The Bharatiya Janata Party, not surprisingly, retained the state of Assam with a comfortable majority of seats (75) in the 126-seat house. However, this number was lower than its 2016 performance, when its alliance won 86 seats. In fact, the BJP-Asom Gana Parishad combine has kept losing a bit of ground over the past three elections, including the 2019 General Election.
Comparing alliances performance is not easy because their composition changes over time.
In 2016 and 2019, the Bodoland People’s Front was part of the National Democratic Alliance along with the BJP. In 2021, it contested alongside the Congress. This time, the Congress also entered an alliance with the All India United Democratic Front, which had contested on its own in previous elections. This year, the Congress coalition included eight parties, though many of them have an anecdotal presence in the state.
Still, the core of these alliances – the BJP and Asom Gana Parishad on the one hand, and the Congress on the other – remains so we can compare these alliances performance over time. To make the 2019 General Election result comparable, we broke it into assembly segments.
Within its alliance, the BJP holds the lion share. With 60 seats, it is four seats shy of holding a majority of seats on its own. With nine seats, the Asom Gana Parishad – once the party in power in Assam – makes its lowest performance since its creation in 1985.
The party that governed the state twice under Prafulla Mahanta in the 1980s and 1990s has been dwarfed by its own coalition partner, which is now solidly the main party in the state.
Even though both alliances have nearly identical vote shares (there is only one percent of difference between the two), the gap in terms of seats, particularly between the BJP and the Congress, is very large. We will see later how the geography of the results account for that gap.
The 2021 Assam election have registered the second-highest participation rate (82%) in the state’s history. Since the Assam Accord was signed in 1985, participation in elections has always been high in the state.
We can see it dip down to 30% in 1983, an election that happened in a context of student-led agitation, collective violence and arson and a state-wide bandh. That was also the year of the Nellie massacre, which took place in February, and in which nearly 3,000 people were killed. The Congress under Hiteshwar Saikia won 52% of the seats that year, but with only 30% of the votes, it amounts to no more than 16% of the voting population’s support.
This chart shows how negotiated peace agreements generate legitimacy to the political system. In terms of participation in the democratic process, there is clearly a before and after 1983-’85 in Assam politics.
The turnout map however shows important variations. It is highest in Lower Assam and in Southern Assam (Barak Valley), as well as in Central Assam. It is lowest in upper Assam, North Assam and in the Hill Districts. We will see that the BJP performed actually better in areas where participation was lower.
The 2016 turnout map is virtually identical, which shows that these turnout variations are grounded in time and demographics. In fact, participation in Upper Assam was a bit higher in 2016, which shows that the BJP lost not only a bit of vote share, but that there was less voter participation in that region.
This is also reflected in phase-wise turnout. There is a 5% difference between phase one, which took place in Upper Assam and in parts of North Assam, and phase 3, which took place in Lower Assam.
In Assam, women participate in elections as much as men. The gender gap in participation closed in 1985. There was a small dip of women participation in 2001 but other than that, there is no difference in men and women participation. We do not have the 2021 gender-based turnout data yet but are not expecting any difference this year.
A stable pool of contestants
Contrary to most states where the number of candidates keeps increasing, the pool of candidates in Assam has been quite stable. This year, 1,072 candidates contested compared to 1,064 in 2016.
There was a peak of participation in 1991, when democratisation and the rise of new regional actors created a lot of enthusiasm for running for office. But over time, the total number of candidates stabilised around 1,000 per election.
However, more and more parties are contesting state elections – mostly small or local formations. In the 2021 elections, 43 parties contested, against 38 in 2016 and 25 in 2011. The growth of parties in Assam does not add much to the fragmentation of the party system. The more parties get created, the fewer get represented. There are seven parties represented in the Vidhan Sabha in 2021, against 11 in 2006.
There are local phenomena like the Bodoland People’s Front and the All India United Democratic Front that win seats in constituencies dominated by a favourable demographics. But otherwise, voters in Assam are reluctant to waste their vote on small parties or independent candidates.
Geography is key
As we can see, geography and demographics matter a lot in Assam politics. The geography of the results shows that the state is virtually split in sub-regions that vote very differently.
Lower Assam (minus Bodoland) almost exclusively voted for the Congress-All India United Democratic Front alliance, which also performed well in the Barak Valley. It also did well in a small cluster of seats between Mangaldoi and Nowgong.
The BJP swept the rest of the state: Upper Assam, North Assam, the Hill District and the constituencies surrounding Guwahati. The Asom Gana Parishad won a string of seats in Central Assam and in Upper Assam, mostly along the Brahmaputra river. The third National Democratic Alliance partner, the United People’s Party Liberal, won six seats in Bodoland.
Maps from the two previous elections show remarkable stability in the geography of elections. In fact, the three maps, including 2019 (again, by assembly segments) are practically identical.
These three maps are an excellent reflection of the religious polarisation that has taken root in Assam. The areas where the Congress coalition perform well are the areas where the state’s Muslim population is concentrated. The highest the share of Hindus, the more votes for the BJP. The political scientist Karen Ferree, who works on South Africa, talks about “census election”, when the demographic composition of a seat predicts electoral outcomes.
Vote share performance
Vote share trends show that the Congress’ vote base in Assam remains quite stable, around 30%. The Asom Gana Parishad continues to decline. It peaked in 1996 with 29.7% of the votes and is now down to 7%.
Of course, it does not contest as many seats because of its alliances. But the chart on vote share in the seats they contested shows that the Asom Gana Parishad trails behind other major parties. The All India United Democratic Front won an impressive 53.8% of the votes in the seats it contested, against 45.7% for the BJP and 39.5% for Congress. In short, the Asom Gana Parishad performs less well in fewer and fewer seats over time.
The All India United Democratic Front pulls an impressive performance, which is partly explained by the fact that it ran in an alliance with Congress this year. Therefore, it also benefited from Congress supporters’ vote, in addition to its own support base.
The strong performance of the BJP explains the high conversion of seats. Here again, the polarisation of vote by geography helped the BJP to convert its votes into more seats.
In the first phase, the BJP converted 68.3% of the seats it contested into wins. That ratio decreased as phases proceeded.
Unsurprisingly again, the Congress-All India United Democratic Front combine had much higher strike rates in the last phase, but not higher than the BJP alliance.
An examination of parties’ strike rate within phases shows that even though Asom Gana Parishad candidates did not perform as well as the BJP candidates, it did not drag down its partner in the first phase, with a high 70% strike rate. It did drag down the BJP’s Mitrajyot alliance in the third phase, in which it lost 11 of the 13 seats it contested.
Vote share and strike rates by sub-regions tell us two slightly different stories. Sub-regional vote share, first, show that the BJP alliance was ahead in votes shares across four sub-regions and that the Congress alliance emerged first only in two sub-regions (Southern Assam and Lower Assam).
But the BJP alliance in these last two sub-regions still command quite a high vote share (45.4% and 40.4%, respectively). The differences in strike rate are more important, which indicate that there was not just a simple sub-regional polarisation, but that even within sub-regions dominated by the Congress and its allies, there were pockets were the BJP and its partners did quite well. Bodoland remained a highly competitive space, for instance.
That is not the case everywhere. The BJP alliance wins all five (very large) seats of the Hill Districts region. Of course, all these regions do not contain an equal number of seats.
But again, this shows that the BJP alliance remained competitive throughout the state.
In a polarised election, you would expect identity-based parties to perform particularly well. Comparing party-wise victory margins shows that All India United Democratic Front candidates won with an impressive median vote share of 31%. These indicate sweeping victories in the seats where it ran. Similarly, the BJP and Asom Gana Parishad’s median victory margins are also high, at 19.7% and 17.5%. Congress’ margins are at a similar level.
This tells us that almost different elections took place in different parts of the state. There were only 15 seats won with a margin smaller than 5,000 votes, out of 126. Seven were won by Congress, five by the BJP and the rest by smaller parties.
Most of these more competitive states were in lower Assam and around Guwahati. In Jania, the All India United Democratic Front candidate Rafiqul Islam won with a whopping 78% victory margin. The smallest victory margin was obtained by Debabrata Saikia, from the Congress, in Nazira. He won by 683 votes.
There are only eight seats reserved for members of the Scheduled Castes in Assam, and 16 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The Congress won four Scheduled Caste reserved seats against three for the BJP and one by the Asom Gana Parishad The BJP did better in Scheduled Tribe seats, winning nine against one for the Congress. Its partner in Bodoland, the United People’s Party Liberal, won five other Scheduled Tribe seats.
A foregone election
As we see in the following chart, the BJP alliance victory was decisive from the start. The BJP’s Mitrajot alliance started with a large gap of seats (37 against 9) and kept climbing thereafter
By the end of the second phase, the BJP alliance was four seats shy of the majority. The Congress alliance’s comparatively better performance in the last phase could barely reduce the gap between the two alliances.
What does this data tell us about the Assam verdict? The main important information is the confirmation that this outcome is the product of a highly polarised election, which took place among a highly polarised electorate. The sociological composition of seats is a good predictor of how people are going to vote. Muslims on one side, Hindus on the other. Of course, survey data will tell us that the situation is not that binary and that is true. But if we reason in terms of trend, the communal divide in Assam is very deep and manifested itself in the result of this election.
The trends also show that this situation has been going on since 2016. The geography of the results hasn’t changed at all in 2019 and 2021.
Contrast this with the 2011 map, when the BJP was hardly a presence in the state and in which the Congress dominated the state. The map today looks almost the opposite of what it was then. The Congress dominated the areas that the BJP dominates now, the All India United Democratic Front was already strong in Lower Assam. The Asom Gana Parishad was clustered in pockets in North Assam and Upper Assam.
Assam is one of the states in India that has undergone among deepest political transformations in recent years. The BJP grew in partnership with the Asom Gana Parishad, quickly superseded it and took the place Congress used to occupy, exacerbating decade-old lines of tension that have defined and shaped Assam politics. Those interested in this important story will read with interest Arkotong Longkumar’s excellent new book on the spread of Hindutva in the Northeast.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, co-director of TCPD and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
Basim-U-Nissa is affiliate researcher at TCPD.
Mohit Kumar and Neelesh Agrawal are Research Engineers at TCPD.