On 15th of November when Ex MP Sarbananda Sonowal took charge of State BJP in Assam it sent a wave of hope, confusion, dilemma and expectation in the minds of every thinking citizen of Assam. Queries that have erupted might range from “will this be the beginning of a solution to the problem of infiltration?” to “is this the end of Asom Gana Parishad?”, most certainly the appointment of Mr Sonowal to the coveted post would mean that the choice of BJP as a political option would open for many who believe in the dynamic, young and motivated leader that is Sarbananda Sonowal. Concern still remain as to how will the BJP that has forever been seen as nationalist right winged Hindutva party amalgamate the regionalist expectations of the people of Assam. Furthermore it would be important to see if friction occurs between the traditional vote banks of BJP i.e the Bengali and Hindi Speaking Hindu populace because of the addition of a staunch indigenous flavor to the state unit of the party. Following his appointment these would be the questions to which Mr Sonowal have to find answers in order to push forward the agenda of BJP and in future hope for gaining mileage for the national party in the state of Assam.
Given the circumstances BJP has a plethora of issues to pick choose from and add to its national recognition of being a “party that performs” and carve out a unique space for itself in the political map of the region. But if we traverse the geography of Assam from one end to the other then we will find clashing interests and divided opinions, basically challenges for a party to build up a comprehensive strategy. What are these expectations and where does the BJP stand amidst such issues and how can it possibly gain is what we wish to analyze.
The tea tribes and the hill tribes both have been a traditional vote bank of the Congress party. With BJP making inroads into Assam it was visible that a fraction of the tea tribe votes had shifted in favor of BJP majorly because of the upsurge of leaders like Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, Rameshwar Teli in the BJP from within the tea tribe community. But the election of 2011 halted the trend and it will be a test for the BJP to make its presence stronger in times to come. It is worth noting that BJP has a strong presence among this very community spread across the states of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. All the three states where BJP enjoys the current term as government has seen a lot of development projects being undertaken in the field of education, health, alternate livelihood generation by organizations close to the BJP such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Ekal Vidyalaya etc since many years and is now continuing under the respective current governments. This has helped the BJP in gaining popularity among the various tribes of the region. Considering the lack of development among the tea tribes as well as the hill tribes of Assam the Bharatiya Janata Party must necessarily follow the trend it set in the states of MP, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh by spreading education and social development to the areas inhabited by these people in order to alter the traditional voting pattern and try to gain some advantage. To bring this in effect Sarbananda Sonowal must fast pace the philanthropic work and then convincingly motivate a huge pool of cadres from among these communities who can convince their people to come out of prejudiced and blind notions of political parties and to vote based on possibilities and growth opportunities.
In 2008 and in 2012 the BJP has been very vocal and crystal clear with regard to their stand on the ethnic violence that had erupted in BTC. Although the pro-indigenous stand taken by the BJP has not directly made an impact on the Bodo people but one cannot deny the possibility of the BJP gaining from the recent friction visible between the Congress and the Bodo People’s Front. Given that BJP was the party in power at centre that initiated the formation of Bodoland Territorial Council in 2003 and got mass Bodo support in certain Bodo majority constituencies like Mangaldoi during 2004 LS elections there is a possibility of an understanding that remains. The challenge for the new BJP state president would be to get close to the Bodo leadership and build its greater political policy in sync with the Bodo people’s aspirations of protecting their land and identity and at the same time try to reduce the Bodo-Assamese divide which will provide big mileage to Mr Sonowal in the form of enhancing his image as a leader of caliber and secondly to repulse the Congress from gaining due to such divides. By virtue of being a tribal leader belonging to the Sonowal-Kachari clan many see him as an ultimate choice for the tribal population of the valley. Bringing his speaking skills and legal battling capacity Mr Sonowal must rightly address the prime issues faced by the plains tribal’s i.e. of big dams, flood & erosion and protection of indigenous cultural identity. By doing this he will stand out as one unique leader who will be able to walk ahead with the support of both the mainstream Assamese and the tribal population thereby bridging the gap that exists between the communities and therefore gaining strongly in these otherwise Congress strongholds.
The mainstream Assamese has for long been deprived of an alternative to the Congress. Massive anti incumbency has not been able to uproot the Congress primarily because of the lack of faith the people of Assam has in the AGP and its leaders. With the rise of BJP in state politics of Assam the popular press will paint it with the Hindutva image and will try its best to highlight its clash with the regional ambitions of the middle class Assamese. The might of Sarbananda Sonowal as a leader shall get tested here where he will have to appease both the Assamese speakers and the non-Assamese population with clear distinction of the what regionalism stands for and how it doesn’t affect the concept of an Indian Nation. To achieve this he will have to very carefully tailor a model of sustainable development in consultations with BJP leaders from across the state belonging to various communities which ensures that the indigenous rights are protected and at the same time able to satisfy the aspirations of growth and development of the mainland Hindi and Bengali speakers. Leaders like Prodyut Bora, Siddhartha Bhattacharya who are seen as white collar progressive leaders should be the principle ones aiding Mr Sonowal in this process of conceptualization and execution. Given that the Congress government in the state has been able to bring certain visible symptoms of development, it will be a daunting task for the BJP led by Sonowal to convince people of the uniqueness an effectiveness of its model in comparison to the Congress model of development. Mr Sonowal can also take inspiration from his counterparts of other states like Goa, Chhattisgarh, Bihar etc where vibrant growth stories have been able to bind all imaginations together under one fold.
In short to stand as an alternative to the Congress and ahead of the AGP will be the principle mantra for Sarbananda Sonowal and his party. He will have the distinct advantage of having a clean image, credibility of being a performing politician, strength to be vocal about the interests of Assam. To add to this no party in Assam have come out directly against the AIUDF or Badruddin Ajmal in the past elections. It is worthwhile to note that a sizeable percentage of the population of Assam has major grievances with the way AIUDF is running the show in Assam. BJP might gain from Sarbananda Sonowal openly criticizing the AIUDF thereby appeasing that section of the population that wants to see it and was unhappy with the growing closeness between the AGP and the AIUDF. Coming from the All Assam Students Union Mr Sonowal definitely holds a respectful position among the cadres of regionalism and is still seen as a youth leader of dynamic quality. Whether he will be able to motivate a sizeable number of these youths to stand by him will determine most of his future as a political leader.
Whether victory or defeat, improvement or degradation, growth or reduction happens to BJP is a little uncertain for challenges are tall and opposition is steep but that the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam will not remain the same with Mr Sonowal coming to become the face of the party in Assam is certain. His organization skills, oratory, fearlessness and foresightedness will all add up to what we now only know as the destiny of BJP in Assam. As he had repeatedly confirmed many times that Atal Bihari Vajpayee remains his political idol he will have to closely follow one statement from the Ex PM of India which he delivered in his famous speech defending his 13 day Govt. in the Lok Sabha: “Satta ke lobh mein ake maine aajtak kuch nahi kiya” (I haven’t done anything till date for the greed of forming a government). For everyone who hopes of a bright future for Assam will only pray that Sarbananda Sonowal brings together all the issues of Assam under one umbrella and balances them in equal proportion and adds to it glimpses of possible solution to receive support from all section of society and then let his actions speak bigger than his words.