Social movements are a common phenomenon in the political space around the world. India has been a witness to several social movements against issues ranging from environment to language. More often than not, peoples’ movements have been successful. At the beginning of the last decade, the Anti-Corruption Movement, more popularly the Anna Movement, grasped the whole nation. The movement was an important factor that led to a change of guard in the central government and the Delhi government.
Towards the end of the decade, in 2019, Assam witnessed a movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The movement was led by students, and the sight on the streets of Assam was reminiscent to the Assam Movement of 1979-85. People came out in large numbers to protest against the law and the BJP-led governments both at the Centre and the State. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which championed the cause of regionalism in the 1980s in the state, drew the public’s ire for voting in favour of the Bill and continuing in the NDA government.
To save itself from the troubled waters, it soon withdrew from the government for a brief period, before rejoining after things calmed. This, however, dented its regional character, which was already fading. At this juncture, the need for an alternative regional party arose. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) again took the matter into its hand, and its leaders launched the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP).
Anticipating the dominance of reassertion of Assamese nationalism in electoral politics, several regional parties were floated following the Anti-CAA Movement. Like the AASU, other organisations too wanted a share of the pie, and they launched their regional parties expecting to replace the AGP as the main regional party both in the assembly as well as in the minds of the people. Thus, the pro-regional faction was divided right from the very beginning.
Apart from the common issue of their opposition to CAA, there were no other issues upon which they had consensus. Consequently, they put no effort to form a single political entity to put up a united fight against the BJP. The reluctance of the pro-regional factions to unite made the people sceptical about the motives of these new parties.
On the contrary, regional parties like Asom Jatiyobadi Dal and North Eastern Peoples’ Conference came together to initially form the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad and later the AGP and faced the Congress from a united platform in the 1985 election.
Due to the resurgence of the tide of regionalism, the young leaders, who would conventionally join established parties like Congress and AGP, found an alternative in the new regional parties. But as the election result shows, recreating the feat of AGP’s 1985 electoral victory was no easy task. The circumstances of the 1985 and 2021 elections were different which proved to be not in favour of the regional front.
In 1985, the Congress government lost primarily due to the cultivation of years of antagonism against it on peoples’ minds. The memories of the brutal suppression of the movement were still fresh by the time of the election in 1985. The present governments face no such antagonism. The death of protesters, the banning of mobile internet during the 2019 protests was short-lived.
The current BJP government has amassed a positive image in the eyes of the public with its development policies and populist measures such as distribution of free cereals, monthly cash transfers under the Orunodoi scheme, distribution of scooters among girls, etc. The first wave of the pandemic was also handled relatively well. At the centre, Modi’s popularity has not been marred. Because of these, BJP could exhibit good performance in the election.
Another factor for AGP’s victory in the 1985 election was AASU’s active campaign for the regional party. The election appeared to be a continuation of the Assam movement. This time around even though some of its leaders had extended support to the AJP, its whole organisational strength was not put behind the new regional party for campaigning and spreading their word.
This was probably because AASU didn’t want its apolitical stance to dilute further. Furthermore, the new parties were formed only a few months before the polls, giving it very little time to prepare well for the election.
While the established parties already enjoyed support from their respective vote banks which they have consolidated over time. The BJP enjoys support among the tea garden community which helped it win a majority of the seats in the tea belt. And the Congress and AIUDF enjoy uncompromising support from the minority community. The Pan-Assam focus of the regional parties failed to give any dividend.
The regional parties banked on the anti-CAA sentiments but they could not materialise these into votes. A confused Congress also threw its hat in the anti-CAA bandwagon for its campaign in the Brahmaputra valley.
BJP on the other hand successfully downplayed the issue. Its top leaders did not mention the CAA in their campaigns and rather campaigned around carefully crafted issues of “identity”, “civilisation” and “development”. Besides, the anti-CAA faction could not keep its flock together. Because of their ambitions and political aspirations, several anti-CAA leaders jumped ship and joined BJP before the election. Above all these, the AJP carried the unintended weight of the previous AGP governments because of their common origin.
The AGP regime was plagued by internal dissension, corruption scandals, favouritism, and so on. Because of this, voters are apprehensive about giving the key of government to another regional party.
Out of the eighty seats it contested, the AJP finished mostly in the third spot. In some seats, its vote share is well below one per cent of the total votes cast. Its president had to settle in the third spot in both the seats he contested. Even the sitting MLAs who had joined the party before the election had to face defeat.
All these calls for serious introspection. However, it will be too soon to write off the new regional parties. The AJP has managed to secure the second position in five seats, namely, Dhemaji, Hajo, Marigaon, Palashbari and Tinsukia, spread across the state. In two of those, viz. Dhemaji and Hajo the difference between BJP and the AJP was Congress’ vote share.
The new regional parties have an uphill task of consolidating their position among the masses. Without a strong organisational base, which the two parties lacked, defeating the BJP will be a distant dream.
The regional parties can also learn a thing or two from the political dispensation of states like Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu where regional parties have been in power for a long time.
They can start by forging personal ties with leaders of those parties just as the leaders of AGP had maintained with leaders of regional parties like Telugu Desam during their heydays. The regional parties can also take along other tribal parties to reach out to voters of different communities.
The pro-regional factions may have missed the opportunity for their own AGP moment but the anti-CAA movement saw the resurgence of Assamese nationalism in the electoral politics of the state which was dormant for nearly two decades.
The writer is an alumnus of University of Delhi and IIT Guwahati.
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