Decoding Assam Panchayat poll results

Ashis Biswas

In a closely contested election it is not often that both winners and the runners-up end up celebrating the results. Curiously, that is precisely what happened in the recently concluded Assam panchayat elections. Leaders of both BJP and Congress had their reasons to cheer as the results were announced a few days ago.
In the short term, BJP was ahead of Congress by the proverbial skin of its teeth. The saffron party won 9,025 Gram panchayat member (GPM) seats out of a total 21,990, ahead of all others. It also won 991 Gram panchayat president (GPP) seats and 212 Zila Parishad (ZP) seats. It became the number one party in the 2018 Assam Panchayat polls -- good going indeed. Back in the 2013 panchayat polls, the BJP had come fourth.
Since this was the last opportunity for most parties to test their strength in a major election before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Assam-based analysts viewed the panchayat polls as a ‘semi-final.’ BJP leaders naturally exuded confidence as the stats poured in, happy that their party’s spectacularly successful political run since 2013 had not ended. The BJP had also won the state Assembly and Lok Sabha 2014 polls decisively between 2013 and 2018.
Intriguingly, the poll outcome also pleased the Congress no end. It confirmed that during the days ahead, BJP would find it increasingly hard to hold its own against a resurgent Congress. In 2013, Congress had won nearly 80 percent of the panchayat seats, a clear leader over other parties. But in the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls that followed, the party received a drubbing at the hands of the BJP.
This time the party won 7,239 GPM seats, 760 GPP seats and 147 ZP bodies. While BJP was ahead on all counts, the margin of difference between the parties was not impressive by any reckoning. ‘These figures indicate that the Congress has made a strong comeback since its defeat in the Lok Sabha in 2014 and is fast catching up with the BJP. At the present rate of progress, it should be able to face the BJP”s challenge with confidence in 2019 LS polls,’ said a Kolkata-based observer.
Assam-based media opinion was divided. Where the BJP’s performance was concerned, there was room for satisfaction in that the party had won outright in 13 out of 33 districts decisively. Even more relevant, most of these districts are dominated by Assamiyas as the tribal population.
This could mean that the Assamiyas, who are worried about the growth of the non-Assamiya population over the years, had responded positively to the recent official operations carried out by authorities in implementing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) upgrading work. The object of this exercise: detect foreign citizens who have settled illegally in Assam, mostly from Bangladesh, the most sensitive issue that continues to divide Assam’s population.
The biggest regional party -- the Asam Gana Parishad (AGP) -- along with the Muslim-dominated All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has not done very well in the panchayat polls. The parties won respectively 1,676 and 1,023 GPM seats, 137 and 130 GPP seats and 19 and 26 ZPs respectively.
The AGP parted company with BJP over its opposition to the Centre-sponsored Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which sought to confer citizenship to non-Muslim migrants forced to seek shelter in India from Bangladesh, Pakistan Afghanistan and other countries. It ended its alliance with the BJP. The Centre’s 2016 Bill would provide total relief to the Bengali Hindus, who have settled in Assam after having been forced to leave Bangladesh over the years. On the other hand, the increasing number of such migrants might reduce the space for Assamiyas.
Both the AGP and the AIUDF opposed the proposed legislation. But the BJP robbed them of their support base among Assamiyas, thanks to the ongoing NRC upgrading exercise.
One analyst noted that Muslim voters supporting the AIUDF earlier this time shifted their allegiance to Congress. The reason: they could appreciate that their earlier near-total support to the AIUDF had led to the rise of BJP in Assam. On the other hand, the BJP also managed to retain its support among Bengali Hindus despite the NRC exercise, as its victory in Cachar showed. They were confident of the eventual adoption of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament.
With the prospects of a coming together of the BJP and the AGP again on the cards, the saffron party may wrest control of another 3 districts, raising its political control over 16 districts. It would also have a sizable presence in the remaining districts. For the Congress, forming civic boards will not be easy.
Nonetheless, Congress has successfully delivered its ominous warning to the BJP, making it abundantly clear that the Modi-Shah duo will not find it easy to win as easily as they did in 2014 either at the state or the Central level. They have to work much harder in 2019 to win the Lok Sabha polls. (IPA)

Friday, 4 January, 2019