Reading the tea leaves in Assam

One under-reported aspect of the BJP’s astounding electoral victory is its eastward surge.

And I don’t mean just its bigger inroads in West Bengal but also its larger gains in Assam.

In keeping with the national trend, BJP won seven seats in Assam, by far its best result. In 2004, it had barely won two of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the state. It had doubled the tally in 2009 to 4 but this time, it managed to wrest three of Congress’ long-standing bastions in upper and northern Assam taking the tally to 7 and contributing to the party’s mammoth all-India success story.

Those who do not watch Assam’s politics regularly may not think much of this development but for many of us, who have reported and observed the ever changing polity of Assam since the early 1980s, the Lok Sabha results indicate a tectonic shift in the making.

First, let’s look at where the Congress managed to retain its seats. It won Diphu, Koliabor and Silchar Parliamentary seats. All three represent three different areas in Assam. Diphu is spread over the two ‘hill’ districts–Karbi Anglong and the old North Cachar Hills. Koliabor in central Assam is dominated by tea garden voters while Silchar in South Assam’s Barak Valley is mix of Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims.

The BJP on the other hand stormed the traditional Congress strongholds in Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Lakhimpur. T It also managed to retain its Guwahati, Nagaon and Mangaldai seats besides beating the lone regional party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in the Tezpur constituency.

Three Muslim-dominated seats of Dhubri, Barpeta and Karimganj were won by AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), a political outfit that does not make any bones about being an out and out Muslim political party. The lone independent won from Kokrajhar seat, that had seen  communal violence in 2012 and targeted killings in the days between polling and counting.

In a national election that turned many long-held beliefs on their head, many would not be wrong in thinking that there is nothing extraordinary in the results. But a closer look at the victory margins would reveal a completely different picture.

For instance, BJP’s victory margins in Guwahati and Nagaon (semi-urbanized in large measure), Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Lakhimpur dominated by tea garden and tribal population (traditional Congress voters for over half a century), are over 1 lakh vote. In fact, in Guwahati, its sitting MP, Bijoya Chakraborty won by nearly 3 lakh votes; it wrested Tezpur from AGP with over 90,000 votes. Only in Mangaldoi, the BJP candidate had a thin victory margin of 23,000 voters.

The ruling Congress party, managing to retain three of its 7 seats from its 2009 tally, on the other hand, won the seats in Koliabor, Silchar and Diphu with much reduced margins. Koliabor, won by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s brother in 2009 by over 1.5 lakh vote, was retained by his young son, Gaurav with a margin of 80,000-odd votes. In the other two seats, the difference between Congress and BJP was less than 40,000 votes.

But more than the seats won, the fact that BJP came second in Barpeta, Silchar, Diphu, Karimganj, and Koliabor should worry the ruling Congress party.

Three distinct trends can be discerned from the voting pattern in Assam.

One, the BJP has replaced the AGP as the party of choice for the non-Congress voters in large parts of the state. Two, the AUDF is making larger strides than it had previously done, indicating the shift of Muslim vote away from the Congress to the decade-old party. And three the rout of the AGP as a political force.

In fact, it is double whammy for the Congress: the BJP is taking away its tea garden votes while the Muslims, its other support base, is gravitating towards the AUDF.

With dissidence against current incumbent Tarun Gogoi growing and the traditional ‘vote bank’ slipping away, Assembly elections, due two years from now may end up on a disastrous note for the Congress. Apart from the Congress’s decline (an all-India phenomenon), the other big story of Assam elections is the complete decimation of AGP, the party that was born in the crucible of the Assam agitation against illegal migrants nearly three decades ago.

The AGP’s demise however deserves a separate piece, which incidentally, I will be very sad to write, having seen its birth and the euphoria it had generated in the latter half of 1985.