Saffronizing the periphery: Explaining the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in contemporary Assam

Date01 June 2020
AuthorSmitana Saikia
Published date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Saffronizing the periphery:
Explaining the rise of the Bharatiya
Janata Party in contemporary
Smitana Saikia1
The remotely located and relatively marginalized states of northeast India have historically been a
Congress bastion, despite posing continued challenges to the nation-building project through many
insurgency movements. The success of the grand old party depended on creating ‘umbrella coalitions’
with diverse ethnic groups to sustain power. However, since General elections 2014, the Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) has successfully challenged the dominance of Congress, particularly in the state of
Assam. In this context, this paper seeks to discuss recent shifts in electoral dynamics in Assam and its
implication for a region hitherto considered peripheral. The paper situates the BJP’s emergence as the
new locus of power in the long-term processes of party politics in Assam and discusses the resultant
shifts in social alignments, cleavages and political issues in the multi-ethnic landscape of the state. It also
explores the role of the RSS in negotiating its larger ideological interests with local political realities
of the state and its ability to appropriate local cultural symbols. The paper concludes that the unprec-
edented rise of the BJP, which is a result of the changing political opportunity structures in Assam, will
nevertheless be tested severely due to the state’s multi-ethnic character and complex, localized social
fault lines.
Assam elections, anti-foreigners’ movement, Bharatiya Janata Party, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
In the early months of 1980, Guwahati was under siege. An indefinite curfew had been declared and the
Indian Army had staged a flag march. Assamese journalist Sabita Goswami (2013, p. 2) recalls in her
memoir that defying these orders were ‘a vast sea of people there, all screaming…Aaah oi Aah, Ulai Aah
[Come one and all, Come out of your homes], Asom morile, aamiu morim [If Assam dies, so will we!],
Studies in Indian Politics
8(1) 69–84, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020918064
1 FLAME University, Pune, India.
Corresponding author:
Smitana Saikia, FLAME University, Pune, India.
70 Studies in Indian Politics 8(1)
Ei jui jolise, jolise joliboi [This fire has flared, and flare it will]’. The Assam agitation was a mass move-
ment triggered by the alleged addition of thousands of ‘illegal’ immigrants in electoral rolls of a Lok
Sabha constituency in the state. The movement, led by the influential student group All Assam Students’
Union (AASU) supported by other civil society organizations, left an indelible mark in the post-
independence political history of Assam. More importantly, it brought to the forefront a form of nativist
politics founded on the fear of the bahiragata [Outsider]. Like the battle of Saraighat in the late seven-
teenth century where the Ahoms successfully resisted the entry of Mughals into Assam, the agitation
leaders sounded the war bugle against a discredited Congress state government and an extractive,
high-handed Indian state.
Interestingly, about four decades later, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) portrayed the 2016 assembly elec-
tions using the same metaphor—the last battle of Saraighat—to evoke a sense of urgency against what it
claimed as ‘the demographic, cultural and political aggression of the illegal Bangladeshis’ (Sethi &
Shubhrastha, 2017, xxiii) in Assam. That election saw the unprecedented victory of the BJP in what was
touted as another tectonic shift for Assam politics, particularly after its stellar performance in the state in
2014 Lok Sabha elections (Table 1). The party won 60 out of 126 assembly seats, with an addition of
16 more seats as a result of a pre-poll coalition with regional parties Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and
Bodo Peoples’ Front (BPF) (Table 2). Both Tables 1 and 2 show the unprecedented rise in vote share of
the BJP with a change of 20+ percentage points from 2009 to 2014 Lok Sabha elections and a whopping
30+ percentage points from 2009 to 2011 state elections. Congress, which had dominated the state since
independence except for brief interludes when AGP came to power, was reduced to only 26 seats. 2019
Lok Sabha poll further cemented BJP’s position in the state with 9 out of 14 seats.
It has been observed that states in northeast India, owing to their small size with low economic and
political capital, have high propensity of going with the party in power at the Centre (Bath cited in
Awungashi, 2019). This paper argues that the BJP’s rise in Assam, besides other reasons, is premised on
an unprecedented crystallization of the Hindu vote owing to the party’s ability to capitalize on and
appropriate the state’s existing nativist politics and its attendant cultural symbols. However, this religious
Table 1. Assam Lok Sabha Results 2014 and Change from 2009 (Total seats: 14)
Seats Contested
Seats Won
Seat Change
from 2009
Vote (%)
Vote (%) Change
from 2009
Congress 13 3 –4 29.61 –5.27
BJP 13 7 3 36.51 +20.30
AIUDF 10 3 2 14.83 –1.27
AGP 12 0 –1 3.83 –10.77
Others 126 1 1 12.63 –0.16
Table 2. Assam Assembly Election Results 2016 and 2011 (Total seats: 126)
Seats Contested
Seats Won
Vote (%) in seats
contested 2016
Vote (%) Change in seats
contested from 2011
Congress 122 26 32.06 –7.36
BJP 89 60 42.12 +30.03
AGP 12 0 3.83 –15.89
AIUDF 74 13 21.34 +1.47

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