After a series of hectic parleys, news broke out on Sunday afternoon that ex-Congressman turned Bharatiya Janata Party’s go-to man in the North-East, Himanta Biswa Sarma, often derided as ‘Assam’s forever CM-in -waiting’ had pipped the incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal to become the state’s next Chief Minister.
While the post-poll suspense of who will get to be Assam’s next Chief Minister has hogged the limelight in the past few days, a closer inspection of the Assam verdict reveals that contrary to the popular perception of Assam polls being a one sided affair, the Congress-led Mahajot lost out to BJP’s Mitrojot by a kitten’s whisker.
On April 1, in an interview to an Assamese TV channel, Sarma had made a startling claim. “We had encouraged the formation of AJP and let our party workers attend their meetings so that they feel they have takers. Whether it is AJP or Raijor Dal or any other party, they have been floated according to the BJP’s strategy. Although the CAA is not much of a factor, the idea behind creating the new regional parties was to split the votes of those against the law between them and the Congress and its allies,” Sarma was quoted as saying.
A thorough analysis of the Assam verdict reveals that the one of the biggest factors behind the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s historic re-election in a state, where it was up against a formidable alliance stitched together by the Congress, was its ability to smartly use one of the long-standing maladies of the first-past-the-post system to its advantage -- of clinching crucial seats not by winning the popular vote but by dividing the opposition to bring down the average winning threshold (in terms of vote share) required.. This was especially true in the key battle zone of Upper Assam which turned out to be the difference between the two sides.
In other words, the easiest way to win elections is ‘Divide and Rule’. It is easier to win by dividing the opposition than by capturing the additional votes/trying to win the popular vote. This strategy paid off handsomely for the saffron party in Assam and more specifically in Upper Assam -- where BJP won 23 out of 28 seats.
Predictably, the division in Opposition votes gives an unfair advantage to the dominant or leading political party of the time in terms of seats won, as they manage to win a large number of seats with small margins. Thus, a small percentage of vote share is enough to give it a huge majority. For instance, in Assam, the difference in the vote share of the NDA and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was less than 1%. Yet, the NDA was able to win almost a two-third majority (60% of the seats) by winning just 44.52% of the vote share. The Congress-led Mahajot, which secured 43.68% of the popular vote, on the contrary, could only manage to win 39% of the total seats on offer.
On the eve of the polls, in my column for NewsClick, I had extensively discussed the importance of IOU (Index of Opposition Unity) and it being the X-factor in the Assam polls. In the article titled Why IOU May be the X-factor in Assam Assembly Polls, I had hinted at two possibilities arising due to the Assam Jatiya Parishad-Raijor Dal refusing to join the Opposition’s grand alliance -- a lower IOU and a split in anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) votes coming to the rescue of BJP, and the AJP-Raijor Dal combine also eating into a minor chunk of the Congress-AIUDF, especially in seats where it had fielded candidates from the minority community.
Understanding the importance of ensuring a united opposition and consequently a higher IOU against BJP, the Congress deftly formed a grand-alliance of anti-BJP forces which looked formidable on paper. While the grand old party did succeed in its efforts of ensuring a historically high IOU of 78.73 against BJP, apart from AIUDF and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) which were quite influential in certain pockets of the state, other allies of Mahajot, like CPI, CPI(M), and the newly floated Aanchalik Gana Morcha (AGM) and Rashtriya Janata Dal had anecdotal or limited presence in the state. But, more importantly, it was the split of anti-CAA votes and the consequently lower IOU/ fragmented opposition in Upper Assam which seriously dented the prospects of the Congress alliance.
Why the election was won and lost in Upper Assam region
It won’t be far-fetched to say that the election was won by the NDA and lost by the Mahajot in Upper Assam. The regional front, comprising AJP and RD, both born out of the anti-CAA movement in the state, contested most of the seats in Upper Assam. It is worth noting that the region had emerged as the epicentre of protests when the state was roiled by anti-CAA/NRC protests in 2019-20.
In 14 seats across the state, the margin of victory for the NDA was lower than the votes polled by AJP-RD candidates. Simply put, there were 14 seats where the total votes polled by the Mahajot+AJP-RD candidates was greater than the votes polled by the official NDA candidate.
Of these 14 seats, 11 are in Upper Assam, which goes to prove that division of anti-CAA votes in Upper Assam proved costly for the Opposition alliance. Going by simple arithmetic, had the AJP-RD yielded to the Congress party’s repeated demands of joining the grand-alliance, the Congress and its allies would have won a simple majority of 65 seats in the 126 member Assembly. However, such an assumption is not only too simplistic but also erroneous, as it ignores the possibility of votes not getting transferred between the disparate allies of a hotchpotch alliance.
Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that while the alliance with AIUDF did help Congress in avoiding a division of minority votes, on the flip side a considerable fraction of anti-CAA (especially Assamese Hindu votes) votes in the Upper Assam shifted to the AJP-RD combine. The IOU against BJP was the lowest in Upper Assam at just 64.06 against the state average of 78.73.
While 72 out of 126 victories in Assam can be attributed to winning the popular vote, i.e, polling more than 50% of the votes cast, 54 seats were won due to a lower IOU. The BJP-led NDA benefitted the most by a lower IOU or a fragmented opposition as it won 36 out of these 54 seats.
What went wrong for Mahajot in Upper Assam?
The GOP’s alliance with perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, which has traction among Bengali Muslims, often called Miyas, helped the Mahajot consolidate votes in the Muslim-dominated areas of the Barak Valley and Lower Assam. In 58 seats of the Barak Valley and Lower Assam, the Congress alliance significantly improved its performance winning 34 seats.
The BJP, expecting such a consolidation constantly attacked the alliance — and Ajmal in particular — during the campaign, thus attracting the votes of Assamese ethno-nationalists as well as Hindu nationalists. This polarised the votes to BJP’s favour in other regions, most significantly in Upper Assam.
The AJP-RD ditching Congress decided to go solo only to fare poorly with only jailed-activist and peasant leader Akhil Gogoi winning, in Sivasagar. AJP’s Lurinjyoti Gogoi, who was one of the prominent faces of anti-CAA protests, lost both the seats he contested. More importantly, the third front of AJP-Raijor Dal, which claimed to represent the nativist ‘Jatiyatabadi’ Assamese cause and regional aspirations aided- intentionally or unintentionally the BJP-led NDA by walking away with a section of the anti-CAA votes which would have otherwise gone to the Congress.
After a lot of daily-dallying, Congress and AIUDF had decided to contest together. But in the end the move backfired. While the Congress kept reiterating that if voted to power it would repeal the CAA, the BJP kept attacking the party over its alliance with AIUDF by asking: “How can one promise to protect the interests of the ethnic Assamese and ally with a party espousing the cause of allegedly illegal Muslim migrants?”
The final nail in the coffin for the Mahajot was AJP-RD’s decision to contest a majority of seats in Upper and Northern Assam leading to an inevitable split in the anti-CAA Assamese votes.
Assamese sub-nationalism and a fragmented opposition have been defining characteristics of Assam’s electoral politics over the years. In that sense, 2021 was no different -- as two parties espousing the cause of Assamese sub-nationalism significantly split the opposition votes harming the enemy’s enemy more than their ‘main opponent.’
The author is a freelancer based in Bombay and an alumnus of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. Views are personal. He tweets @Omkarismunlimit.