By Deep Jyoti Mahanta
GUWAHATI: From facing massive anti-CAA agitation to the sweeping legislative polls, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) consolidated its hold over Assam once again. The victory was unprecedented for BJP since the party emerged as the first non-Congress government to be elected for a second consecutive term in Assam.
The first wave of COVID 19 extinguished the anti-CAA stir in the state. Emphasizing BJP’s strategies, its well-crafted manifesto highlighted ‘Sabhyata’, ‘Suraksha’ and ‘Vikas’ of Assam as their core agenda for the 2021 legislative assembly election. Considering the discourse of indigeneity, BJP strategically converged Hindu nationalism and regionalism in the state. Exploiting Assamese anxiety over illegal immigrants, BJP campaigned in the theory of civilizational conflict by targeting the East Bengal origin Muslim community and specifically the AIUDF, the party which has a strong support base among the community. Besides, the centrality of identity politics, this election infused ‘Development’ as a core concern among the public after massive infrastructure projects introduced a visible transformation in the state under the BJP government. Moreover, strategically executed welfare politics by creating a large number of beneficiaries under various schemes seem to have garnered victory for BJP in Assam.
The Infrastructure driven politics?
Despite having immense potentials, Assam’s economic development has been limited by poor infrastructure development and connectivity. The Congress government which ruled for 15 years under the leadership of late Tarun Gogoi (2001-16) credited for bringing peace, stability and growth in Assam. Notwithstanding, infrastructure and connectivity remained a major issue in the state. Sensing the opportunity to secure political dominance; beyond its ideological project, the BJP government combined with various central schemes initiated a range of infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, colleges, hospitals, sports complexes in the state.
The infrastructural push which induced the building of National Highways to village roads including two major bridges have improved connectivity as well as BJP’s image in the state.
India’s longest river bridge, the Dhola-Sadiya bridge constructed over the Lohit river that connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh was inaugurated in May 2017 by PM Modi upon which the BJP government received the credit. Started in 2011 under the Congress’s reign, the project got delayed by two years. Eventually, the project was expedited and completed under the Modi government.
The Bogibeel bridge, India’s longest road cum rail bridge over the Brahmaputra which connects south and north banks, has economic and strategic importance, inaugurated by PM Modi in December 2018. Though the foundation was laid in 1997, implementation was slow. Modi government pushed the project to completion to secure its credit. And it did help the party to win the trust of the people. Sixty-two years old, Bhabesh Pegu (Name changed) of Dhemaji who is a cardiac patient, have to visit Dibrugarh frequently for his medical checkup mentioned, “BJP government did a very good job by completing the bridge, now I can easily come for my checkup and go back to my home on the same day. Earlier I had to take a ferry to cross the river, which consumed a lot of time and also had to arrange a room to stay in Dibrugarh as returning home on the same day after doing a medical checkup/test was not possible”.
Bridges have become a dominant component of the political discourse in Assam. Before the poll, few major infrastructure projects including two bridges were announced by the Government of India along with the top brass of state BJP. In October 2020, union minister for road transport and highways laid the foundation stone for India’s first multi-modal logistic park at Jogighopa in Assam. Besides that, earlier this year, Prime Minister laid the foundation stone of two major bridge projects across the Brahmaputra, one is between Dhubri in Assam and Phulbari in Meghalaya and the other one is between Majuli and Jorhat. The two bridges have been a long-standing demand of the people of those regions.
During my conversation with a few young voters of Dhubri and South Salmara Mankachar district of Assam, where Muslims are the dominant group, shared that BJP did quite a good works in infrastructure; roads have been improved in their districts, a new medical college is also being constructed in Dhubri. Further, they added that BJP’s returning to power was necessary to build the newly announced Dhubri-Phulbari bridge which would enhance economic activities in the region and hopeful to find better employment opportunities in the future. It was very interesting to sense how infrastructure projects carry a strong symbolic influence on those young Bengali-speaking minority voters who appreciated the BJP for delivering essential facilities despite breathing in a religiously polarized atmosphere of the state.
Besides roads and bridges, several new medical colleges and hospitals are under progress in the districts of North Lakhimpur, Nagaon, Dhubri, Nalbari, Tinsukia and Kokrajhar. The BJP also announced before the poll to set up four new medical colleges at Karimganj, Charaideo, Biswanath and Goalpara district of Assam. Meanwhile, the construction of three new engineering colleges in Karimganj, Golaghat, Dhemaji and Assam Judicial Academy & National Law School at Amingaon, Guwahati have been completed.
Along with colleges and hospitals, the focus is also given to sports infrastructure. Construction of two multipurpose sports complexes is under progress in Khanikar of Dibrugarh and Sualkuchi; whereas, a newly constructed sports complex of Sports Authority of India (SAI) was inaugurated in January 2021 at Solalgaon of North Lakhimpur district.
Emphasizing electoral gains through infrastructure, Sujit Rabha (name changed), a Research Scholar of IIT Guwahati, said, ‘The symbolic power of all the infrastructure work that BJP carried out worked very well to gather votes and win as it fulfills livelihood needs. So, infrastructure development takes attention away from other aspects, which may be deteriorating democracy and rise in communalism. Infrastructures are not charity, but our right, and it’s not the only aspect for our “Development”.’
The capital city, Guwahati also received a visible transformation. It got India’s longest passenger ropeway over the Brahmaputra river and six new foot over bridges equipped with escalators and lifts in different locations of the city. Meanwhile, two new flyovers are under construction in Dispur and Maligaon; and a newly constructed extension of the Ganeshguri flyover was inaugurated last year.
Infrastructure development has a huge potential; economically, most of the time and politically, all the time, as it helps to achieve electoral gains. Moreover, development projects are often perceived as a marker of national progress and receive widespread legitimacy from the masses. The region which has long complained of poor infrastructure and connectivity witnessed a noticeable change. By projecting these changes, BJP positioned itself as an agent of ‘Development’ in the political narrative and campaigned on a pro-development frame which contributed towards the party’s electoral success. The symbolic importance of the correlation between infrastructure projects and voting behavior will draw more attention to the politics of Assam in the coming days.
(The writer is an alumnus of IIT Guwahati and pursuing independent research on political developments of North Eastern Region)
PS- Views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InsideNE.
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