Striking a chord: A Yatra in the war-torn North-East

Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma may have overplayed his hand with the ‘Ram-Ravana’ stunt to keep Rahul Gandhi from praying at the birthplace of Sankardeva

In the north-eastern states on the BJNY route, the response has been heart-warming (photo:
In the north-eastern states on the BJNY route, the response has been heart-warming (photo:

A.J. Prabal

For longer than one cares to remember, badmouthing Rahul Gandhi and spreading all sorts of canards about him has kept a lot of people busy. The recent adventures of the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra (BJNY) in the state of Assam — and the animus chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has towards him — have to be seen in this context.

Himanta Biswa Sarma a.k.a. HBS in his home state, may have overplayed his hand with the ‘Ram-Ravan’ stunt (“Assam is with Ram, not Ravan,” he was quoted as having said) to keep Rahul Gandhi from praying at the birthplace of Sankardeva. It hasn’t gone down well with the people, because the open embrace of Sankardeva’s philosophy is the antithesis of exclusionary Hindutva. 

The 15th century poet-saint-scholar-religious reformer Srimanta Sankardeva is a household name in Assam — it’s hard to find an Assamese, irrespective of their religion, who has not grown up hearing his poems. He inspired the Bhakti movement in Assam, just as Nanak, Kabir, Ramananda, Basava, Namdev and Chaitanya did in other parts of the Indian subcontinent.

HBS should have remembered that the BJP’s ‘Namami Brahmaputra’ stunt, back in 2017, hadn’t gone down well either. Then too, as in Ayodhya, film stars, singers and sundry other celebrities like yoga guru-turned-business baron Ramdev had been roped to showcase the ‘Namami Gange’ brand extension. 

Priests were flown in from Haridwar to worship the river. But it left the people of Assam cold. Brahmaputra was not Ganga. While the river is revered daily in a mantra chanted at the Kamakhya temple and people do have a ritual bath in the river once a year, it is not worshipped. Assamese commentators had seen in that extravaganza “mainland India’s fantasies and obsessions”. The event was never repeated.

The Assam chief minister is arguably the best-known BJP politician in the state, and has enthused the Sangh bigwigs enough for their mouthpiece Organiser to even put him on its cover. But you might get an exaggerated view of his sway in the state if you went by media coverage.

While the BJP bagged nine of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam in 2019, its vote share was 36.05 per cent, only marginally higher than the 35.44 per cent polled by the Congress. There was a slight negative swing against the BJP and a swing of 5.8 per cent in favour of the Congress.

In the assembly election held two years later in 2021, the BJP won 60 of 126 seats but polled 33.2 per cent of the votes. The Congress won only 29 seats but polled 29.7 per cent votes. The margin separating the two alliances — the NDA and ‘Mahajot’ (the grand alliance headed by the Congress) — was a wafer-thin 0.83 per cent. Lesson learnt, the 15-party United Opposition Forum (UOF) alliance has resolved to field a common candidate in all the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies.

The UOF parties also feature in the INDIA coalition at the national level and were seen marching with the BJNY in Assam. The show of unity may have taken the media by surprise, busy as it was peddling exaggerated versions of the contrary pulls and pressures the Opposition alliance is dealing with. Significantly, the UOF includes the Trinamool Congress, Communist Party of India, CPI (Marxist), Aam Aadmi Party, Janata Dal (United), Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Akhil Gogoi-led Raijor Dal. 

The UOF parties reached their decision to field consensus candidates in all 14 Lok Sabha seats in December 2023. A resolution to this effect was passed unanimously at Dhubri while deciding to keep out the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), headed by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, because of his party’s suspected nexus with the BJP.

The BJNY in Nagaland (photo:
The BJNY in Nagaland (photo:

In the other north-eastern states on the BJNY route Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya — the response to the yatra has been heart-warming. With just one or two Lok Sabha seats each, these states do not have a decisive impact in a general election — also the reason why ethnic strife-torn Manipur hasn’t featured on the prime minister’s travel itinerary — but these are border states and how they feel about the ruling dispensation in Delhi is not without political significance.

The NDA (more accurately NEDA or North-East Democratic Alliance in this part of the country) had won 20 of 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, with the BJP cornering 15 of them. But as mentioned earlier, in terms of vote percentages, there isn’t a lot separating the two alliances. And even a 1 percentage point swing in favour of the UOF can upset the NEDA applecart.

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