In muddy waters of Assam, BJP tries to steer clear of CAA

Can BJP wish away those days of turbulence triggered by its arrogant defence of CAA in 2019? Will opposition be able to pin down the shrewd BJP on real issues such as unemployment and rising prices?

In In Assam Congress guarantees a monthly allowance of Rs. 2000 to housewives as honorarium for the sacrifices they make. Polling in three phases in the state begins on March 27 and ends on April 6
In In Assam Congress guarantees a monthly allowance of Rs. 2000 to housewives as honorarium for the sacrifices they make. Polling in three phases in the state begins on March 27 and ends on April 6

Viswanathan Mohanan

There is radio silence from the BJP in Assam on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Once vocal in defending the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), BJP leaders now make no mention of the two on the campaign trail. When asked, they blandly say CAA is not an election issue.

But can the BJP wish away those days of turbulence, protests triggered by its arrogant defence of the CAA in the winter of 2019 when Parliament passed the Bill to grant citizenship to “persecuted Hindus”? For years preceding the CAA, millions of people in Assam went through the trauma of proving their citizenship.

Many could come up with no paper proof. Certificates and documents produced from other states in different languages were rejected. Foreigners’ Tribunals ran roughshod over the lives of people and when the final NRC list was made public, millions found their names missing in the Register, often after residing in the state for half a century.

There is no clarity if their names have been struck out of voters’ lists. But while amnesia may work for the BJP, people in Assam do not seem to have forgotten those turbulent days, death of five youths in police firing and custodial torture of many more.

Upper Assam, which goes to polls in the first phase with 47 seats at stake, was the hotbed of anti-CAA movement. Not surprisingly, BJP leaders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Textiles Minister Smriti Irani to national president JP Nadda, have all visited Upper Assam already. A setback in these 47 seats (in 2016 the NDA won 36 of them) will make it harder to retain power in the state.

“BJP has showered money and freebies to divert public attention from the CAA; regional parties were late in putting their houses in order and raise their war cry against the CAA. While it cannot be wished away how the two campaigns pan out remains to be seen,” says Dr. Hiren Gohain, noted public intellectual of Assam and chief advisor of Raijor Dal till the other day. He quit the post over differences with Akhil Gogoi.

In muddy waters of Assam, BJP tries to steer clear of CAA
Priyanka Gandhi with tea workers in Assam

“CAA definitely is an issue. Last time people, especially indigenous people, tribes and adivasis (tea tribe) voted for BJP en masse as it promised ‘jaati, maati and bheti’. However, people now realise how hollow those promises were. CAA was against the interests of the Assamese people. This time therefore there is a reverse trend,” says Dr. Jayanta Rongpi, threetime Lok Sabha member from Diphu and advocate of an autonomous state comprising the two hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.

Not everyone agrees. A high school Dr Jayanta Rongpi teacher from Golaghat says CAA will have no impact on these elections as people are satisfied with the BJP government and the kind of sops it had handed out. “Of course, people will again come out on the streets if they feel that CAA, which is now in the back burner, is brought up again, she added.

While BJP leaders refrain from making any reference to the contentious Act, they are targeting Congress and its alliance with AIUDF led by Badruddin Ajmal. BJP first tried to spread the rumour that Ajmal wanted to become the chief minister. Can Assam be safe under Ajmal, asked Home Minister Amit Shah. Then there was a doctored video which was circulated in which Ajmal was falsely shown making communally loaded hate speech. All this in an attempt to paint Congress as a party of illegal immigrants.

Dr Rongpi says, “In 2016, BJP promised tribal status to six indigenous communities of Assam including tea tribes whose votes are a decisive factor in several seats in Upper Assam. But the BJP failed to fulfil this promise like the other promises it made. Today the indigenous tribes are alienated from BJP and that includes the Bodos, which is the largest tribal group in Assam.”

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, while addressing a massive rally at Tezpur, unveiled five guarantees by the Congress. They guarantee a law to stop execution of the CAA and NRC: provide 5 lakh government jobs, raise daily wage of tea plantation workers to Rs. 365 within 30 days of coming to power, free electricity up to 200 units per household and Rs. 2,000 as monthly income support to all homemakers.

Dr. Gohain, however, strikes a note of caution. “Much will depend on the opposition’s skill and energy in drawing the attention of the voters back to burning issues like rising prices of all goods and commodities and the destruction of democracy and what it means for the people,” he says. “Mere speeches and shouting at rallies is not enough. BJP is powerful, well-organised, resourceful and meticulous. It will be foolish for the rivals to expect a walkover,” he warned.

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