How BJP won and Congress lost a game of alliances in Assam?


BJP has finally made its maiden entry in North Eastern state of Assam. BJP led NDA swept the state bagging 86 / 126 seats with Congress finishing a poor 2nd with 26 (-52) and AIUDF 3rd with 13 (-5) seats. BJP scripted a great victory by deftly crafting alliances and breaking into the ethnic groups.

In Lok Sabha polls 2014, BJP swept the state bagging 7/14 seats and 36.9% vote share riding on Modi wave. BJP was leading in 69 assembly segments, simple majority. Congress and AIUDF were leading on 23 and 24 seats respectively. AGP and BOPF strong regional parties drew a blank.

This could have prompted BJP to go ahead on a standalone basis in the assembly polls. Strong anti-incumbency against Gogoi govt. would have provided fillip to this idea. However, BJP knew that its best bet in 2016 state polls was in Assam and didn’t want to take any chances. BJP lost vote share in all polls across states held after LS polls, ranging between 4% in Haryana to 30% in Delhi. So it was cognizant of the absence of Modi wave in state polls.

The fact that it didn’t have strong candidates across 126 seats also titled the deal in favour of alliances. It struck a deal with AGP who still commands support amongst Assamese Hindus (32% in 2011) and Asamese Muslims (10% in 2011). This was done despite the fact that AGP was way past its heydays with many top leaders already having joined the BJP. The BOPF has a presence in four Bodo districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. This ensured BJP had support of Assamese and Bengali Hindus, Bodo community and Tea garden workers.

Both parties combined, enjoyed a vote share of 6.1% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and provided additional cushion to BJP due to loss of vote share. The alliance was super successful. It prevented division of anti-incumbency votes. BJP as a bigger national party showed a bigger heart in accommodating allies to win over Gogoi. This led to increase of 17 seats for BJP and increase of 4.1% in vote share vs LS polls.

81% of those who voted for the BJP, 83% of those who voted for the AGP, and 80% of those who voted for the BPF in 2014 supported NDA candidates in the assembly elections. By contrast, the Congress retained only 65% of its voters from 2014, and lost 22% to the NDA. (Source: CSDS Post Poll Survey).

Seats & Vote Share of BJP allies 2014 Lok Sabha & 2016 Vidhan Sabha

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Take the case of Congress on the other hand. It got a shocker of life in 2014 LS polls. AIUDF tally was same as Congress (3 seats). In-fact AIUDF was leading in more seats than Congress (24 vs 23). Their combined vote share was higher than BJP (44.9% vs 36.9%). If Congress and AIUDF would have contested together in LS polls, they would have been leading in higher number of seats than BJP. This alone must have been the single most motivation to come together.

With Congress staring at a defeat, the need was for a Bihar like mahagathbandhan. AIUDF was the obvious choice for partner. Talks were also on with AGP. This would have helped consolidate Muslim vote and make a dent into Hindu vote bank of BJP.

Nitish intervened and tried to bring these parties together. Congress refused to acknowledge AIUDF dominance among Bengali Muslims. They banked on the fact that Muslims would polarize in their favour due to fear of BJP. Congress and Gogoi didn’t show the same benevolence as BJP and didn’t accommodate AIUDF and AGP demands. This led to the division of Muslim votes. As per Chanakya and Axis exit polls, AIUDF bagged c.25% of Muslim votes (8.5% vote share). Congress should have taken lesson from Nitish who agreed for equal number of seats to Lalu’s RJD to ensure defeat of BJP.

Dejected AGP which was reluctant to join BJP as it held the party responsible for inflicting splits and exits finally went to BJP camp to stay relevant.

An analysis of results shows that if AIUDF and Congress would have contested together, they would have won 54 seats and bagged 39.1% vote share. BJP led NDA tally would have been 72 instead of 86. The loss for Congress wouldn’t have been that big. And who knows a combined effort from the start with AIUDF would have made the contest go down to the wire. A section of Congress leaders apprehended that any alliance with AIUDF could polarize the atmosphere and lead to exodus of its Hindu vote bank. Point valid. But how many Hindus voted for Congress anyways! The party took a long term view vs short term. But alliance with AGP could have been worked out.

There are 49 seats where Muslims are in majority in Assam. The split of votes has ensured that NDA won 22 of these seats. Of the 20 other seats where Muslims have a decent influence NDA won 17.

In the end Assam polls was a game of alliances. BJP which at the outset didn’t require to form any alliance formed a grand coalition while Congress which was in dire needs to form one went alone. The results are for all to see. This is a bigger lesson for Congress and needs a strategic / innovative thinking to take on BJP on a pan India level. Perhaps lessons for Punjab and UP as well.

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