BJP likely to retain Assam in the face of a renewed & concerted Cong challenge

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
I have had over the past few weeks looked at the ground situation in poll-going States of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala, and West Bengal, where for the present, the BJP is fighting hard to gain new ground in areas that it had little or no presence earlier. In West Bengal, the BJP had made significant gains in the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections winning 18 seats and its has got momentum on its side to unseat Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is going for her third straight term.
Of all four States, the BJP is poised on a relatively strong wicket in West Bengal where it is the principal challenger to the ruling Trinamool Congress but in the other three States in South India, the BJP has little political strength to make a difference. But in Tamil Nadu, it has tied up with the ruling AIADMK and is hoping to gain a foothold in State politics, and in Kerala too it hopes its past efforts will bear fruit. But in both these States, the BJP appears to be playing for the future rather than this election. If the AIADMK alliance wins, the BJP may hope to join the Government in Tamil Nadu, which at this stage appears slightly difficult as the AIADMK itself is finding the battle a very tough one.
Having covered all four States, I would like to take a look at Assam, the strongest in terms of BJP’s presence as well as prospects. After five years of governance that delivered on the ground, the BJP is going to the people with a positive report card, and it fancies its chances to retain the Government with ease. Reports from the ground also indicate that the BJP would win, but not as easy as it was earlier anticipated.
Polling for the 126 Assembly seats of Assam will be held in three phases on March 27, April 1, and April 6.
It must be mentioned that the Congress, which was seemingly in a hopeless position, gained enough ground and in fact, got strengthened with the arrival of a tribal party into its fold that was till recently in alliance with the BJP. The poll surveys that earlier predicted an easy BJP win are now indicating a much tougher battle with the BJP just about managing to touch the magic figure.
The BJP has had an early start in campaigning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching it on January 23 and ever since many senior leaders of the party have been visiting the State. Union Home Minister Amit Shah too has been devoting time to the key State in the east. Former AICC president Rahul Gandhi and his sister and party’s UP State leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have also toured the State once.
In fact, Rahul Gandhi made his second visit to the State, where the position of the Congress has improved and is silently putting up a fight that was not anticipated earlier.
But it must be borne in mind that Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is not facing any anti-incumbency and in fact if not anything he will be aided by a pro incumbency as the BJP aggressively campaigns on the development agenda. On the list of talking points are the various popular welfare measures, efficient management of the COVID-19 pandemic, handling of the tensions created by the protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Whatever the people from outside may say, the issue of illegal migrants continue to strike a chord with the voters of the State, something that the BJP identifies with and promises to tackle the issue effectively. On this count, the BJP still is very much the choice of the people, who believe that the BJP will take effective measures on this count.
While the Congress tying up with the AIUDF will help the Mahajot in the lower Assam, it is likely to create a flutter among the electorate in upper Assam to vote for the Congress, where people are already upset with the BJP over the promulgation of the CAA. In fact, there is some last-minute positive buzz around the campaign of Congress-led Mahajot (alliance) ever since its five guarantees caught the fancy of the people – law cancelling the CAA, promise of 5 lakh Govt jobs, raising tea workers’ wages to Rs 365, free electricity up to 200 units per household, and Rs 2,000 monthly income support to homemakers.
There has also been renewed vigour among the Congress cadres, who see a slight chance after there was some encouraging response to the rallies by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. In fact, the recent entry of Bodoland People Forum into Mahajot after breaking off ties with the BJP has given Congress a shot in its arm.
What this shift means is that the Bodo votes that went to the BJP during last elections will split and some of it will move to the Congress. The BJP’s ally, United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), is led by the ex-leaders of popular Bodo students’ body, the All-Bodo Students Union (ABSU). The Bodo votes are likely to get divided between the UPPL and the BPF, with the former at an advantageous position following a strong anti-incumbency wave against the BPF.
The prospects of non-Bodo votes consolidating for the BJP as against the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) are also brighter now than before.
What can trouble Congress in the elections is its stand on CAA. In fact, its face in Assam and President of All India Mahila Congress, Sushmita Dev refused to be seen wearing a Gamosa that had NO CAA written on it during a public rally. In fact, this refusal by her reveals the extent of the potency of the CAA as an issue in these parts of Assam, where the BJP is aggressively pushing for the CAA and the popular sentiment on the ground seems to back this stance.
Now what remains to be seen is whether the Congress, which has failed to project a leader, will have to pay a price for this, unlike the NDA which is fighting the elections under the leadership of Chief Minister Sonowal. Though there is no official declaration it is understood he is the natural leader.
It is here that the Congress misses its leader Tarun Gogoi, who passed away recently. In his absence, there has been infighting in the Congress that it can ill afford in the midst of a very charged up and stiff political battle, for its own survival it is fighting. In Bihar, the Mahajot that included the Congress had a clear-cut leader in Tejaswai Yadav as the Chief Ministerial candidate if the alliance came to power.
Even now, there is no clarity on the Chief Ministerial candidate from the Congress side, something that the BJP leaders are quick to point out.
The Congress performance is sure to be better than was anticipated when elections were announced. Besides, there were no expectations from the Assam unit, and for this reason, observers are surprised that the Congress has bounced back to this extent. Analysts are sure that the Congress tally would improve as also its vote share. But will this be enough to put the Congress beyond the finish line ?
On this, the jury is out, but not many are betting on a Congress win at this stage. But, can Congress spring a surprise and wrest the State from BJP ? The actual result would be out only on May 2 when the votes are taken up for counting.

 Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman