Neighbouring Assam is going to polls on Saturday. This is the first phase of voting. The upper Assam region will be voting in this phase, which will be followed by the second and the third phase. This is the first election to be held in Assam after anti-CAA protests rocked the state. The ruling BJP and the opposition Congress-led alliance are battling it hard. For more than four decades, issues of immigration and citizenship have gripped the polity of the ethnically diverse state bordering Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
But those core issues are missing from the election campaign this year, replaced by a two-pronged approach taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP: promises of development, employment and welfare schemes, and simultaneously creating fears of Muslim migrants taking over the state. In other words, the BJP’s Hindu supremacist politics, which thrives on hate campaigns against Muslims, seem to have overtaken ethnic Assamese nationalism, prevalent for decades in Assam. In 2016, the right-wing BJP came to power in Assam, asserting the Assamese identity and assuring people it would “weed out illegal foreigners.”
Leading the right-wing party’s campaign in the state this year is 52-year-old Himanta Biswa Sarma, a politician who spent decades with the opposition Congress party, projecting himself as a secular leader, before jumping ship to join the BJP in 2015. Sarma’s political rhetoric, now tailored to fit the BJP’s anti-Muslim image, has largely centred around one rival: Muslim politician Badruddin Ajmal, chief of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The Congress-led alliance, which includes the AIUDF, has been running a positive campaign, focusing on job and development. It will be interesting whether people choose development or religious politics. Assam is a gateway to the NE region and what happens in Assam has an impact on the rest of the NE states.