who had crossed over for various reasons should be allowed to settle in Assam. And therein lies the rub. Those in the Brahmaputra Valley are vehemently opposed to this idea. And it is with this divided philosophy and ideology that the current election to the State Assembly is being held.
The BJP realizes that raising the CAA issue is only going to raise the temperature of that section of voters that had catapulted it to power in 2016. Those who support the CAA wholeheartedly are in the Barak Valley which only has 15 MLAs. The BJP now wants to convert even those voters that had voted Congress in 19 constituencies. Interestingly, in the 2016 elections, constituencies hosting Muslim candidates all voted for the AIUDF which got 14 seats. The BJP had got 60 seats then, the AGP 12 and BPF 11 seats. There were 12 vacant seats in the outgoing Assembly.
As is par for the course, the Congress has tried to woo the tea tribes with Priyanka Vadra Gandhi even symbolically plucking tea leaves. The Congress bigwigs from the AICC are pulling all the stops to woo the people of Assam yet again. But the vacuum left by Tarun Gogoi can hardly be filled by any Congressman/woman in Assam, not even by Gaurav Gogoi.
The educated elite wonder if this election will be any different from those of the past. The problem with elections in India has always been that the educated, rational, pragmatic voter hardly makes a difference. It is the voter in the rural outback that calls the shots. And no matter how much we may discount the power of money during elections, the fact is that money wins elections. The BJP has the money; the Congress and other parties don’t have it. When poverty is stark and Covid has reduced people to jobless vagrants, money and the promise of raising them from their present status makes more sense than rhetoric and reason.
For whatever it is worth, the BJP has rolled out several social sector schemes which in the BJP-ruled States might have been delivered more successfully and with lesser leakages than in the Opposition-ruled ones. The beneficiaries of these schemes would want the BJP to continue its rule in Assam.
There is also the battle of perception that is important in elections. This takes me to the book, The Political Brain, by Drew Westen. The author points to the Gulf War when George Bush senior compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. Westen says, “If we accept the premise that Saddam is like Hitler, then Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was like Germany’s invasion of its neighbours at the start of World War II. This would imply that Saddam must be stopped immediately before becoming a danger to the world. The analogy was so compelling to the world community, leading to a powerful coalition of nations willing to send their forces to the Middle-east.” Studying how Bush’s mind worked at the time, psychologists Holyoak and Thagard say that when our minds are settling on an analogy, the current situation must be similar enough on the analog from the past to activate its networks. The BJP has gone silent on the CAA so as not to needle the voters in the Brahmaputra Valley. And thankfully the campaign in Assam has not been as virulent and divisive – a fight to the finish as it were!
I am no psephologist but it seems the BJP is returning in Assam but only because the other political parties offer no real opposition.