The BJP’s electoral juggernaut continued to roll in Assam on Sunday as the party swept the Guwahati civic polls. But more than the ruling party’s victory, the significance of the results lay in the erosion of support for the Congress, which had won the majority when the municipal elections in the city were last held in 2013. The main Opposition party drew a blank even as debutants Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) managed a seat each. In many wards, the Congress ended third.
The wards that the AJP and the AAP won are minority-dominated pockets earlier perceived as Congress areas. The AAP’s Masuma Begum won from Ward 42 in the Hatigaon area while the AJP’s Hukum Chand Ali Bakshi won from Ward 1 in Garigaon.
Speaking to reporters after the election results, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma highlighted the BJP’s “overwhelming” mandate but also pointed out that the wards where the new parties won were the Congress’s “vote banks”. He added, “The Congress is now zero, but the concerning part (for them) is that two new parties, AAP and AJP, were able to usurp their vote bank.”
While many political observers claimed that the party did not focus on a strong campaign unlike the BJP, whose top brass held multiple rallies, Congress leaders said the results had more to do with the ruling party’s “influence” rather than the Opposition party’s lack of strategy.
Assam Congress president Bhupen Borah told reporters that the party had hoped to win “but we suppose that the public believes that since the BJP is going to be in power for four more years in the state, they might as well vote for it in the civic polls too”.
State Congress spokesperson Apurba Kumar Bhattacharjee agreed, saying voters did not want to “disqualify the ruling party” and saw “more benefits in voting for the party in power”. Bhattacharjee claimed that the low voter turnout of 52.8 per cent also played a role in the Congress’s poor performance and admitted that a spate of resignations before the elections had sent a “wrong message” to voters.
“Some opportunist leaders left the party during our election campaign. People see this and get the wrong message,” he said, citing the example of Ashima Bordoloi. The granddaughter of Assam’s first chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi, Ashima was a known Guwahati-based Congress leader but left the party on April 9.
Eight days later, dealing a major blow to the Congress, its former state chief Ripun Bora jumped ship to the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Political observers said the rise of the BJP and the decline of the Congress had opened up a space for an alternative opposition in Assam that the smaller parties, including the AAP, the TMC, the AJP, and Sibsagar MLA Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal, could fill. Bagging the two wards would give a leg-up, however small, to both the AAP and the AJP, they added.
AAP’s state coordinator Bhaben Choudhury pointed out that the party came second in 24 wards. “This is a big deal for a small party that is trying to get a foothold in the state,” he added.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led party’s national council member and the leader in charge of the AAP’s affairs in Assam, Rajesh Sharma, said the BJP’s “organisational machinery was in its full force” during the municipal elections.
“The party had its Cabinet ministers and the chief minister campaigning… despite that, we have performed very well. Our next step is to further expand our organisation at the grassroots,” Sharma said. Last month, the AAP won two civic seats in Tinsukia and Dhemaji in Upper Assam. He added, “Our main idea was to reach the common man and expand our organisation at the grassroots.”
The AJP’s Lurinjyoti Gogoi said that “even getting one seat was satisfactory”. “We cannot beat the organisational strength of the BJP, or even the AAP, for that matter.”
Gogoi said the AJP was an “ideology based party rooted in regionalism”. “There is space for regionalism in Assam. It will be a long fight but we will slowly grow,” he added.
Analysts believe that the AAP’s governance track record in Delhi may, in the long run, endear it to some of the middle class — a section that accounted for a substantial share of the voters in the municipal elections. Gauhati University political science professor Vikas Tripathi said the results were a “psychological boost” for the fledgeling parties. “However, electorally it is not that significant and one should not read too much into it. In urban local body polls, candidates are important as are local factors.”
However, he added that it was clear that Congress was no longer a factor. “The party is marred by organisational crisis, lack of clear messaging to the voters, and defections.”
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