How the lotus bloomed in Assam
Among the more engaging political stories in recent times has been BJP’s miraculous victory in Assam. DEBRAJ MOOKERJEE examines a book that seeks to plot the story of that miracle
The Last Battle of Saraighat has been much talked about, and is indeed important, for more than one reason. Clearly it is a political book intended to reflect particularly on a critical political moment (the BJP’s unprecedented electoral victory in Assam in the 2016 Assembly Elections), and perhaps, therefore, it had to be rushed through for some reason, which might explain the noticeable slack in attention to details in the research. But then, the book has been written by on-field activists. To do them credit, they are political doers, working hard to make electoral impact, a new breed of intelligent, professional political game changers wanting to be there where it happens, and impact what happens.
Authors Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha are not, primarily, writers. In the words of Ram Madhav, who is clearly their mentor, “Above all, they have humility and a knack to be invisible, the most important quality required for election management.” What makes their work interesting beyond all the markers that would otherwise apply is this — they are writing with their ears to the ground from beyond the green door (to borrow the title of Nigel Jenkins’ engaging book on Meghalaya) that has kept the North-East of the country shut out of the consciousness of the nation for almost 70 years.
Growing up in the North-East in the 1980s (my teenage years), I was not unfamiliar with this menacing message, painted on mountain sides or onto vandalised billboards — “Indian dogs go back”. In living room conversations, mainstream Assamese would happily let on that China was at hand, ready to liberate Assam. Some 30 years later, Assam elects a BJP Government with a remarkable majority. Something changed. Something big. The Last Battle is an inside peek into attempting to explain how this miracle happened. Justifiably, those working first hand in giving wings to this miracle will have a story to tell.
The book does a smart wrap of Assam’s history by examining the role of standout personalities who helped shape the Assamese consciousness. Three names jump out — Shankardev, a Vaisnavite saint scholar and social reformer from the 15-16th centuries; Lachit Borphukan, the brave General who in 1671 defeated the invading Mughal forces of Aurangzeb; and Gopinath Bordoloi, who while a Congressman at heart, fought tooth and nail to stymie the Cabinet Missions infamous ‘grouping’ plan in the years preceding Independence (the plan would have packed Hindu majority Assam with Muslim majority Bengal — including present day Bangladesh — and facilitate its absorption in a larger Islamic state).
A closer look at these three examples and their representation in the book will clarify both the intent of the book as well as provide insights to those still scratching their heads and wondering how Assam was won by the BJP. Shankardev is truly revered in Assam, forming the locus for cultural unity though Xatras (socio-religious congregations) and naam ghars (kirtan halls where Vaisnavite song and dance is conducted as part of worship). The RSS, which has worked hard at building its cadre though the sustained involvement of self-sacrificing pracharaks, has supported these Xatras and helped the BJP enmesh itself in the cultural consciousness of the Assamese people. Lachit’s heroism fires up the imagination of the average Assamese; he is the King Arthur who stands for what is right, courageous and just (he beheaded his own uncle for dereliction during war; everyone knows his famous words, “Dexotkoi mumai dangor nohoi” — my Mamaji is not greater than my nation).
When the Assamese youth was being inspired by the ULFA militant cadres in the 1980s, they would claim to be carrying in their veins none other than “Lachitor Tez” (Lachit’s blood). And Gopinath Bordoloi, Assam’s first Chief Minister (Prime Minister before Independence), has always been a BJP favourite, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee having granted him the Bharat Ratna posthumously in 1999. His ability to mobilise subnational aspirations while working within the fold of Gandhi’s Congress makes him an interesting figure — a nationalist who spoke out and protected Assam’s identity when Jinnah had set his sights on it (like Aurangzeb had before him). By now the reader would have got the drift. Somebody with oodles of smart thoughts up this heady cocktail to ingratiate the BJP into the imaginative space of the Assamese firmament. Clearly the strategy succeeded. The BJP won the elections in Assam, not just on the back of Narendra Modi’s popularity or the burning issue of illegal migrants. The BJP won the elections because it successfully connected with the Assamese middle class mind. That it did, because it worked hard to understand the underlying signifiers of the historical iconography of Assamese culture and political consciousness.
The book explains the operational details of the actual campaign and the mechanics of the little things that defined the authors’ day-to-day engagement with the election process. How they distributed their efforts, how they targeted specific demographic groups (like tea garden workers), how the AIUDF’s Badruddin Ajmal lost the plot, and, of course, how the Congress lost its star strategist, Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Overall, there is much to learn about the North-East, especially Assam, and the tortured relationship the region has shared with the rest of the country. The authors mention — perhaps in an unguarded moment — that the BJP’s inroads into Assam is intended to assert the akhand status of India, and the party’s role in ensuring such a status. That the North-East will always require treatment, however, is a reality implied by the very thesis of the book. How these two contending realities might parse is something the authors have to consider beyond the telling of the story they have presented in The Last Battle of Saraighat. Maybe they will write about it in a few years from now. Regardless of its literary merit, I’ll be among the first to pick it up.
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