Northeast India is a highly heterogeneous region, and therefore for the longest time the only national political party that was able to make headway into the region was the congress party. This was so because of what Rajni Kothari, the great Indian political scientist called the congress party – the congress system. The reason being that the congress party had the ability to form broad based coalitions and allies primarily because it didn’t further any religious or ideological principle. This is very much unlike the BJP. One would expect the BJP to never win in a northeast state primarily because of its Hindutva agenda or its propensity to further a homogenous identity in a highly heterogeneous region – Hindu and Hindi, to put it crudely. Corollarily, one would not expect the congress to so easily lose its hold over the region.
But this is exactly what has happened: the congress, after 15 years no less, has lost Assam to the BJP. Much has to do with the congress’ own doing, such as when Tarun Gogoi decided to put his weight behind his son Gaurav, instead of his righthand man of many years, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who had faithfully served Taun Gogoi and the congress and was a man of experience and political clout. Sarma promptly joined the BJP as a result of this. But substantially, the primary reason for the victory of the BJP is the way it has conducted itself in the campaigning process.
Firstly, the BJP successfully formed an alliance with unlikely regional partners, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which is comprised of a broad collation of many tribal groups who, as part of their culture and daily livelihood, consume beef. They also deem themselves to be a secular party. And the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), who were historically staunch opponents of Hindi speakers and the BJP. The BJP, unlike in Bihar, where they suffered a defeat, wisely kept beef or any other communal agenda out of their campaign. The BJP throughout emphasised on development and provision of public goods such as roads and infrastructure. And secondly, the role that the central leadership of the BJP, especially Amit Shah, played in the campaign was minimised. Instead, again unlike Bihar, the chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, a fiery student leader while at university in Gauhati, was announced quite early. Additionally, the brunt of the campaigning was left to regional or local leaders.
These developments are good, both for BJP and India; and it is commendable that voters, over the last few months, first in Bihar while punishing BJP for trying to play the divisive card, and suitable rewarding them in Assam for not only making an effort to form a broad coalition but also for keeping any communal agenda out and focussing primarily on development. The voters have also rejected the dynastic politics of the congress and the DMK. The Assam elections have many political lessons to offer, one can only hope that the central leadership keeps its hands far from Assam where the balance between social cleavages hinges on this broad, unlikely and delicate coalition.