Verdict 2016

Alliance fails in West Bengal, Hindutva wins Assam for BJP

Former Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, congratulates the newly elected Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, when the BJP leader called on him at his official residence at Khanapara in Guwahati on May 22, 2016 to invite him for the swearing-in. Photo: PTI
The elections to the Legislative Assemblies of West Bengal and Assam presented contrasting results. While in Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (AITC) government retained power with a thumping majority, Assam witnessed the rise of a fresh face, Sarbananda Sonowal, as the head of a coalition government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which ended 15 years of Congress rule. Analysing the results in the two States, journalist and author, Subir Bhaumik, says that in West Bengal, the hurriedly put together alliance between the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Left did not lead to easy transfer of votes, while in Assam, the BJP’s Hindutva politics was able to knit together the Assamese, the Bengalis and the Hindu tribals into a vote bank that delivered them a victory.

The Left-Indian National Congress (INC) alliance came a cropper in West Bengal because the intended arithmetic of vote transfer did not work. The Left candidates, contesting much more seats than the INC, desperately needed the eight to ten per cent vote the party commands to turn the tables on the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). They did not get it because the supporters of the Congress, long used to fighting the Left in West Bengal, mostly voted for their political cousins, the AITC. That has been the case since Mamata Banerji broke away to form the Trinamool Congress in 1997. For any Congress supporter in Bengal, the obvious choice is AITC if there is no INC candidate in the fray. Most Congress supporters in West Bengal appeared to have rejected the leadership’s decision to ally with the traditional enemy, the Left Front.

“We fought the Left in alliance with Trinamool just five years ago. So it was really difficult convincing them to vote for Left candidates where our own candidates were not contesting this time,” said Bengal Congress leader D.P. Ray. “For our supporters, Mamata is much more acceptable than the Left any day. She is from the Congress stable.”

Veteran INC leader Manishankar Aiyar actually pointed out in a TV panel that he was indeed the first general secretary of the Trinamool Congress — and that it was a huge mistake to let her go. So, while the Left could manage to convince its disciplined and regimented rank and file to vote for Congress candidates where the Left had not fielded candidates, the Congress leadership, the Gandhis included, failed to drive home the point that it was important for the Congress supporters to vote for Left candidates.

That explains the Congress emerging as the second largest party in Bengal with more seats (44) than the Left (25), its much higher strike-rate was made possible by Leftists voting for INC’s candidates but the latter’s supporters voting for the AITC. The vote transfer was one sided — it benefited the Congress but not the Left at all.

Some say that this could well be a pointer to the fact that electoral alliances should to be finalised earlier rather than just ahead of polls.

“It was clear that the Congress would need much more time and effort to convince its supporters to vote for the Left candidates because it was the Congress that had changed its ally this time and joined hands with someone they have always fought. Two months was not good enough, especially because they don’t have a regimented organisation like the Left,” said veteran West Bengal political commentator Ashish Biswas.

He said that if the Congress vote had “properly and smoothly transferred to the Left, its candidates would be winning not less than 80 to 90 seats instead of just 25. A comparison between the vote secured by Congress candidates and those by the Left proves the point, Biswas said.

As the alliance did not have enough time to settle, except in North Bengal where CPI(M) former minister Ashok Bhattacharyya had successfully experimented with the ‘Siliguri line’ for a while, it was also impossible for them to fight the well-orchestrated terror campaign unleashed by the Trinamool workers. The Election Commission of India’s monitoring rarely reaches beyond motorable roads and despite its best intentions, it began to falter in the later stages. In village after village, AITC workers managed to scare away opposition voters by a pre-worked scare campaign (stay home if you don’t support us, we will vote for you) and then took over booths to work the EVMs for an hour or two to make all the difference. That explains the heavy poll turnout in late hours — 25 per cent votes cast in a large number of the constituencies after 3 p.m.

“In [West] Bengal, elections are won and lost over party organisations. The one with the stronger organisation wins,” says veteran journalist Sukharanjan Dasgupta. “The Left-Congress depended too much on the Election Commission, they paid for not having their own machinery to resist the Trinamool muscle.”

This, however, does not discount Mamata’s personal popularity among the poorer masses, both urban and rural, and to the success of the populist schemes she introduced in a poverty-ridden society where survival rather than development is the is often the priority of the poor. The success of the cheap rice scheme (Rs 2 per k.g.) for the poor was a runaway hit. Other schemes, like the Kanyasri, increased the Trinamool’s chances with poor women. The implementation of rural development schemes also paid rich dividends. Annual allocations of Rs. two lakh for youth clubs got Trinamool enthusiastic poll workers, much younger than their opponents.

However, the rise in the BJP vote share (from just under 5 per cent in 2011 to 10 per cent in these elections) also sliced up the anti-Trinamool vote bank since this was largely a ‘Trinamool versus the rest’ kind of a battle. In Bhawanipur, if the 50,000-odd non-Bengalis had not largely voted BJP, Mamata herself would have been in trouble.

“Though the BJP got only three seats, the blooming Lotus actually helped the Trinamool’s ‘double flower’ to bloom,” said Sukharanjan Dasgupta.

Hindutva in Assam

If it was a failure of Opposition consolidation that helped Mamata score a resounding victory, it was the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank and a split in the Muslim vote that helped a decisive and historic BJP win in Assam.

For the first time, Assamese, Bengali and tribal Hindus voted for the BJP, partly because their specific interests had been addressed in the saffron campaign and partly because they were upset by the repeated assertion of AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal that he would be ‘kingmaker’. The BJP’s success is stitching alliances with Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which had ruled Assam for two terms (1985-1990 and 1996-2001) and Bodoland Peoples Front (which controls the autonomous council for Bodo tribes) helped the anti-Congress consolidation, even as the Congress failed to work out a poll alliance with the Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF.

Assamese caste Hindus, over the years, have come to reckon the BJP as the possible guardian of their identity that they see threatened by influx from across the borders. No longer do they repose faith in ‘amar lora’ (our boys, as the AASU or AGP were referred to in the 1980s) for that. And when the BJP named one of their ‘lora’, Sarbananda Sonowal, to lead the charge, the die was cast. And since Sonowal is a tribal, a Sonowal Kachari, the tribals, long alienated by upper caste domination of Assamese identity politics, came back to support the BJP in a big way.

“In some ways, projecting a tribal as Chief Minister may help repair the ruptured Asomiya nationality formation process, manifest in multiple demands for tribal homelands,” says Uddipana Goswami, author of a book on politics of ethnicity in Assam.

Bengali Hindus had much to cheer over the Modi government’s decision to accept Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan as legitimate claimant of Indian citizenship. The Bengali dominated Barak valley is also cheered by the speed with which the rail broad gauge work to Silchar has been completed by the Modi government after hanging in heavens for 15 years during the Congress regime.

The only hope for the Congress against the Hindutva steamroller (efficiently unleashed by the likes of Ram Madhav) was a possible consolidation of the Muslim vote in its fold. That did not quite happen. Badruddin Ajmal himself lost his seat to Congress veteran Wajed Ali, but he sliced up the 36 per cent Muslim vote sufficiently down the middle to deny the Congress a huge share of the ‘Ali’ vote.

“The AIUDF is a spoiler,” fumed Assam Congress president Anjan Dutta.

For the first time since the concept of a ‘concerted Hindu vote bank’ was conceived by former governor Lt. Gen. S. K. Sinha (he brought about the first AGP-BJP alliance in 2001) has the intended arithmetic translated into ground reality.

The huge crop of young voters in Assam, which psephologist Sanjay Kumar sees emerging as a vote bank, also identified strongly with a young leader like Sonowal and not with the aging Tarun Gogoi, harping too much on his hat-trick.

[This article was updated on May 25, 2016, to incorporate links to the Election Commission of India.]

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