The campaign for the Assembly elections in Assam is heating up. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has campaigned there, and the Congress’ leaders – the party has ruled Assam for three terms under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi – will also hold rallies shortly. Alliance politics is complicated there; the Bharatiya Janata Party, which made major gains in the state during the 2014 general elections, is in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad and a political party targeted at the Bodo population. The Congress does not have a formal alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, but an informal, on-the-ground agreement between the parties is reportedly in operation.
Assam is a hotch-potch of competing identities – native Assamese, Bodo tribals, Bengali settlers both Hindu and Muslim, and the descendants of tea-garden workers. Each of these has specific demands of the state, and several of these groups have violently attacked the others in the past. In such a situation, identity politics is a dangerous game to play. Indeed, given a three-term government and the relative poverty of the state, it would make sense for the election campaign to focus more on competing development goals. But that does not seem to be the case. In spite of the prime minister’s own mention of development on the campaign trail, the BJP’s vision document for Assam, released last week, laid greater emphasis on the question of “outsiders” in the state – something that has been an emotive issue since the 1970s and 1980s. It specifically mentioned the controversial Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam accord between the Centre and local agitators, which dealt with the question of granting citizenship to those in the state before 1971. At the release, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley accused Mr Gogoi’s government of changing the demography of the state by allowing “infiltration”. Other senior central BJP leaders have referred to Assam’s victories centuries ago against the Mughal Empire. The anti-Muslim subtext is not hard to read. For the BJP, this is a straightforward way to ensure that the many cleavages in Assamese society do not end up working against them – when the BJP makes it a straight Hindu vs minority fight, it can do best, and it feels most comfortable.
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Most worryingly, the vision document promised a law that would take stern action against any business, small or large, employing “infiltrators”. This law, if it comes into being, would be an invitation to harassment of employers and employees, and create a climate of fear in the state. The BJP, as a national party – and furthermore, one that is in power at the Centre – has a responsibility beyond merely winning one state election. It is to ensure that a sensitive border state does not become a victim of identity politics again. The Gogoi government’s 15-year track record on development is nothing to write home about. That, surely, provides more than enough ammunition for a winning electoral campaign without playing dangerous identity politics.