Assam Assembly polls: How BJP tackled ST status demand

BJP workers celebrate by taking portrait of BJP CM candidate Sarbananda Sonwal and prime minister of India Narendra Modi after their win in Assam State Assembly election 2016 at Hengrabari in Guwahati on Thursday 19th May 2016.Photo-DASARATH DEKA

Elections are as much about satisfying micro-community demands as they are about building macro-level political identities. The BJP’s strategy on the ‘ST question’ indicates its ability to carefully nuance its electoral campaign.

Scheduled Tribes constitute 12.4% of Assam’s population, and for some time, 6 OBC communities — the Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Sootea, Moran, Muttock, and the Tea Tribes (or Adivasis) — have been demanding inclusion in the ST category. Their demand is supported by all major parties, and it also found its way to the manifesto of the BJP in 2014. However, the Narendra Modi government’s delay in implementing it had made the communities restive in the run-up to the Assembly election. Apprehensive that the BJP may lose their support, the Modi government at the beginning of March 2016 announced the setting up of a committee to expedite the implementation of their demand.

The survey found that half the voters from these 6 communities were supportive of the ST demand (only 1 in 4 were opposed, most of them being Ahoms, and the rest did not have an opinion) and 48% saw the BJP alliance as being most likely to implement it. This perception also seems to have impacted the way they voted in the election. The survey reveals that the BJP and its partners netted 49% of the vote of these communities; in 2011, this was only one-third.

The Congress, on the other hand, could manage to win only 39% of their vote, 12 percentage points fewer than in the previous Assembly poll. The party’s decline was most precipitous among the Koch Rajbongshis, followed by the Tea Tribes, 70% of whom said that their condition had deteriorated in the last five years.

The BJP’s wooing of these 6 communities came with the risk of alienating the Scheduled Tribe Bodos and Rabhas, who are apprehensive that extending ST status to these communities might affect their benefits. The party overcame this hurdle by, first, forming an electoral alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front and two Rabha and Tiwa organisations and, second, by extending ST status to Bodos in the hills, which the Prime Minister himself announced at a rally. This ensured that any disenchantment among the Bodo and non-Bodo tribes was contained. The BJP-AGP-BPF alliance got 68% of the Bodo vote, a marginal drop from the 71% that it got in 2011. Among the non-Bodo tribes, the party garnered 56% votes as opposed to just about one-third five years ago.