When the Bharatiya Janata Party took power in Assam in 2016, it deeply shaped the politics of that state. In this article, we ask whether the rise of the BJP has brought any changes to the sociological composition of the state assembly. Is today’s political class in Assam different from the past, in terms of caste, religion, gender and other socio-demographic variables?
A growing presence of upper castes
Looking at the caste and community composition of the assembly, we find that the overall number of upper-caste MLAs has been on the rise, from 24% in 2011 to 32.5% in 2016 and 31% in 2021. We also observe a growing presence of Muslim legislators (28, 30 and 31 MLAS across the three elections). It is quite unusual to see Muslims’ representation increase when the BJP gains and consolidates power in a state.
Otherwise, most representational trends are quite stable. Members of the Other Backward Classes make roughly 14% of the assembly, Tea Garden Communities 4%, and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes get elected in their reserved segments. One Dalit candidate was elected to a general seat as were eight Scheduled Tribe candidates, mostly belonging to the Bodo community.
A comparison of nominations of candidates from both alliances shows without surprise that the BJP-led Mitrajyot alliance counts more upper-caste candidates and that the Congress-led Mahajot alliance has more Muslim candidates. In fact, it has nearly has many Muslim candidates (37) as upper-caste candidates (38). For the rest, the numbers are quite comparable. The BJP nominated more OBCs than its rival alliance.
The difference in terms of outcome, however, is strikingly different. Thirty four of the 75 BJP+ legislators belong to the upper castes (45%), against five out of 50 for the Congress alliance (10%). On the other hand, 31 out of the 50 MLAs of the Congress alliance are Muslims. That is a 62% ratio.
Fiften out of 20 of the BJP-led alliance’s OBC candidates also got elected, while from the Congress-led alliance, OBC candidates did not do as well.
What we have is a polarised outcome, in terms of representation, which of course matches the polarised verdict we described in our previous article.
Where does the difference come from within those alliances? If you look at party nominations, within their alliances you see that in fact the difference between the BJP and Congress is not as pronounced as it looks between alliances.
The BJP nominated 44 upper-caste candidates out of 93 (47%) and the Congress nominated 32 upper-caste candidates out of 96. One half versus one third. The BJP did nominate eight Muslim candidates across four sub-regions (but mostly in lower Assam) against 19 by the Congress.
The partnership with the All India United Democratic Front brought 18 additional Muslim candidates to the Congress alliance. Badruddin Ajmal’s party nominated 18 Muslim candidates out of 20. The Asom Gana Parishad brought 11 upper-caste candidates and eight Muslim candidates to the BJP alliance.
The party-wise MLA data shows that all BJP and Asom Gana Parishad Muslim candidates lost while most of the Congress’ upper caste candidates lost. This does reflect a highly polarised outcome.
Plotting that data on a map reveals distinct clusters of representation across the states. Upper castes tend to be elected in Central Assam, alongside the Brahmaputra river, in and around Guwahati and across the Chirang and Baksa districts.
Muslim MLAs get elected in their areas of demographic concentration: the southern part of Lower Assam, the Barak Valley. Other Backward Classes and Tea Garden Communities get their representation in Upper Assam, south of the Brahmaputra, while the North of the river mostly has Scheduled Caste reserved seats.
The 2016 caste and communities map is practically identical, here again indicating great stability in representational outcomes, as we have now observed in many states. Seats changed hands between parties and candidates but remain held by members of the same communities.
Women are disappearing from Assam’s assembly
A major change in the assembly is the disappearance of women. Only six women made it to the Assam Vidhan Sabha against eight in 2016 and 14 in 2011. In most states, women representation is low but at least stable. Not in Assam, where political developments seem to adversely affect women’s representation.
The chart below shows that women’s nominations have decreased a little, from 8.7% in 2011 to 7.8%. The overall nomination of women therefore does not explain the dip in representation. To find out how the drop happens, one must look at party-wise nominations.
Part of the explanation lies from the fact that the BJP alliance nominated fewer women than the Congress alliance. It may seem a small difference but given that most MLAs were elected on either alliane’ tickets, small differences do matter. The ratio of women MLAs is higher with the BJP alliance, by virtue of that grouping’s overall performance.
Party-wise nominations tell us that the blame for women under-representation is shared by all parties. Not a single party member of a major alliance gave more than 8% of their tickets to women candidates. The Congress did better in 2016 (14%) but reduced the number of women candidates in 2021.
One of the BJP’s partners, the United People’s Party Liberal, did not nominate a single woman candidate. Within the Congress alliance, the All India United Democratic Front nominated only one woman, Minakshi Rahman, in Sarukhetri.
So even though the BJP alliance did nominate fewer women than its opponent, everyone is to blame for that sorry state of affairs.
In terms of representation, three women were elected on a BJP ticket, two on a Congress ticket and one on an Asom Gana Parishad ticket.
Three of them – Nandita Gorlosa (BJP), Sri Suman Haripriya (BJP) and Sibamoni Bora (Congress) – are first time MLAs.
In Boko, Nandita Das (Congress) won a second term. She is the only Scheduled Caste woman in the Assembly. In Teok, Renupoma Rajkhowa (Asom Gana Parishad) is a four-time MLA and in Golaghat, Ajanta Neog (BJP) is a five-time MLA.
The gender map of this election gives the image of a sea of men with a scattered handful of women islands.
Muslim representation is on the rise
Minority representation provides a very different picture. With 34.4% of Muslim candidates, the 2021 state election in Assam has seen its highest participation of Muslim candidates ever. It previously peaked at 30% in 1083, which was a boycott election and therefore an outlier in that regard.
The representation of Muslims is also on the rise overall, with 25.6% of the seats.
It is very unusual to see Muslims’ representation increase anywhere in India today, particularly so in a BJP-dominated state. The nomination data already told us that the BJP is of course not directly responsible for this increase of minority representation. But it is possible that its rise in Assam politics may have had an encouraging effect on Muslims’ candidatures. It is also likely to encourage Muslim voters to vote more cohesively in order to defeat BJP candidates.
We saw in the previous article on Assam how the All India United Democratic Front candidates had the highest vote share and highest victory margins in this election.
Nomination data over time shows that the bulk of Muslim candidates run as small party candidates or independent candidates.
Within parties, the Congress has historically been the purveyor of minority representation in the state. The Janata parties in the 1970s also contributed to their representation but one has to wait for the creation of the All India United Democratic Front in 2005 to see overall nominations rise again.
In terms of representation, the All India United Democratic Front has contributed to more than half of minority representation over the past three elections in Assam. The Congress provided the other half.
Not a single Muslim has been elected on a BJP alliance ticket.
As shown earlier, Muslim representation is constrained to areas of minority demographic concentration. There are Muslims living elsewhere than these three clusters, but not in numbers large enough to get into the political fray and win seats.
Since the mid-1990s, the ratio of first-time MLAs has been consistently below 50%, which still indicates a high turnover of Assam’s political class. The 1985 election followed the signing of the Assam Accord and the creation of the Asom Gana Parishad. This explains the high ratio of first-time MLAs. The 2011 election was a consolidation victory for the Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.
However, the presence of a large number of first-time MLAs does not necessarily mean that this category of candidates performed particularly well. The following chart shows that most first time candidates of the Congress, and nearly half of the first-time contestants running on a BJP ticket lost their race (circles indicate losers, square winners).
The following chart on re-running incumbents shows that most sitting MLAs get to re-run, even though that number has decreased since 2006. Contrary to previous years, in 2021, most re-running incumbents won their races (73%).
This is a much higher re-election ratio than in previous years, where only a minority of re-running MLAs would get re-elected. This has to do with the stability of performance of both alliances, and of the BJP, Congress and the All India Democratic United Front in particular.
Despite that stability, the Assam assembly does not have a lot of experienced legislators. Only 36 MLAs out of 126 have served three terms or more. The veteran of the assembly is Phani Bhusan Choudhury, the Asom Gana Parishad MLA from Bongaigaon. He was elected first in 1985, as an independent. He then joined the Asom Gana Parishad and has won seven more terms in the same constituency.
These numbers are not surprising when a new party erupts on the state political stage. The BJP essentially brought its own people when it started contesting Assam elections competitively.
All in all, the stable political class of Assam (measured as the number of legislators serving more than two terms in a given assembly) is well split between the BJP, Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad. The Congress, which dominated Assam politics for decades, only has 12 professional politicians, by that measure. There are also only six Asom Gana Parishad career politicians left.
The turncoat chart shows that the BJP in 2021 ran ten turncoat candidates: five from the Congress, three from the Asom Gana Parishad (its own alliance partner) and one turncoat from the Bodoland People’s Front (Banendra Kumar Mushararyb, from Gauripur).
Only four were successful (all from the Congress).
The Congress ran nine turncoat candidates, three of whom won. Four came from its partner, the All India United Democratic Front, three came from the BJP and two other previously ran on National Congress Party tickets.
Two of them won: Abdul Batin and Khalil Uddin Mazumder. Both had previously been with the All India United Democratic Front. In 2016, the BJP ran 16 turncoat candidates, mostly from its partner, the Asom Gana Parishad, and from the Congress. Fourteen of them won.
A relatively youthful assembly
The 2021 Assam assembly has fewer young MLAs (below 45) than in 2016 and count more MLAs in the 45- to 55-year bracket. What is more surprising is the small number of older politicians (above 65), in a country familiar with gerontocracy. There are only ten ‘senior’ politicians in the Assembly.
The bulk of 45- 55-year-old MLAs belong to the BJP and the All India United Democratic Front. Congress’ politicians tend to be older, in relative distribution terms. The Asom Gana Parishad does not have a single MLA younger than 55.
An educated assembly
In terms of education profile, the share of MLAs with a graduate education has risen sharply (48 against 36 in 2016). Assam has a lower share of MLAs who did not go beyond a 12th standard education. This is not surprising for a state that performs well in human development indexes.
MLAs who belong to the BJP alliance have overall higher education credentials than the members of the Congress alliance.
Within the Congress alliance, the share of graduate MLAs is higher in the Congress (50%) than in the All India Democratic United Front (25%). BJP and Asom Gana Parishad MLAs are quite undifferentiated as far as education levels are concerned.
Money matters across parties
As in other states, money matters in politics. It plays a role notably in candidate selection, as candidates are often expected to fund their own campaigns. As a result, India’s political class tend to be draw from the wealthiest segments of society. Assam is no exception, although not in the same measure as other states, including the Hindi Belt or South India.
Sixty five percent of all MLAs in the new assembly are crorepatis. That figure is well distributed across parties so one cannot say that one parties runs richer candidates than the others. The lone independent is also a crorepati.
These numbers are significantly higher than in 2016, across parties. This points to the increasing role of money plays in candidate selection, and therefore in state politics.
What does this data tell us about the social profile of Assam’s political class? The rise of the BJP has meant an overall increase of upper-caste representation, to which other parties also contribute. The rise of the BJP has not led to the political marginalisation of Muslims, who also see their share of seats increase in this election. Not that the BJP is inclusive in any way. It is the polarisation of state politics in Assam that create that effect. As we saw with the results, the Assam verdict is split along demographic lines.
The decrease of women representation is sharp and worrying. It is attributed to the fact that the BJP now dominates the state and does not make space for women within its ranks. But no party actually fares better, which points at deeper structural factor that go against women participation in Assam politics.
Once again, data reveals how deeply Assam’s society is divided along religious lines. This is not a discovery of course, merely an illustration.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, c-Director of TCPD and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
Avishek Jha is Affiliate Researcher, TCPD, and PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Melbourne.
Mohit Kumar and Neelesh Agrawal are Research Engineers at TCPD.
Ayaan Sagar, Jenish Raj Bajracharya, Mayank Sharma, Niharika Mehrotra, Paravi Sapra, Prashasti Agarwal, Priavi Joshi, Pulari M. Baskar, Rashmi Guha Ray, Shreya, and Shreyashree Nayak have contributed to the data, with the TCPD team. We also thank all our state level contacts for their valuable time and Shoaib Rashid Mirza for all his assistance with the coordination.