Challenges for Sonowal: illegal immigration issue tops to-do list in Assam
- The BJP and its allies have won a convincing majority in Assam, with 86 seats out of 126
- Now, there will be pressure on the new government to act quickly on its poll promises
- The prime issue will be illegal immigration into the state from Bangladesh
- Protection of Assam\'s indigenous tribes will also be high on the agenda
- Why the migrants issue will put pressure on the ruling alliance
- What other issues does the government need to address, according to experts
The BJP-led alliance has got a clear majority in Assam, and the national party itself is firmly in the saddle with 60 seats, just four short of the magic figure.
There is now pressure on the alliance, which also includes the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), to deliver on the big promises it has made to the people of Assam.
There are also worries that it may find itself in a precarious position, especially on complicated issues like illegal immigrants.
The issue of immigration
Professor Nanigopal Mahanta, an academic who worked closely on the BJP's campaign strategy, says illegal immigration is one of the most important issues, on the basis of which the alliance has stormed into power.
"They will now have to deliver quickly," he says.
Mahanta says the new government will need to ensure the security of the indigenous population, and will be under pressure to provide protection under the Constitution.
"The fine print can be worked out, but they will have to start working towards it," he says.
This has been a long-pending demand of outfits like the All Assam Students Union, and the AGP. These outfits aided the BJP because of its promise that it will protect the interests of the greater Assamese society.
Samujjal Bhattacharya, advisor to AASU, had told Catch how the outfit will ensure that pressure is mounted on the new government to deliver on this promise.
Professor Monirul Hussain, who has authored a book on the Assam Movement, says the issue could lead to friction between the BJP and its alliance partner, the AGP.
He points out how both parties have a different stand on the issue. While the AGP believes in the implementation of the Assam Accord, which, irrespective of religion, calls for deportation of migrants who have come to the state after 1971, the BJP-led government at the Centre, through a notification, has paved way for the citizenship rights to the Bengali Hindus who have come and settled in Assam, fearing persecution in Bangladesh.
The move did not go down well with local outfits, and they have been demanding that the party stick to the Assam Accord.
Sarbananda Sonowal, BJP's Chief Minister-designate, who has been a champion of the campaign against illegal immigration, said soon after the results that the new government will seal the border to ensure there is no infiltration. He said Home Minister Rajnath Singh had already pointed out that it will be done within two years.
Cows and the Brahmaputra problem
Rajnath also said recently that the BSF should ensure that no cows are smuggled. This is easier said than done.
At places, the Brahmaputra river divides India and Bangladesh, making it difficult for the security forces. It is through this riverine border that the cattle smuggling also takes place.
While the police officials this reporter spoke to on an earlier visit to the border areas in Assam say that there are a very few fresh cases of infiltration, BSF officials manning the border pointed out how it is very difficult to ensure that no cows are smuggled.
BSF officials also complained how the directives from the Centre after complaints from Bangladesh, to not fire unless there is a threat to life, had also demoralised the force.
In Dhubri, for example, as Catch had reported earlier, smuggling has gone down after BSF deployed an extra battalion recently.
Mahanta says the government could take a cue from the Israeli border protection mechanisms, and says a laser fence could come handy in riverine border areas.
Who is an Assamese?
Interestingly, like Sonowal also pointed out, the ongoing National Registration (NRC) process will hopefully resolve the nationality question.
How organisations like the AASU, who have a hardline stance, will react is not clear. Bhattacharya, speaking to Catch, had claimed that the institutions of the State were complicit with the illegal immigrants in allowing them to vote.
A senior BJP leader from Assam made light of Bhattacharya's assertions, and explained how everyone in Assam is an outsider. "Who is an Assamese? How do you define an Assamese? Who is not a migrant in Assam?" the BJP leader asked.
"There is only a degree of variation on when they came and settled. Some came five hundred years ago, while others came in the last century," he said, while explaining how even Bhattacharya's family had a Bengali background.
Meanwhile, Mahanta also pointed out how the reservation for indigenous tribal communities will also be a big challenge.
Six tribal groups - Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Sutiya, Moran, Muttock, and the 'tea tribes' - have been asking for inclusion in the ST category. While the Central government has set up a panel to look into these demands, a decision has not been taken yet. The promise was a part of the BJP manifesto.
Interestingly, the demand has seen opposition from other tribal groups like the Rabhas and the Bodos, who see it as a dilution of their status.
The BJP managed to keep the flock together during the campaign by aligning with the BPF, Rabhas and Tiwa groups.
According to a-post poll analysis done by the CSDS, a phenomenal 68% of Bodos voted for the alliance, while another 48% from other ST groups voted for it. Moreover, the analysis says 49% of the voters from the six communities demanding ST status also voted for the BJP alliance.
The question of jobs
In its campaign blitzkrieg, the saffron party also made big promises to deliver on the development front. Its campaign was centred around the 'misrule' of the Gogoi government, corruption in the state ministries, how the state lagged on human development indices and how the Congress government failed to create jobs for the locals.
"They have promised 25 lakh jobs. That means five lakh jobs per annum. It is not going to be an easy task," Mahanta says.
He also pointed out how the government would have to come up with a comprehensive industrial plan to ensure development and jobs.
Hussain says: "Even if they provide one-tenth of what they promised, people would be happy," adding that the Congress government did "no work" in its 15-year tenure.
Managing the mighty river
Siddhartha Bhattacharya, the former BJP state unit chief, who won with the second biggest margin in the state from the East Guwahati constituency, pointed out how the management of the mighty Brahmaputra will be one of the biggest challenges, and how river erosion and flooding was affecting the lives of lakhs of people every year.
He also explained how all the water in the river was draining out of the state without being utilised. "The previous government had no proper plan for irrigation or power generation," the senior BJP leader pointed out.