A Guide to the 2016 Assam Elections

 In April and May, four different states (Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal) and one union territory (Puducherry) are going to the polls to elect new legislative assemblies. Below is a brief guide to the Assam assembly elections. For more information on these elections, please see Pranav Gupta’s overview as well as Sandhya Goswami’s and Vikas Tripathi 2015 EPW article, both of which were consulted for this guide. Uddipana Goswami’s Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam provides a definitive overview of the many dimensions of ethnic conflict in Assam’s colonial and post-colonial history, while Sandhya’s Goswami’s 2003 Journal of School of Political Economy article provides a definitive review of Assam’s political parties.

Assam’s politics are a direct reflection of the state’s uniqueness. Tucked away in India’s northeast, the state is a melting pot of cultural and ethnic identities. It has struggled with separatist violence, religious and ethnic tensions, and debates about the autonomy and independence of its many tribal populations. At the same time, Assam is a state that is developing rapidly and defies simple generalizations.

Like many previous elections, this election will fuse questions over Assam’s ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious identity with tensions over tribal issues and illegal immigration from Bangladesh. A Congress-led government that has held office for fifteen years will be fighting against feelings of anti-incumbency. The BJP will try to notch its first win in a state election in over a year, and post its first victory ever as a coalition leader in east Indian state politics.

This election will be a contest between three main electoral players: the Congress-UPP alliance, the BJP-BPF-AGP alliance, and the AIUDF-JD(U)-RJD allianceBecause this is the only one of the four upcoming elections in which the BJP could displace a Congress government, it will probably be the election most closely watched by the national media in Delhi.


  • What is Assam?

At 31.2 million people, Assam is the largest state in northeastern India. Its capital is Dispur, and its largest city is Guwahati. Assam is well-known for its tea and silk, which are the state’s largest exports.

2000px-India_Assam_locator_map.svg

The state of Assam includes many different tribal populations; twelve percent are categorized as Scheduled Tribes (STs), which qualifies them for targeted benefits related to employment and education.Various movements, peaceful and militant, have occurred in Assam’s post-independent history to demand greater autonomy and sometimes complete independence for different ethnic and tribal groups. Such independence movements during the 1960s to 1980s produced a new set of small states in the Northeast: Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Mizoram. Indeed, for decades Assam had its own armed separatist movement, the United Liberation Forces of Assam (ULFA), which laid down its arms in 2011 after an agreement with the Assamese and Indian governments.

Not all movements have called for full independence. The Bodos, who make up more than 40% of Assam’s ST population, led a movement in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s that resulted in greater autonomy through the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) that was established in 2003. While the Bodos are the most prominent, several other tribes have won concessions of autonomous governing councils from the central and state governments.

As a neighbor of Bangladesh, Assam has regularly received large inflows of Bangladeshi migrants throughout its history. Considerable tensions have generally surrounded this migration. The Assam Movement, or Assam Agitation, which occurred from 1979 to 1985 was the most organized outbreak of such tensions. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) led protests and demonstrations against undocumented Bangladeshis immigrants demanding that migrants be expelled from the state. This movement came to a head on January 19, 1983, when more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims were massacred in one of the worst pogroms in Indian history. The movement ended in 1985 with the Assam Agreement between the AASU and the government of India, after which the AASU became the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and entered party politics. The AGP won the 1986 and 1996 state elections, governing from 1986 to 1991 and 1996 to 2001.

Muslims constitute the largest religious minority in Assam. According to the 2011 census, 34% of residents were Muslim, the largest of any state outside of Jammu and Kashmir. This population includes Assamese Muslims, Bengali Muslims (i.e., originally from West Bengal), and Bangladeshi Muslims. Because nearly all migrants that have arrived from Bangladesh are Muslim, nativist movements are often inflected with religious overtones. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has stated that all Muslim Bangladeshi migrants will be expelled from Assam during previous campaign trips to the state. On a recent campaign stop, he said that if a BJP government was elected, a fenced border will be built by December 2016 to keep out Muslim Bangladeshi migrants.

Language has also been as another key point of tension throughout Assam’s history. In 1960, the Assamese Official Language Act was passed, making Assamese the sole official language of the state. This act has never been fully implemented however. While Assamese is the official language of much of the state, it is not in three districts of the state in the Barak Valley, where Bengali is the official language. In the four districts of the Bodoland Territorial Council, Bodo is another official language. The Language Act of 1960 has therefore been the subject of much public debate, with some calling for repeal of the law in contrast to others calling for its full implementation.

According to data from the 2011 Assam assembly elections survey, Assamese-speaking Hindus constitute 31% of Assam’s population, Assamese-speaking Muslims constitute 9%, Bengali-speaking Hindus constitute 10%, and Bengali-speaking Muslims constitute 20% [Editor’s note: These figures have been corrected from a previous version of the article, in which figures were not properly weighted to the state’s overall religious demographics per the 2011 census].

  • Why is Assam having elections?

Like Bihar last year, Assam will be electing a Vidhan Sabha, or legislative assembly, to govern the state’s affairs. Assam’s Vidhan Sabha has 126 seats. Whichever party alliance can combined assemble 64 seats will have enough to back a government led by their named chief ministerial candidate. Once the chief minister has secured a majority of votes in the Vidhan Sabha, s/he will name a government of ministers. State governments hold office for five years if they are able to maintain a majority in the Vidhan Sabha.

  • When are the elections being held?

The elections are being held in two phases. In the first phase on April 4, 65 constituencies voted. In the second phase on April 11, the remaining 61 constituencies will have elections. The final results of the elections will be announced on May 19, along with the results of the elections in West Bengal, Puducherry, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.

  • What are the stakes of this election at the national level?

The Indian National Congress (INC), which for many decades led the national government and many state governments, has been on a downward electoral slide over the past few years. This culminated in their embarrassing loss in 2014, in which the party was reduced to a historic low of forty seats in the Lok Sabha. After Karnataka and Kerala, Assam is the largest state governed by the INC. Losing it would be another embarrassment that shows the party’s diminishing appeal, following  on previous losses in head-to-head contests against the BJP in the 2014 elections of Haryana and Maharashtra. Another Congress loss to the BJP would further embolden other parties seeking to emerge as the national alternative to the BJP.

While successful in the most recent national elections and many state elections in the last few years, the BJP suffered two striking losses in last year’s elections in Delhi (to AAP) and Bihar (to a grand alliance of JD(U), RJD, and the INC). Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Amit Shah are eager to turn this narrative of losses around, especially with the crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh only a year away. Modi and Shah aim to extend their party’s advantage over INC in state and national politics, since the INC after all played only a minor role in the Delhi and Bihar elections.

  • What are the main parties contesting? What are their electoral strategies?

As in any Indian election, a multitude of political parties are contesting the polls. Three main alliances have emerged:

1) Indian National Congress (INC) – United People’s Party (UPP) alliance

Led by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who has led the state since 2001, the INC will be facing a tide of anti-incumbency after winning elections in 2001, 2006, and 2011. The Congress party in Assam faced a major rebellion last year, when minister Himanta Biswa Sarma left over the question of succession and joined the BJP along with nine other Congress members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). The weakened Congress government is hoping to focus on its record of development in Assam, and will be leaning heavily on its Assamese Muslim vote bank while also hoping to pull a significant share of votes from Assamese Hindus, Bengali Hindus, and the tea tribes.

While there was talk last year and earlier this year about a potential alliance between INC and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), nothing emerged from such talks. The electoral calculation may be that a tie-up with the AIUDF, which speaks to the aspirations of the Bengali Muslims in the state, could hurt the INC with its traditional voters among the Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu communities.

Without any major allies, the INC will need to either win a majority of seats largely on its own or a definitive plurality that gives it a mandate to make alliances with other parties (most likely the AIUDF) after the election. Congress recently tied up an alliance with the United People’s Party (UPP), a recently-launched Bodo party, which will compete in four constituencies in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas.

The INC will contest 122 of Assam’s 126 seats, while the UPP will contest 4 seats.

512px-Tarun_Gogoi_-_Kolkata_2013-02-10_4891_Cropped

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi

2) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) – Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) alliance

This alliance is being led by the BJP’s union minister of youth affairs and sports, Sarbananda Sonowal. Sonowal, who belongs to the Sonowal tribe that is categorized as ST, was once a member of the AASU and the AGP. In contrast to the Bihar elections last year, in which Prime Minister Modi’s heavy involvement was deemed a strategic failure, the BJP will rely heavily on popular Assamese leaders. This includes Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is directing the BJP’s electoral strategy.

S_Sonowal_official_portrait

Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal

The BJP is hoping to win a large share of the Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu vote in the state, which powered its win in half the Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2014. In previous elections, the BJP’s base consisted primarily of Bengali Hindus in the state, since the AGP and INC had cornered most of the Assamese Hindu vote. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections changed these dynamics when the BJP won seven seats while the AGP won zero.

Himanta_Biswa_Sarma_briefing_media_at_his_office_dispur

Himanta Biswa Sarma

Through their alliance with the AGP, the BJP will aim to unify the Hindu vote, as Hindus make up 62% of the state’s population. In order to appeal to both Assamese regional sentiment and Hindu religious sentiment, party spokesmen have been referring to the AIUDF, a Bengali Muslim outfit, as their main opponent instead of the INC. BJP talk of building a fenced border to keep out Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants also serves to highlight religious and ethnic differences and thereby consolidate the Hindu vote among both ethnic Assamese and Bengalis.

The BJP will also try to expand its vote among tribal communities. Six ethnic groups that currently have Other Backwards Class (OBC) status in Assam — Tai Ahoms, adivasis (also known as tea tribes), Koch Rajbongshis, Morans, Sooteas, and Motoks — are seeking Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to expand the educational and employment benefits provided to these communities. At the beginning of March, the BJP government in Delhi established a committee to recommend ST status for these communities by May, following through on a campaign promise from the 2014 national elections.

The BJP has also made a strategic alliance with the major Bodo party, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). After thirteen years in alliance with the INC government, the BPF broke their alliance in 2014 to tie up with the BJP for the upcoming state elections. As the predominant political force in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas of north Assam, this was a coup for the BJP, since the BPF is likely to perform strongly in the BTC constituencies (they currently hold twelve constituencies).

Lastly, the AGP, for so long the vehicle of regionalist sentiment in Assam, decided to tie up with the BJP for this election cycle. As mentioned above, the AGP has faced a secular decline in vote share since the 1990s when they were at their peak strength. Their pre-poll alliance with the BJP is a recognition of their declining electoral strength in Assam.

In this alliance, the BJP will contest 84 seats, the BPF will contest 16 seats, and the AGP will contest 24 seats. Two other political parties representing tribal communities, the Rabha Jatiya Aika Manch  and the Tiwa Jatiya Aika Manch, will also be contesting 1 seat each under the BJP symbol.

3) All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) – Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) – Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) alliance

The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has emerged as a growing electoral force in the last decade. Established in 2005 by Badruddin Ajmal, a religious leader and scion of a wealthy perfume manufacturer family, the AIUDF has made itself the electoral home for Bengali Muslim votes in the states, winning the second-largest number of seats (18) in the Vidhan Sabha elections of 2011. The AIUDF’s increasing share of the Bengali Muslim vote has come largely at the expense of Congress. In 2014, AIUDF won three Lok Sabha seats in Assam, equalling Congress’ total in the state despite a lower vote share due to the geographic concentration of their supporters.

The AIUDF has been eager to frame itself as the major opposition force to the BJP in Assam. Though not in an official alliance with the Congress, the AIUDF will not be contesting seats in Upper Assam so as not to split the anti-BJP vote in this region. If the AIUDF-led alliance and Congress each win enough seats, it is possible that a coalition government could be brokered after the election.

M-badruddin-ajmal

AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who led a successful grand alliance of the JD(U), RJD, and INC against the BJP in last year’s Bihar elections, tried to produce a similar alliance between the AGP, AIUDF, and Congress for Assam. No such alliance emerged, though JD(U) and RJD, which do not presently hold any seats in Assam’s Vidhan Sabha, ended up aligning themselves with the AIUDF. Both Kumar and Bihari political stalwart Lalu Yadav will be campaigning during the upcoming elections in an effort to establish a presence in Assam.

The AIUDF will contest 76 seats, while the JD(U) and RJD will each contest 12 seats.

Nitish

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar

Lalu

RJD leader Lalu Yadav

The Left Front will collectively contest 59 constituencies in Assam: the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) will contest 19, the Community Party of India (CPI) will contest 18, the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) will contest 10, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI(ML)) will contest 9, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) will each contest 2 seats.

The All India Trina Mool Congress (AITMC), which presently governs in West Bengal, will also be contesting 25 seats separately.

  • Where does each party expect to perform well?

The infographic map below from Mint below examines where each party has performed well in the past two elections, the 2011 Vidhan Sabha elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Assam-Battle-Ground_web

The blue stripe in the upper left corner of the first map (Winner – 2011 AE) is Bodoland, and the BPF is likely to win these assembly constituencies again. The constituencies colored in yellow in these first two maps, where AIUDF won the largest share votes, are the areas where Bengali residents are most heavily concentrated: Lower Assam in the western pocket of the state and Barak Valley at the southern end. AIUDF will again be competing in these areas.

Note the mass of red in the second map (Winner – 2014 PE). This is Upper Assam, where Assamese Hindus and Muslims are concentrated, and the density of red shows that the BJP won this area decisively in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The AIUDF-led alliance will not compete in these constituencies so as not to split the anti-BJP vote with Congress.

The BJP knows that its strength lies in Upper Assam; its alliances will help most in Lower Assam. Without any major allies, Congress will be competing statewide and hopes that the upstart UPP might be able to delivering some Bodoland constituencies at the expense of BPF.

  • Who is going to win the election?

Conventional wisdom has been that Congress, facing strong anti-incumbent headwinds after fifteen years in government, is likely to lose a number of seats while the BJP is likely to emerge as the largest party in the state. BPF’s breaking of its alliance with Congress to join with the BJP after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the AGP’s recent addition to this alliance show that regional parties expect the BJP to have the upper hand once all the votes are counted.

Three polls by major survey organizations have been released so far. The first, conducted by CVoter (who, full disclosure, is one of my research affiliates) for India TV, projects the BJP-led alliance to expand its vote share (from 34% to 35%; note that the BPF did not contest with the BJP in 2011) and the Congress’ to shrink (from 39% to 36%). It does not project a majority for the BJP-led alliance, since 57 seats overall would be a few short of a majority. However, this poll was fielded before the addition of AGP to the BJP-led alliance and thus presents a favorable picture for the BJP.

At the beginning of April, CVoter released a new poll for Times Now showing similar results: the Congress alliance winning a vote share of 37%, BJP-led alliance alliance winning 35%, and the AIUDF-led alliance winning 12%. Based on the seat projections released with the poll, neither Congress nor the BJP would hold a majority of seats in the Vidhan Sabha. Such a scenario could make Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF the kingmaker in government formation negotiations.

A third poll conducted by ABP-Nielsen, and also fielded after the announcement of the BJP-BPF-AGP alliance, projects that the BJP-led alliance will win a sizable majority of 78 seats. It is noteworthy that in both the CVoter and ABP polls, Congress is projected to win significantly more seats than AIUDF.

However, we will not know the final results of the election until Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal have all voted by the middle of May. The results for all these state elections will be announced on May 19.

*Thanks to Pranav Gupta, Jyoti Mishra, and Rahul Verma for their reviews and comments.

Questions? Anything unclear or in need of further explanation? Please add any additional questions to the comments.

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