While the electorate of central Indian States almost rejected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in their recent Legislative Assembly elections, the saffron party found its anticipated solace in Assam, winning the Panchayat polls. With an electoral disaster in the Hindi (also Hindu) heartland, the ruling party somehow gained votes of trust from the rural electorate of Assam.

Mentionable is that the State witnessed a massive ‘uprising’ against the BJP for its initiative to grant citizenship to the religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where over 70 Assam’s Brahmaputra valley based organizations (termed as Jatiya Sangathan) hit the streets for months urging the people to reject the party. But amazingly the electorate ignored their appeal and subsequently put the BJP at the top of their preferred list of local representatives.

The party, which came to power in Assam with their prime allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) after the State Legislative Assembly polls in 2016, maintained its winning spree by gaining over 40 per cent seats in the three-tier Panchayati Raj system at the village, intermediate and district levels of Assam. It was followed by the Congress, AGP (which fought Panchayat polls separately), All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and other political parties.

According to the State election authority, 78,571 candidates were in the fray for 26,808 seats under 21,990 Panchayat wards in the State Panchayat polls, held in 26 districts of Assam.

The two-phase polls (5 and 9 December 2018) witnessed a turnout as high as 82 per cent in the battle of ballots. Counting took place on 12 December under CCTV surveillance and strict security arrangements.

Assam has 21 Zilla Parishads (district Panchayat), 185 Anchalik Panchayats (intermediate Panchayat) and 2,201 Gaon Panchayats (village Panchayat). A ZP has 21 presidents and 420 members, an AP has 185 presidents and 2201 members, a GP has 2,201 presidents and 24,222 members. After a lengthy process of counting of ballots for almost a week, the BJP emerged victorious winning 11,325 out of 26,784 seats where elections were held.

The Congress could win 8,970 posts followed by AGP (1,963 posts), AIUDF (1,319 posts) and independent candidates succeeded in 3,048 seats.

The BJP won 80 ZP presidents followed by the Congress (45), AGP (15), BPF (14), AIUDF (3). The party won 212 ZP member constituencies followed by the Congress (147), AGP (19), AIUDF (26) and independents (16). The party bagged 1,025 AP member seats, followed by the Congress (771), AIUDF (136), AGP (118), CPM (1), TMC (1) and independent candidates (142).

The party also won 994 GP presidents followed by the Congress (760), AGP (137), AIUDF (130), BPF (2), NCP (1) and independent candidates (173). BJP’s gain in GP members was 9,094 seats, followed by the Congress (7,292), AGP (1,689), AIUDF (1,024), BPF (54), CPM (33), CPI (3), TMC (5), CPI-ML (4), NCP (3) and independent candidates (2,717).

As many as 734 candidates were declared elected unopposed, where the BJP had the lion’s share (380) followed by the Congress (193), AGP (28), AIUDF (10), BPF (5) and CPM (1). As many as 117 independent candidates were also declared elected without opposition in the local elections.

The ultimate losers in the rural polls were identified as AGP and AIUDF, where the Congress had proved that its influence over the electorate was slowly growing after the last Assembly poll debacles. While AGP seemingly lost its support base among the mainstream Assamese Hindus (precisely in Barak valley), the AIUDF’s Bengali speaking Muslim vote shares were eroded by the Congress.

The ruling party achieved significant support from voters in Kamrup (Metro), Kamrup, Majuli, Lakhimpur, Biswanath, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Charaideo, Dhemaji, Sonitpur, Sivasagar, Golaghat, Nalbari and Cachar districts.

Congress candidates succeeded in Jorhat, Morigaon, Barpeta, Karimganj, Dhubri, Hojai, Bongaigaon districts. For the record, Assam enacted the Panchayat Act in 1948 to establish Panchayati Raj, which was later amended and finally the Assam Panchayat Act 1994 was adopted. But the Panchayat elections continue to generate public debate as the ruling party always prefers to ignore the rural poll exercises even after its five-year term approaches the end.

This time too, the BJP led government in Dispur was reluctant to hold\ the Panchayat polls arguing that over 50,000 State government employees were engaged in the updation process of the National Register of Citizens following the directive of the Supreme Court. However, Gauhati High Court issued strict directions to the authority in favour of Panchayat polls and subsequently it went on successfully.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the poll campaigning in a splendid manner attending maximum number of meetings across the State. They used helicopters to reach various rural locations, a trend not seen in any Panchayat elections of the region.

Normally a soft-spoken politician, Sonowal was very critical to the opposition parties in his poll-speeches. The Congress and AGP leadership also earned a bad name for nominating two accused wildlife poachers in the Panchayat elections. Congress nominee Dilwar Hussain, currently out on bail after his arrest following suspicion of his involvement in the one-horned rhinoceros poaching inside Kaziranga National Park, even won the electoral battle for Suwaguri GP president post in Biswanath district.

The AGP leaders were also in the same position as they offered candidature to another accused in rhino-poaching. Ganesh Doley ran for Moridhansiri GP president post in Golaghat district with an AGP ticket, but lost the battle. The village Panchayat falls under the Bokakhat Assembly constituency, which is represented by AGP president Atul Bora.

Political pundits in Guwahati have already started debating over the success of BJP candidates in the Panchayat polls, as the party was relatively a new entrant to the region. Till 2014, when six States in northeast India were ruled by the Congress (barring Tripura and Sikkim), the BJP was not recognised as a party of the region.

Presently, the same party has expanded its clout to all States of the region and the Assam Panchayat poll outcomes were seemingly confirmation of their influence over the local electorate.

The author is the Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman.