Indians as well as many in Bangladesh have carefully watched with interest the proceedings of the recent assembly electoral process (between April 04 and May 16, 2016) that have taken place in the Indian States of Assam (in two phases - for 126 seats), West Bengal (in six phases - for 294 seats), Kerala (single phase - for 140 seats), Tamil Nadu (single phase - for 234 seats) and Pondicherry (single phase - for 30 seats). The total number of voters in these five locations was nearly 170 million.
As the curtains came down on May 17 on these elections in the four Indian States and a Union territory, exit polls predicted correctly an anti-incumbent mood in most places except West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The Congress lost Assam to a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP)-led coalition and also Kerala to the CPM-led Left Democratic Front. The Congress had to remain content with Pondicherry - a Union territory. Charismatic Jayalalita, leader of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) belied polls predictions and led her party to victory in Tamil Nadu over the DMK-Congress alliance. Her party obtained 134 of the 234 seats. This is the first time that a ruling party was voted back to power since 1984 in that State despite its leader having had to go through the tribulation of a judicial proceeding associated with alleged corruption.
For most of us in Bangladesh, attention was however given mostly to what was happening in the two neighbouring States of West Bengal and Assam. There was interest in this dynamics for strategic reasons.
ASSAM: The forecasts made in the exit polls were borne out two days later through the published results. The BJP-led alliance, which included the Bodo and the Assam Gano Parishad (AGP), won a resounding victory in Assam. They ended up with 86 seats out of 126 seats. The Congress, which had won 78 seats in the 2011 elections, ended up with 26 seats. This has enabled the BJP to form for the first time a government in that north-eastern State. The Congress was dislodged after being in charge for 15 years. Tarun Gogoi, leader of the Congress administration in Assam, has already taken personal responsibility for this defeat. Indirectly, such accountability on his part has been identified with the fact that Gogoi created rancor within his party by introducing his son Gaurav into Assam politics. This was interpreted as a sign of disrespect towards Himanta Biswa Sarma (a Congress leader in Assam for the last 23 years) who was waiting to succeed Gogoi.
It would be pertinent to note here that former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress from the State of Assam since 1991, came to Guwahati from Delhi to cast his vote in the assembly election. That was an example of his commitment towards the Congress.
Analysts have tried to identify the reasons why the BJP was able to put on such a splendid show in Assam after their recent humiliating experiences in the polls in Delhi and Bihar. Several factors appear to have worked in favour of the BJP. The first, the party's think tank gave more importance to the local leadership. This was a departure from Bihar where the November 2015 election had turned into a symbolical fight between Prime Minister Modi of BJP with Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)). A similar personal Modi approach had also been attempted earlier during the Delhi election and had not borne the right result. This time round Modi limited his rallies and that appears to have paid off. The second was the decision to choose Orissa-born strongman Sarbananda Sonowal (who severed ties with the Assam Gano Parishad and joined the BJP in 2011 and now handles the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry in the Modi cabinet as a Member of the Indian Lok Sabha from Assam's Lakhimpur constituency) as the BJP's chief ministerial candidate for the election. Thirdly, the BJP cautiously avoided the kind of harsh rhetoric and vitriol that had characterised its campaign in Bihar and Delhi. The fourth factor was the release of a vision document for Assam by the BJP (for 2016-2025) where the party promised to deliver on sensitive issues like foreign nationals and the "porous" border that allegedly exists between Bangladesh and the Assam State. It also assured the people that a law would be enacted to "deal sternly" with industries, businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises or any other agencies that employ "infiltrators".
Since BJP-led coalition's victory in Assam, anxiety has grown about the possibility of intensified ethnic-cultural-religious tension within the current complex paradigm that exists within that State due to various steps and regulatory measures undertaken during the colonial past of this State. The situation has already been made more sensitive with comments by Indian political leadership that the border between Bangladesh and Assam will be sealed.
It would be worthwhile note here that the total international land border between India and Bangladesh stretches for 4,096 km. The length of the border that Bangladesh shares with Assam is only 263-km long. Out of this boundary, 44 km does not have any fencing, partially because a major part of this section has the Brahmaputra River flowing through it. The other interesting aspect is that Assam's religious configuration broadly consists of 61.5 per cent Hindus, 34.22 per cent Muslims and 3.7 per cent Christians. Consequently, one is forced to be concerned about the future prospects of the desired "connectivity" between Bangladesh and North-east India in matters of trade, communication and transit facilities if political leaders in Assam pursue an agenda that can only lead to suspicion and mutual distrust. Consequently, one can only hope that the central BJP leadership, including its president Amit Shah, will now play a constructive role in this emerging matrix and stop going after thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims on the plea of sniffing out economic migrants. The Assam administration should stop threatening them with expulsion when they have been living in communities in Assam for generations.
WEST BENGAL: Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal was the only party in full command to beat back comprehensively the anti-incumbency wave. It was clear from the result that the electorate in this State had decided to discard the unverified "expose" footage associated with the "Narada- Saradha" fiasco showing Trinamool leaders at the grassroots being involved with indiscreet underhand kick-back cash transactions. This did not cast the shadow that many analysts had anticipated in that State. Mamata Banerjee's personal reputation of honesty and determination appears to have carried the day for her party.
The TMC ended up by winning with a bigger than expected majority - even more than in 2011, when it had ousted the Left Front through an alliance with the Congress. This time round Mamata rode the development plank and ended up winning more than two-thirds of the assembly seats (211 out of 294). This was the first time that such a massive victory had been possible in the state in the last 49 years. The Congress-Left alliance, which had hoped to unseat the TMC, was left gasping. The Congress secured 34 seats and their Left friends ended up with 33 seats in the assembly. This outcome should give the TMC more flexibility and leverage with the BJP.
Mamata Banerjee's impressive victory underlined and brought to the fore her irate views about a section of the West Bengal media - the Anandabazar Group, the State's most influential media house. This group was recently characterised by her in a rally in Durgapur as "the most destructive element in Bengal". It may be mentioned here that this media group includes the Bengali newspaper "Anandabazar Patrika", the English newspaper "The Telegraph" and the widely watched Bengali news channel (ABP Ananda). This parting of the ways between the TMC and this media group has apparently evolved over the last three years. This group had earlier supported her when the TMC unseated the Left's rule in West Bengal in 2011 after 34 years.
It will consequently be interesting to see how the relationship between the TMC and the Anandabazar Group evolves over the next few years. There are still some sensitive issues that have not been resolved within this State's socio-economic-political domain and this Group can focus on the negatives instead of undertaking a creative engagement. Their role can at the end of the day also affect relations between Kolkata and Delhi as well as with its neighbour, Bangladesh.
STRATEGIC INTEREST: Both West Bengal and Assam have a special place in terms of strategic interest for Bangladesh. There are questions related to connectivity, energy, trade and investment. There is, above all, the important issue of improved joint management and sharing of water resources. One knows that this is a sensitive issue. We have been able to resolve the crucial questions related to the Land Boundary Agreement and the exchange of enclaves through the concerted efforts and help of Prime Minister Modi and political leaders of West Bengal and Assam. We have also through arbitration determined our common maritime boundary. These have been significant steps.
Now that the assembly elections in West Bengal and Assam are over, we need to focus on resolving the question of coming to an agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta River. There is also the question of better sharing of the waters flowing down the Ganges River. Water experts say that this year the amount of water flowing down the Ganges was the lowest in 67 years and considerably less than the agreed figure of the existing agreement.
One must remember that Bangladesh is already suffering because of climate variability and millions in the coastal areas are more vulnerable than before. This socio-economic situation could be further exacerbated through improper management of the rivers flowing from India into Bangladesh. That situation would definitely encourage migration from the affected areas (suffering water deficit) not only to the urban areas within Bangladesh but also undesirable migration to contiguous territories. We need to work on these issues sooner rather than later. Discussion is urgently required in this context. That will be the only way to ensure stability among the stakeholders.
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
author's email address: [email protected]