Can Muslims stop BJP juggernaut in Assam?

Subhash Chandra and Suryakiran Tiwari

Assam’s two-phase polls would culminate on April 11th. Fate of 1,071 candidates will be sealed on the day and results will be known on May 19th. The state has the second highest population of Muslims in India (34.2%) after J&K (68.3%). 9 out of 27 districts comprise of more than 50% Muslim population.

There are 49 seats (39% of assembly strength) where Muslims would determine the results (>50% population). AIUDF was leading in 24, BJP in 15, Congress only in 5 and “Others” in 3 in these Muslim community dominated seats in LS 2014 as shown in table below. Split of Muslim votes between Congress and AGP helped BJP. If Congress and AIUDF would have contested together, BJP would have trailed in 9 of the 15 seats they were leading in and AIUDF+Congress combine would have been leading in 40 / 49 such seats.

High Muslim Population Districts with No. of assembly segments in each seat


Then there are 3 other districts where Muslim population is greater than their average population in the state (in the range of 35%-50%) – Kamrup, Chachar and Nalbari. They account for 19 additional seats. Out of these BJP was leading in 9, Congress in 7, Others in 3 and AIUDF in none. If Congress and AIUDF would have contested together, BJP would have trailed in 1 seat here.

Phase II would make or break BJP’s dreams of coming to power in the state. 41 seats where Muslim population is >50% and 12 more where their population is in the 35%-50% range go to polls in Phase 2. This makes it 53 out of total 61 seats voting in phase 2.

The Muslim population of 11 million essentially comprises of Assamese speaking Muslims (indigenous Muslims) and Bengali speaking Muslims (alleged to be illegal immigrants). While the Assamese Muslims are spread out throughout Assam, the Muslims of East Bengal origin are generally concentrated in the middle and lower parts of Brahmaputra valley as well as in the Barak valley. Assamese Muslims are more assimilated with Assamese culture and identity compared to Bengali Muslims.

The period between 1971 and 1991 saw an astounding increase in the population of Muslims in Assam. For example, while the population of Muslims in India grew at 67% during that period, it was only 54% in case of Muslims in Bengal, it grew at a scorching pace of 77% in Assam during that period. Consequently, while there were 3 Assamese speakers for every Bengali speaker in 1971, this has changed to about 3 Assamese speakers to 2 Bengali speakers now (Estimates) somewhere it is 40-60 as well. The significant migration from Bangladesh coincided with the significant gap in per capita economic performance between India and Bangladesh during the 1971 and 1991 period. Further, Bangladeshi fertility rates which were 1.15 times India’s in 1961 grew rapidly and remained high until 1978 (1.36 times), it reached 1961 levels only in 1991. Today, Bangladesh’s fertility rates are 0.88 of India’s fertility rate.

The Muslims have been traditional vote bank of Congress but a section has gradually moved away from the party disillusioned with their policies on illegal immigrants and failure to protect them from attacks of banned Bodo outfits. The scrapping of Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in 2005 annoyed the community, around that time a more radical organization AIUDF sprang up and which made the community switch easier. Congress tried to soothe the community by bringing the Foreigners (Tribunal for Assam) order of 2006, but that didn’t placate the Muslim community. The Jamiat Ulemae-Hind (of which Badaruddin is the president) also has played a pivotal role in mobilizing Sylhetia and the Mymensingia Muslims in favour of the AIUDF. There are some smaller groups opposed to AIUDF ideology like “Ahle Sunnat” and “Nadiya Tu Tamir” that have decent presence in the Barak valley.

AIUDF has been rising in strength since its formation in Oct. 2005. From 10 seats and 9% vote share in 2006, it emerged as the main opposition party in 2011 bagging 18 seats and recording 13% vote share surpassing AGP and BJP. This has been bettered to 24 leads and 15% vote share in 2014.

Voting Pattern of Bengali and Assamese Muslims over the past four elections


The rise of AIUDF has meant it has been able to bag the maximum number of Muslim dominated / influenced seats ahead of Congress in 2009LS as well as 2014 LS. Split of community votes also ensured BJP was leading in 35% of these seats in LS polls.

Seats won / Assembly leads of parties in 68 Muslim dominated / influenced seats


While there was a talk about an alliance between Congress and AIUDF to stitch a mahagathbandhan, it was a non-starter. Given the large scale demographic changes and poor governance, Assam which was ranked 11th most affluent amongst the 15 largest states in 1971, has slipped to 13th and is now ahead of only Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Assam’s per capita income was 92% of Tamil Nadu’s per capita income in 1971, it is about 41% today. The poor performance of the economy on account of the significant immigration means that ‘local’ voters would probably polarize and vote against any alliance between the Congress and an immigrant focused party like AIUDF. On the other hand, if the AIUDF continues to do well, the Congress has not route to win the election in 2016.

The failure of Congress and AIUDF to stich a mahagathbandhan is likely to have spelled the doom for CM Tarun Gogoi. The split of Muslim votes is expected to help BJP in assembly polls as it did in LS polls. The fact that Congress and AIUDF together get support of only 80-85% Muslims, means community votes suffer from further split (Left & smaller parties) and this again indirectly helps BJP. Here Gogoi failed to present himself a statesman like Nitish who in quest of power gave same number of seats to his bete noire Lalu to defeat BJP.

Both the groups of Muslims have different set of priorities. Even Assamese Muslims are apprehensive of outsider / illegal immigrants gaining majority in the state. The Assamese Muslims are amongst the least orthodox Muslim communities of entire Asia. They follow many Hindu customs and take part in Hindu festivals. This factor could prevent them from voting in tandem with Bengali Muslims. A section could also see in BJP a hope to take the state suffering from poverty to path of development and growth. Sensing this both Sonowal and Himanta Sarma have been pitching BJP as a secular party among voters.

Congress also enjoys support among the Hindu community (Assamese & Bengali Muslims 30%+) and tea garden workers. Out of its 30% total vote share it received in LS polls 2014, approx.. half came from Muslim community. Any polarization attempt by Congress to consolidate Muslim voters could result in counter polarization amongst Hindus which would take away majority of party’s Hindu votes. Since Hindus are not divided among caste lines in the state this strategy could be dangerous. This puts Congress in a quandary situation. It is hoping that Bengali Muslims vote for it for fear of BJP coming to power. If BJP comes to power it would drive illegal migrants out of state. It is living in this hope without being pro-actively seen as seeking Bengali Muslim votes.

While Bengali Muslims fear the BJP, the Congress party’s move to update the National registry of citizens has alienated it from Bengali Muslims and drove them to AIUDF in the first place. Further, the economic condition of all Muslims in Assam is in a poor state as well. At the end, the biggest factor is not whether Bengali Muslims fear the BJP, rather, which party between Congress and AIUDF is seen as a bigger savior. At this moment, there is no clear answer to that question. Therefore it is unlikely that the Congress party will make significant gains from this group though it is equally unlikely that AIUDF will do as well as they did in 2014. Even if AIAUDF loses a third of its votes as polls predict, the votes are not sufficient for the Congress party to win 2016. In sum, the divided Muslims are unlikely to deliver this election for the Congress party.