The more you give, the more you get
The recent Assembly election in Assam was the most tense in recent memory. Almost all polls and media reports suggested a hung Assembly, which meant that the Congress and its principal opponent, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), would have to look for coalition partners to form the next government. The hectic efforts in this direction
by political parties in the post-poll period appeared to confirm the speculation. However, the unprecedented win for the Congress not only achieved an electoral hat-trick for the party — it won 78 of the 126 seats — but also demolished the very concept of the Opposition.
It was really an incredible result. Issues of serious corruption, anti-dam protests, firebrand peasant leader Akhil Gogoi’s popular movement — nothing worked against the ruling party. The AGP and its potential coalition partner the Bharatiya Janata Party are languishing at 10 and five seats respectively, well below their numbers in the last Assembly. However, the All-India Democratic United Front (AIUDF), projecting itself as the kingmaker in the next government, has shown a remarkable rise, winning 18 seats. But its support is hardly needed by the Congress now.
The conventional wisdom that that Congress and the AIUDF (both depending largely on the immigrant Muslim votebank) on the one hand, and the AGP (depending mainly on mainstream Assamese votes) and the BJP (depending on Assamese and Bengali Hindu votes) on the other, cannot grow at the same time, has been falsified by the poll results. While the Congress and the AIUDF grew together, the AGP and the BJP tumbled together. While the phenomenon needs deeper analysis, an immediate explanation is that the mainstream Assamese society has overwhelmingly gravitated toward the Congress, the immigrant Muslims have gone for the AIUDF, leaving hardly any space for the articulation of Assamese nationalist concerns, which was the AGP’s main plank. It is, of course, also true that in quite a number of constituencies, the division of votes between the AGP and the BJP helped the Congress.
The Congress leadership has hailed this triumph as a verdict for its development policies. Though the Congress government has done some developmental work, thanks to the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre and its pro-poor schemes, Assam still totters at the very bottom among Indian states on development indices. Pro-poor schemes such as National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Indira Awas Yojana, Public Distribution System and the like have done abysmally in the state while corruption is rampant. In the last decade, an unprecedented mass of poor rural youths have migrated out of the state as wage labour.
What seemed to have done the trick for the Congress government is that in the last two years, obviously with the Assembly poll in view, it adopted a series of populist programmes targeting the rural poor. The syndrome of “getting something rather than nothing”, according to many, has worked. The Opposition, while shouting about the mega scams, never rallied round the hapless rural poor on the issue of their real entitlements, and thus failed totally in gaining their confidence.
With no parliamentary space left, in the days ahead the manner in which the Opposition parties engage themselves with the grassroots, and other social movements, will not only decide the destiny of these parties but also of Assam.
Chandan Kumar Sharma is a professor of sociology at Tezpur University