Assam voted hard this election season, with a turnout of 82.2% in the first phase and 87.03% in the second phase on April 11. These are record figures. The Lok Sabha elections of 2014, where voter turnout touched 79.24%, were the highest before this. In the assembly elections of 2011, the state had notched up 75.92%. Which means there has been a significant increase in participation this time.

The Election Commission took some of the credit, saying people were mobilised by their Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation programme. But the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party divined other reasons. While the Congress saw it as an affirmation of 15 years of government, the BJP read it as a vote for change.

There is little evidence to show that a higher turnout is linked to a change in government, and reading the tea leaves can be left for another day. The riddle of the turnouts, however, yields two interesting observations. First, political commentators are of the opinion that a polarising campaign, fought on the issues of sub-nationalism, citizenship and migration, drove people to the polling booths. Second, before this year, the highest turnout for an assembly poll in Assam was in 1985. Those elections, which saw a political reconfiguration of Assam, notched up a voter turnout of more than 79%.

Polls apart

Polarisation came in different guises this poll season. In a region where politics is arranged around ethnic and linguistic faultlines, rather than caste and religion, observers noted the rise of good old mainstream Hindutva in certain pockets. Assam recorded 70 incidents of low-key communal conflict in 2015, up from 17 in 2011. Incidents of beef being thrown into temples led to simmering tensions between communities. Bruised by the experience of Bihar, however, the BJP chose not to make beef politics an explicit part of its campaign discourse.

Instead, it chose to communalise the issue of migration, which has long been a driving factor in Assam’s politics. It started in 2014, when Narendra Modi campaigned in the state, asserting that India was a natural home for Hindu migrants but all Muslim migrants from Bangladesh should be sent back. His government followed it up by simultaneously tweaking passport entry rules to make it easier for Hindu “refugees” to stay on in India and stepping up efforts to fence the international border, presumably to keep Muslim “infiltrators” out. The infiltrator versus refugee distinction continued in these elections, but with a subtle inflection.

In the run up to the polls, the BJP tied up with the Asom Gana Parishad, which defines itself as a secular, regionalist party. But the AGP, which would drive all “outsiders” from the state, had been uneasy with the BJP’s communal rhetoric. Accordingly, the BJP modified its language: it was building a coalition of “indigenous” people against outsiders. But regional pride was blended with the language of religion. Modi, for instance, was in the habit of opening his campaign speeches by invoking the goddess Kamakhya and then following it up with a line from a Bhupen Hazarika song, about how the month of Bohag gave courage to the Assamese people.

In Lower Assam, the All India United Democratic Front, the part that represents Bengali-speaking Muslims, responded in kind. Religious invocations were combined with promises to solve the problem of citizenship. This, in a region where a large number of people have been declared “doubtful voters” –that is, suspected illegal migrants. The Congress, for its part, put out advertisements with images from the 2002 riots and asked people to choose.

Voters on both sides, commentators say, were galvanised into action.

Back in 1985

The last time an assembly election registered a record turnout, the political landscape in Assam changed in fundamental ways. In 1985, the voter turnout jumped by 12 percentage points from the elections of 1978 – those held in 1983 were considered a “political disaster” and led to a short-lived Congress government with little legitimacy. Two years later, the assembly elections effectively ended the Congress system, which had been in decline since 1978, and reimagined Assam as a multi-party state.

They followed a six-year agitation led by the All Assam Students Union, demanding that the electoral rolls be cleansed of “outsiders” and illegal immigrants be expelled from the state. The spectre of the outsider was seen as a direct threat to Asomiya identity and culture. It culminated in the Assam Accord of 1985, signed between the Centre and the AASU, providing for the expulsion of foreigners who had entered the state after 1971.

The heroes of the AASU, such as Prafulla Mahanta, formed the Asom Gana Parishad, which swept to power in 1985. But social scientist Sandhya Goswami notes that, even then, the AGP won just 35% of votes. While the pro-Asomiya nationalist vote was consolidated with the AGP, the opposition to the movement was fragmented. It got divided among factions of the Congress, the United Minority Front and parties of the Left.

But the change wrought by those elections was more complex than a mere change in government. It led to the rise of ethnic parties and the fragmentation of vote bases, Goswami points out. It was in the aftermath of 1985, for instance, that the Bodo movement gained momentum, eventually leading to the creation of the Bodo Territorial Area District. The Bodo Liberation Tigers, the most powerful militant group of the movement, became the Bodoland People’s Front, which has carved out its own niche in Lower Assam.

For nearly two decades, elections in Assam revolved around competitive politics by various ethnic, regional and national parties. Since 2014, however, the BJP has emerged as a force to reckon with. In the Lok Sabha elections, it scored a record seven out of 14 seats and restricted the Congress to three. As the BJP became a serious contender for power, it exerted a gravitational pull to rival the Congress. In the run up to the 2016 polls, it was a bipolar fight between the Congress and the BJP-led coalition, with the AIUDF adding an element of mystery.

These polls may not necessarily lead to change of government in Assam. But will it lead to a new era of bipolar electoral contests?