Home » Politics » Battleground Assam: all you need to know about the crucial Assembly polls

Battleground Assam: all you need to know about the crucial Assembly polls

Catch Team | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:03 IST

The polls

  • Assam goes to the polls in two phases - on 4 and 11 April
  • The Assam Assembly has 126 seats, with 24 of them reserved for SCs and Sts

The players

  • Congress, led by Tarun Gogoi, has been in power for 15 years and faces anti-incumbency
  • BJP, whose face is Sarbananda Sonowal, has tied up with former CM Prafulla Mahanta\'s AGP
  • AIUDF, led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, has emerged as a key player among the state\'s 34% Muslims

More in the story

  • The key demographics of the state
  • The main political forces\' key strategies
  • The primary issues that will decide the election

Assam, the gateway to the Northeast, will go to the polls in two phases, on 4 and 11 April . The elections were announced since the term of the current Assembly would expire on 5 June.

The state has had a troubled history of ethnic strife, and continues to be sharply divided on ethnic and linguistic lines. The issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh also continues to be a political talking point.

There are still many active militant groups associated with tribal and ethnic identities, like the factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Several others have entered into a ceasefire with the government.

Also read - Issue of secret killing is back in Assam election. But does it matter anymore?

Key demographics

  • There are a total of 126 Assembly constituencies in the state, including 24 reserved constituencies. A total of 16 constituencies are reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates, while eight are reserved for Scheduled Tribes.

  • The Election Commission of India (ECI) has divided the state into two parts. Sixty-five Assembly constituencies, mostly in the Upper Assam and Barak Valley divisions, will go to the polls in the first phase on 4 April. The other 61 Assembly constituencies, mainly in Lower Assam, will go to the polls on 11 April.

  • Assam has an eclectic mix of ethnicities and linguistic groups, with the majority being those who speak Assamese. However, there is a healthy population of Bengali speakers and those who speak the tribal languages of Bodo and Santali.

Congress has ruled Assam for 15 years, and is facing anti-incumbency, especially in urban areas

  • In terms of religion, a majority of around 61% follow of Hinduism, while a little more than a third of the population follows Islam.

  • The state has 12% of the population notified as Scheduled Tribes, which includes Bodos, Rabhas, Miris, Mikirs, Kacharis, Dimasas and Deoris. There is another big group of tribals, commonly referred to as the tea tribes, which includes the Santhals, the Oroans and more than 30 others, which constitute another 9% of the voters. They came and settled in the 19th and the 20th centuries from other parts of the country to work as indentured labourers on the tea gardens.

Major political players

Indian National Congress

The ruling Congress is facing anti-incumbency, especially in urban areas. It has ruled the state for the last 15 years, and sitting Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is once again the face of the party in the elections.

The grand old party polled 39% of the votes in the 2011 Assembly elections, but received just 30% of the vote in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, owing to the massive Narendra Modi wave. In the upcoming polls, it hopes to regain some lost ground.

The Congress is banking on a lot of its sitting MLAs, with as many as 38 of them getting tickets again. Several others who have been given tickets are from Congress leaders' families.

This has led to disgruntlement among some party workers, who look at it as yet another example of the party's dynastic politics.

Also read - Assam polls: stand against immigrants is BJP's trump card

The Congress has also traditionally got the votes of the tea tribes, except in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the party lost in Dibrugarh and Jorhat, suggesting that some of its support among the tea-tribes has weaned away.

The Congress has also built alliances with tribal outfits like the United People's Party, which it will support on four seats of the Bodo Territorial Administrative Council (BTAD), in return for the latter's support across the rest of the state. The senior partner is hopeful that with the changing power equations in BTAD, which also has a sizeable population of Muslims, it can upset the BJP's calculations.

Bharatiya Janata Party

The BJP initially had the support of only the Hindi-speaking population during the days of the Assam movement, when the whole state was burning over the issue of undocumented migrants, and which ended with the historic Assam Accord in 1985. It miraculously increased its vote share to 36% in the last Lok Sabha elections, and bagged half of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. It got just 11% of the vote in the 2011 Assembly elections.

While it may be difficult for it to repeat its stellar performance in the Assembly elections, it is banking on alliances to build on the anti-incumbency against the Congress.

It has also been successful in weaning away Himanta Biswa Sarma, a senior former Congress leader, who joined the party with his supporters. The move has also created a rift within the party, with many of its workers complaining that they have been left out because of him.

Similarly, the projection of Union sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal as the CM candidate has also created fissures within the party. Sonowal comes from the Kachari Sonowal tribe, a small minority group. Sonowal's image also took a beating after the Paresh Baruah faction of the ULFA alleged that he had had a role to play in the secret killing of a student leader during the Asom Gana Parishad's (AGP) rule in the state.

BJP has tied up with former CM Prafulla Mahanta's Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People's Front

The BJP has also aligned with the AGP, a party born out of the Assam movement, and the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), a Bodo outfit with influence in BTAD.

The AGP has been reduced to a minor player in the recent past, and many of its stances on issues don't match with that of BJP, which has made this alliance look shaky. Prafulla Mahanta, the AGP chief, has openly said that the Modi government has not delivered on its promises on Assam. Mahanta also says that the BJP has not given his party enough seats in the alliance.

Mahanta has also been attacking the Centre for allowing Bangladeshi Hindu refugees to stay in the country, an issue which has become a bone of contention for the BJP, since other pressure groups like the All Assam Students Union, which led the Assam movement, and the Asom Sahitya Sabha, also continue to oppose this move. These groups exercise considerable influence among the indigenous Assamese population. The party is also under fire for withdrawing the special status of Assam and not giving it enough Central funds.

The BPF, which had played the role of the kingmaker in the 2006 Assembly elections and continued to support the Congress till the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, has recently aligned with the BJP. The BPF had polled 6 percent votes in the 2011 Assembly elections while it could just garner 2 percent in the LokSabha elections in 2014.

The issue of communalism, which has been taken up by the BJP in the garb of a protest against illegal migration of Muslims from the other side of the border, and the utterances of BJP leaders targeting the minority community, may also help the Congress, which is seen as a moderate player.

All India United Democratic Front

The AIUDF, led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, has emerged as a major political force. The party has its base among the 34% Muslim population, and could dampen the hopes of the Congress, which it has refused to align with.

The party's support base comprises of the Bengali-speaking Muslim population which has been under fire from the BJP.

In case the BJP's attempts at a polarised election succeeds, the AIUDF has a strong chance in almost 30 constituencies with a sizeable Muslim population, and could emerge as the kingmaker.

Primary issues

  • The Tarun Gogoi led Congress government has been in power for 15 years.

  • The BJP has repeatedly targeted it for misrule and uneven development.

  • Assam still has a high rate of poverty and fares poorly on human development indices, just a shade better than the BIMARU states.

  • Illegal immigration has been constantly been raked up, especially by the BJP, which alleges that a lot of people from the other side of the border are routinely coming and settling in Assam.

  • Bengali-speaking Muslims have a feeling of insecurity due to the high-pitched rhetoric of the BJP, and past incidents of ethnic violence targeting them.

  • The BJP-led government at the Centre has allowed Bangladeshi Hindu refugees to stay in the country, paving way for their citizenship. This has irked many ethnic groups.

  • Backwardness of the indentured labourers working on the tea gardens, who have traditionally voted for the Congress.

First published: 26 March 2016, 11:18 IST