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ASSAM 2006

A story of political and ethnic fragmentation

Thursday 18 May 2006, by YADAV*Yogendra

The formation of a coalition government is the logical culmination of a process that followed the Assam movement, says Yogendra Yadav

The focus on the other States detracted attention from the momentous elections in Assam. Of the four States that went to the polls, it is in Assam that the verdict is likely to have long-term implications. The outcome marks the end of an era in the State’s politics and signals the beginning of another.

With this election, the process of political and ethnic fragmentation that followed the Assam movement has reached its logical culmination. From 1985 till now, the State was ruled with wafer-thin majorities by either the Congress or the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Now, the era of coalition politics has finally arrived with the Congress falling 10 seats short of a majority. Its tally of 53 matches that of the Janata Party in 1977, the lowest number of seats won by the single largest party in the Assembly.

In more ways than one, this is a verdict against the ruling Congress. Between the last Assembly election and this one, the party lost nearly nine percentage points. In any other State, such a negative swing and a vote share of just 31 per cent would have spelt a sure electoral disaster. The Hindu-CNN-IBN Polls - a mix of post-poll and exit poll surveys that accurately forecast the outcome - found that only 41 per cent of the respondents were in favour of giving the incumbent Government another chance; 55 per cent were not in favour. The survey found a moderate level of satisfaction with the Government and the incumbent Chief Minister but strong anxiety about corruption levels and the crucial issue of immigration. Perhaps what saved the Congress was that the last AGP government headed by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta received an even more negative rating.

Divided opposition

The Congress benefited from the political geography of Assam and a divided opposition. The swing against the party was the weakest in the smallest region, the Barak Valley, where it gained two additional seats despite a drop in votes. In Upper Assam, the largest region that has been a traditional Congress stronghold, it lost 10 percentage point votes. But the party was sitting on very large margins here, thanks to big wins in the 2001 elections. The Congress managed to pick up 30 seats here, a modest loss of 8 seats compared to last time. Opposition disunity was a crucial factor in Upper Assam. The BJP retained its votes and as a result damaged the prospects of the AGP.

Despite a wave of resentment in the tea garden areas, the Congress walked away with 17 of the 29 seats in this belt. The swing against the Congress was about the same in Lower Assam as in Upper Assam, but in Lower Assam the AGP was better placed to take advantage of this. The Congress lost 12 seats here to finish with just 13 seats, out of the 50 in the region. The Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (Hagrama), a new party representing the Bodos, and the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), the much talked about Muslim political front, also played a crucial role.

The Index of Opposition Unity was merely 50.4 per cent, compared to 64.8 per cent in the last elections. In other words, about half the non-Congress vote did not go to the leading non-Congress candidate and was thus wasted. The AGP was a divided house, with Mr. Mahanta forming the AGP (Progressive). Eventually, he could only win one of the two seats he contested. That his party’s vote share was a mere 2.5 per cent, lower than the votes secured by other breakaway factions in the AGP’s history, would be a source of comfort to the AGP leadership. Mr. Mahanta’s party was not even a spoiler. Even if all the votes polled by the AGP and the AGP(P) were to be merged, the overall seat tally would have reached only 30.

The refusal of the AGP leadership to align with the BJP did much more to determine the outcome. If the votes of the AGP and the BJP were to be merged, they would have won 59 seats. Even if we assume that this is an overestimation, there is no doubt that an alliance between the two would have significantly reduced the Congress tally and thrown open all manner of possibilities when it came to government formation. But electoral alliances are not just about numbers. In 2001, the two parties had a very uneasy alliance, which was opposed by their workers. This time too, the post-poll survey indicated strong reservations on the alliance issue among the AGP voters. The AGP’s new leadership has forsaken short-term gains keeping in mind the long-term consequences of an unpopular alliance. Allying with the BJP means that the party stands to lose other allies, its secular image, its Muslim support and its regional character.

The rise of two other parties stopped the march of the Congress. The AUDF, formed under the leadership of Badruddin Azmal, succeeded in tapping the anxieties of the Muslim population, especially Bengali migrants. Its vote share of nine per cent and tally of 10 seats make it a serious player in the future, provided it stays together. The post-poll survey confirms that the AUDF ate into the Congress vote: 80 per cent of those who voted AUDF voted for the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections.

The same is not true of the BPPF(H), which had a partial alliance with the Congress. This party represents the Bodo tribal community and is led by Hagrama Mahilary, a former militant of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, who currently heads the Bodo Territorial Council. The party, which swept the elections to the Council, reaffirmed its dominance in the Assembly elections.

The votebanks

The deeper story of this election goes beyond political fragmentation. The State has moved one step further towards ethnic fragmentation of the electorate. The post-poll and the exit poll, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, confirmed the widely held impression that the AGP was the first choice of the Ahomiyas, the Assamese-speaking Hindus who are anxious about being turned into a minority in their own State. Among the Bengali-speaking Hindus, the Congress was nearly matched by the BJP. As many as 36 per cent of Assamese-speaking Muslims and 38 per cent of Bengali-speaking Muslims voted for the Congress. But this is poor consolation for a party that enjoyed the support of 52 and 72 per cent of these groups in 2004. An overwhelming majority of the Scheduled Tribe vote went to political parties outside the mainstream.

In short, it would appear that each party is becoming an ethnic party. The AGP and the BJP get 60 per cent of their support from their core constituencies: Assamese and Bengali-speaking Hindus. The AUDF secured two-thirds of its vote from Bengali-speaking Muslims and the BPPF(H) got two-thirds from Bodo ethnic groups. The only exception was the Congress, which secured votes from all communities. That seems to be the secret of its success.

The formation of a coalition government and the success of the AUDF could accelerate the formation of smaller ethnic parties, and thus even greater political and ethnic fragmentation. There is another possibility as well. The Congress could return to its role as the party of the grand social coalition and deal with ethnic diversity through a process of accommodation. Alternatively, the AGP could build a broad political coalition with or without the BJP to outwit the Congress. The politics of Assam in the next few years will be built around one or both of these strategies.

See online : The Hindu

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