Is Congress Heading for a Disaster in Assam?
The perils of forecasting an election came to the fore in Bihar last year. The image of eminent psephologists, assiduously built over years came crashing like a structure of match-sticks. Surprisingly, all major pollsters never ever blundered so consistently as in Bihar, giving a leading edge to NDA. In fact, one of the most awaited exit-polls- Today’s Chanakya gave a sweeping majority to NDA at 155 seats against the Mahagathbandhan’s 83, ( an almost diametrical reversal) only to recant later and blame it on a bug in the program that reversed the outcome because of faulty coding. They sure have a great sense of humour! When the final result placed the Mahagathbandhan at 178, at least one of the most respected psephologists of the country, Prannoy Roy had the courage and humility to offer an apology to the viewers for the confusion caused. In fact his words eloquently summed up the perils of forecasting-“With exit polls and opinion polls, we always made the point-even when we got it spot on-that there are statistical errors that shouldn’t make them be taken too seriously. You get it right, you get it wrong sometimes- that’s the life of a pollster.”
This goes to show the occupational hazards involved in making election forecasts. In this regard Assam is one of the most complicated states to hazard a forecast owing to its ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, caste and tribal diversities. However, the more tantalizing the task the greater is its seductive appeal in inviting an attempt.
Let me recall my earlier hypothesis that the dynamics of every election are different and if we are able to get an insight into those dynamics then it does become possible to forecast an election, its rigour notwithstanding. Dynamics are the forces that stimulate change within a system. If we analyse the dynamics operating in Assam a little minutely it gives a clear indication that the Congress is heading for a disaster in Assam. Let us examine them more closely.
Anti-incumbency and Aging LeadershipTarun Gogoi has a stupendous record of going into an election the fourth time after three convincing victories. However, this in itself is his greatest weakness and may lead to his undoing. According to Prannoy Roy of NDTV, a party going to the polls with fifteen years in power faces an anti-incumbency effect of 80%. Now, that’s huge. To counter that effect you not only need solid evidence of consistent accomplishments but also its acceptability by the public at large.
To the credit of Tarun Gogoi, who remains amazingly energetic for his age, are many achievements in Assam. He inherited a troubled legacy of violence and a sinking economy. He was always quick to highlight this legacy in his press interviews-“When I took over, anarchy and mayhem ruled supreme with terrorists calling the shots, government employees not getting salary on time and businessmen fleeing due to a spree of extortions and abductions.” It goes to his credit that he brought the drifting law and order under control leading to peace and stability in a state marred by insurgency and communal strife. He also guided the economy to the path of growth. Imagine, 2001 had seen 1500 deaths in violence and that figure had come down to 154 in his fourteenth year. No mean achievement. The per capita income grew from Rs. 13059/- from in 2001 to Rs.49480/- while the state GDP grew from Rs. 38313/- to Rs.162652 crores.
However, it is ironical, that his achievements had unintended collateral damages. Way back in 2009 in an interview to Eastern Panorama when asked what gave him a sense of satisfaction he replied-
“Changing the mind-set of people from depression to optimism.” And herein lay the anti-thesis of his own huge accomplishments. People in a ‘state of depression’ have a limited need of deliverance from insecurity. So it isn’t strange that the problem of infiltration which has become the core issue in this election (and will discussed later) was very much rampant even in those years but could not achieve the required critical mass to become a tilting election issue because the top priority of the people was stability and security by the enforcement of law and order. He gave them security in abundant measure. Bandhs and bomb-blasts started abating, extortions and abductions got controlled while militancy and insurgency faded away as 14000 militants from thirteen rebel groups surrendered. The people too responded unstintingly by giving him ten years of governance. However, by the time he got his third term the masses stood actually liberated from that state of depression and began experiencing optimism. To reiterate, it is really so ironic that optimism has its political dangers. It raises expectations and class aspirations. Once the primary need of security is fulfilled people start craving for more. Aspirations, long supressed by the fear of ‘anarchy and mayhem’, begin gaining dominance and soon become an impelling force demanding positive political action.
Zone of ToleranceAnti-incumbency is the gap between the performance expectations of the ruling party and the perceived performance. Zone of tolerance is the range where the shortfall is accepted by the electorate, albeit grudgingly. Once the gap surpasses the zone of tolerance, anti-incumbency spells disaster for the ruling dispensation. This is precisely what Gogoi is up against. The performance could not match the raised expectations. The five yearly per capita income growth that stood at 22.8% in 2011 declined to 17.5% in 2015. A survey showed that the overall satisfaction level which was at 63% in 2013 fell to 49% in 2014 which partly explains the abysmal performance of the Congress in the 2014 Loksabha election. Though data is not available, it is fairly obvious that it must have gone down to perilous levels at the time of going to election in 2016, an ominous sign for Gogoi.
With rising expectations of a growing aspirational class and a failing economy mere election rhetoric is woefully inadequate to win an election. The major electoral issues in Assam apart from insurgency, have been flooding and soil erosion, growing unemployment, problem of electricity, inadequate roads, falling agricultural production and most of all-Rampant Corruption. Since Gogoi had no concrete answers to these issues he was constrained to resort to emotional metaphors like comparing the BJP campaign to the Mughal onslaught which was repulsed consistently by the Ahom Kings of yore. Gogoi, an Ahom himself, perhaps failed to realize that a piece of medieval historical glory cannot satisfy the unfulfilled expectations of a young aspirational class that demands results in the current context rather than a glorified chapter from a history text. At seventy nine he is now seen as an aging politician whose governance has run out of steam. With fifteen years in the chair, his future promises carry no credibility and he has no substantial accomplishments to boast of in the last five years. In the final analysis, his insipid election campaign has been more of a reactive defence to the BJP’s charges rather than an active affirmation of fulfilling the peoples’ mandate so liberally entrusted to him for fifteen long years.
Divided Congress and United OppositionThe essence of Assam politics post 1985 had been effectively captured by Sandhya Goswami Reader, Department of Political Science, Guwahati University in a paper titled ‘ASSAM: MULTIPLE REALIGNMENTS AND FRAGMENTATION OF PARTY SYSTEM’ presented in 2003:
“Electoral politics in Assam in the last twenty years can serve as a textbook illustration of the complexities of the relationship between social cleavages and competitive politics. Every professional or lay student of Assam politics would notice two fundamental changes in the last two decades: a 'fragmentation' of the party political space and explosion of ethnicities in the arena of politics. The party system has changed from single party dominance of the Congress to a truly multi-party system that shows high degree of party fragmentation. The slow and somewhat dormant process of politicisation of ethnicities has suddenly gathered momentum. It is hard to miss the link between these two processes: multiplication in the number of political parties is intrinsically linked to the politicisation of multiple ethnicities. Assam has moved from an era of 'catch-all' formations to that of 'cleavage-based politics”.
This multiple realignment and fragmentation has remained a salient feature in the past three elections and also dominates the current one. The only difference this time is that it is dangerously loaded against the Congress party. Index of opposition unity has always been the bane of a ruling party. This time Congress faces a lethal double spin attack on a very slippery wicket. While there is a grand alliance of the BJP, AGP and BOPF challenging it, it has already been riddled with dissension and faced a revolt within. Nine MLAs led by Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the BJP last year dealing a crippling blow to Congress. The significance of this alliance is that the votes are transferrable to the alliance candidate which makes this formation politically formidable specially in upper Assam and the tribal dominated regions. No doubt there are some friendly contests within the alliance, but the number is insignificant and even there the electorate is expected to exercise their franchise quite discretely. So, a united opposition and a divided ruling party means Congress is in for some real trouble this time.
BJP’s Hat-trickBJP has deftly scored a hat-trick this time by three ultimate swingers. The first was the alliance which has already been discussed above. The second was the exploitation of the defections in Congress last year. Himanta Biswa Sarma was a prize catch and BJP was shrewd enough to maximize the outcome from his skills, dealing a body blow to the Congress thereby. One of the most astute politicians and master strategists of the state, Sarma is considered the architect of Congress victories in 2004 and 2009.He was considered Gogoi’s successor but perhaps his ambitions got a jolt when he smelt that Gogoi was going to leave the political legacy of the state to his son instead. Consequently, he found himself ignored in the 2014 Loksabha election and Congress had to pay an exorbitant price for this blunder. Seeing the end of road in Congress he switched sides to the BJP and proved to be its huge asset. Recognizing his political prowess and strategizing skills he was made the BJP campaign in charge which he accepted with great relish. While Sonowal was the face of BJP in Assam, Sarma was the real leg on the ground. His energy levels and indefatigability can be gauged from the observation that he is reported to have addressed 280 election campaigns and done 100 padyatras across the state, a feat not only unmatched by any peer but that almost seems incredible. His connect with the masses was magical as was seen in the overwhelming response to his rallies. He could speak in a tone that had receptivity and carried conviction. A seasoned politician who was well grounded in the electoral dynamics of the state and had the practical expertise and wisdom to make the winning moves. He was quick enough to judge the disappointment of the masses with Gogoi’s performance and was accordingly shrewd enough to choose an emotive political issue that was lying supressed deep in the hearts of the masses and convert this election into a single point agenda-assertion of the people’s identity. He summed it up in an interview to the Indian Express-“This time the Assam election is not about individuals, Sonowal or Sarma or Gogoi. It’s about Assam’s place in India and the Assamese people’s identity in the country.” This struck a deep chord with the people and resonated across the state to become a singular election plank.
The third swinger was the announcement of the Chief Ministerial Candidate. Fortunately, BJP learnt a lesson, albeit painful, from the drubbing in Bihar where outsourcing political campaign had proved to be a disaster. A state election needs to be fought like a state election not only to repose confidence in the state leadership but also to convince the masses that the state has capable leaders whom the Central leadership trusts can fulfil the mandate of the people. Central leadership can supplement a state campaign but can usurp it only at its peril. The choice of Sarbananda Sonowal was meticulous indeed. He was the president of All Assam Students Union from 1992 to1999 and later joined the Assam Gana Parishad. He was elected MLA in 2001 and an MP from Dibrugarh in 2004. Owing to differences with AGP he joined the BJP in 2011 and went on to become the state unit Chief. A leader with strong credentials and high credibility, he was the face of the anti-illegal migrant campaign. The IMDT (Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal) Act 1983 had always been a festering sore with the Assamese people. This Act had superseded the Foreigners Act 1946, putting the onus of proving citizenship on the accuser and the police instead of the accused as provided by the Foreigners Act. This Act was blamed for the alleged massive influx of Bangladeshi illegal migrants whose increasing number was proving to be a threat to the identity of the Assamese. Sonowal had challenged this Act in the Supreme Court and it was struck down by it in 2005 as unconstitutional. In fact the Supreme Court described the Bangladeshi infiltration as an ‘external aggression’ and directed the deportation of such migrants who had crossed the border illegally. It is obvious how much this judgement would have endeared Sonowal to the Assamese populace at large. A charming personality with a well-established political base, Tarun Gogoi was no match to his persona. With a state restless for change, Tarun Gogoi now represented the forces of continuity that had lost favour with the people. Sonowal represented the forces of change that the people were yearning for and his declaration as the CM candidate put him far ahead of Gogoi in the race for victory. Needless to add, it is a historical truth that in the battle between the forces of continuity and forces of change, continuity has always lost.
Baddruddin Ajmal- The X-FactorImmigration has been a historical feature of the development of Assam and the present socio-cultural diversity is the outcome of a very complex history. A cataclysmic movement in the political history of Assam was the Assam Agitation directed against the illegal migrants. Its outcome was the Assam Accord and the IMTD Act which was struck down by the Supreme Court. Muslims constitute one crore plus in Assam out of which around 42 lakhs are indigenous while another 60 to 70 lakh are from East Bengal/ East Pakistan and now Bangladesh. Some say this number could be 80 lakhs. The striking down of the IMTD Act was a huge setback to this community which had traditionally backed the Congress. This is where Baddrudin Ajmal a perfume baron rose on the political scene becoming the leader of the Bengali speaking Muslims in 2005 and amazingly gaining instant success. He floated the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and went on to win 10 seats in 2006 and took his tally to 18 in 2011 to become the main opposition party in the assembly. What was the reason of such a spectacular success? It was the massive shift of the Bengali speaking Muslims to his fold. This came at a huge cost to the Congress and was particularly reflected in its debacle in the 2014 Loksabha election where he emerged as the X-factor leading to an unprecedented BJP sweep in seven Parliamentary constituencies. A CSDS post poll survey showed that 45% Bengali speaking Muslims voted for AIUDF while only 36% voted for the Congress leading to its disaster. However, a deeper analysis of the votes secured over the assembly segments in 2014 revealed a horrifying nightmare for the Congress. It had a winning lead only in 23 of the 126 assembly segments while the AIUDF had led in 24. It was the BJP that had walked off with the cake, leading in 69 constituencies.
This time Ajmal has put up candidates in 74 assembly seats, sending shockwaves in the Congress camp. In fact he has gone on record to declare that he will be the King Maker in this election and no government formation will take place without him. His rhetorical claims apart, the division of the minority vote which had damaged the Congress severely in 2014 is again going to cost it dear in this election too, perhaps leaving it in shock when the results are declared on 19th May.
The Election IssuesFinally, what are the issues in this election? Post general election 2014, in an article titled ‘General Election 2014: Will BJP’s Gains Polarize Assam Further?’ Smitana Saikia argued that:
“This (2014) election has sealed the process of disintegration of the ‘catch-all’ nature of the Congress party in Assam, the unravelling of which had already begun in 1985 when Asom Gana Parishad won the assembly elections with a landslide victory. A major reason for this is the realignment of social groups with political parties leading to both ethnic polarization and ethnic accommodation in the state. This breakdown has been expedited on account of growing dissidence and factionalism within the Congress party as well as increasingly shifting loyalties of its core constituencies to other emerging loci of power in the state. Furthermore, the emerging political constellation constituting parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and All India United Democratic Front have a potential to further polarize a much fragmented and fragile Assam.”
The words were prophetic indeed! While the state of Assam had been long riddled with chronic problems as has been stated earlier, it seems they were all swept away by the wind of polarization. Himanta Biswa Sarma had already made it clear that this election was about “the Assamese people’s identity in the country”, and that is how it ultimately turned out.
With the Assamese threatened identity on the one hand and the fear of deportation of the Bangladeshi migrants on the other, the state seemed to be divided into two antagonistic camps, both blowing the trumpet of survival. The instinct of survival is the greatest motivator of action and if indeed this was a polarized election, it would reflect in the numbers that would flock to the polling booths. When the polling was over, it was revealed that never in the history of the state had voters turned out in such unprecedented numbers, taking the polling percentage to an acrophobic high of 84.78%. Polarization stood confirmed!
Decoding DataData never lies. It conveys a certain story. Unfortunately, it is prone to multiple opportunistic interpretations which muddle up the truth. An unbiased interpretation of data will always lead to a singular result. So, what do we get if we decode the available data on Assam?
The unparalleled voter turnout gives a clear and unambiguous signal of two things- polarization and anti-incumbency. This was observed in 1985 when at a high of 78% Congress got knocked out of power. In 2014 Loksabha poll a voter turnout of 79.88 again saw the defeat of the Congress. Now, at 84.78% one thing is crystal clear that the majority vote has swung in the favour of the BJP alliance which accordingly should sweep this election. However, one factor that complicates this election forecast is the voting preference of the minority community. We have already seen that Baddrudin had emerged as the X-factor and a huge spoiler of the Congress victory. How the minority community chooses to vote will obviously decide the ultimate performance of the Congress and the AIUDF this time, even though the die is already cast in favour of the BJP led alliance.
If we take the assembly segment data of the 2014 election, two scenarios emerge depending upon the voting preference of the minority community. If this vote tilts towards AIUDF as it did in 2014, it would simply spell disaster for the Congress. The likely outcome would be as under:
S.NO Party Number of Seats
1. Congress 16
2. BJP 61
3. AIUDF* 22
4. AGP 16
5. BOPF 10
6. Independents 1
(* Bodoland People’s Front)
However, if it tilts towards the Congress, the likely scene would be:
S.NO Party Number of Seats
1. Congress 35
2. BJP 53
3. AIUDF 10
4. AGP 17
5. BOPF 10
6. Independents 1
It may be observed that in either of the scenarios Congress is heading for a stunning defeat. A statistical propensity may compel one to take the final outcome as the average of the two scenarios. However, the special feature of Assam election this time is that it is certainly not going to turn out that way. There is going to be an unusual consistency in the voting pattern of either communities. Thus, the final outcome, whatever it is, will not be the average but will actually be nearer the either end of the two scenarios. To be specific, Congress will either be near 16 or 35. In either case, there will be nothing to cheer the Congress which is going to ruefully witness the fall of a mighty bastion.