How the RSS Helped Fill the BJP’s Grassroots Vacuum in Assam

In Majuli, the BJP state president and chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, is engaged in a tough contest against the three-time Congress MLA Rajib Lochan Pegu. Ujjal Deb / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
11 April, 2016

Surprisingly, it appears that even without strong organisation in the grassroots level of the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged as the Congress’s main rival in the 2016 Assam assembly election, the second phase of which is being held today. Part of the reason behind the BJP’s emergence lies in the covert strategy the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been working on for the past several months to ensure the party’s win in the assembly polls.

According to an RSS functionary, in November last year, the RSS had arrived at certain “crucial decisions” for the assembly polls in Assam. “We knew we would have to work very hard since the BJP was weak at the local level,” the functionary said.  “We decided to wait for the strategy that would be adopted by the BJP leadership including the alliances with other parties.”

Both the BJP and the RSS had agreed that, in order to prevent the state from “being overrun by illegal Bangladeshi immigrants,” a BJP government would have to be formed.  A section of BJP workers surmised that if the Congress were to return, it would probably join hands with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by the by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal. The AIUDF has traditionally drawn its support from the Bengali Muslims in the state, which includes citizens and immigrants.

The functionary said that the RSS then analysed all the assembly seats in minute detail, and identified the strengths and weaknesses of each constituency. Four months later, it issued directions to all its branches to activate the campaign for the elections.  In some constituencies, intellectuals and social activists began to be invited for public meetings convened by the Lok Jagaran Mancha, a front of the RSS that was founded in 1979. The LJM now has branches all over the state, and is open to membership.

In the run up the elections, LJM has been very active in at least 31 seats in upper (eastern) Assam, including the Dibrugarh, Golaghat and Sivasagar districts, but less in Jorhat, explained Sankar Das, the publicity head of the RSS’s Assam chapter. This, Das added, explained the “bright chances” of the BJP’s success in the polls in these regions.

The Assam strategy is quite unlike election scenarios in other states, where senior RSS functionaries always played a more prominent and explicit role.  For instance, in the run-up to the 2015 Bihar elections, two Sangh pracharaks, or ideologues—Shivnarayan and Rajendra Singh—were entrusted with the responsibility to manage the BJP campaign in different sectors of the state.

In Assam, the pracharaks’ roles have been visible only in districts where the organisation already had an established presence. For the past several years, in the riverine island of Majuli, for instance, as many as 300 RSS cadres from different parts of the country had been working under the leadership of the senior functionary Yogesh Sastri. Majuli is also the cradle of the Vaishnavite culture in Assam. In this constituency, the BJP state president and chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, is engaged in a tough contest against the three-time Congress MLA Rajib Lochan Pegu.

Another assembly seat where the RSS has been traditionally strong is the Nalbari constituency, located 70 kilometres west of Guwahati, which was once a hotbed of insurgency. Here, the RSS had made a fervent case for the ticket to be given to one of its veteran pracharaks, Ashok Sarma. However, the BJP had proposed the name of a different candidate. After a week of intense debates, the deadlock was resolved, and Sarma was finally given the ticket.

In areas where the LJM could not be formed, Das told me, the single teacher Ekal Vidyalaya schools have been performing the role of campaigning for the BJP.  The schools, manned by teachers below 30 years of age, provide free tuition to children of poor families. Supplementing the role of these schools, and especially in remote areas of the state, are Sanskar Kendras, which give lessons on health and hygiene to women. Das told me that the Vidyalayas are active in Karbi Anglong and Kamrup districts, as well as in some tea gardens.

The proliferation of the RSS’s activities points undeniably to the favourable ambience that has developed in Assam over the past few years. This has been fueled by a combination of several factors—the concern over the growth of Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam, for one. Though the parties in the state have regularly spoken of illegal immigration as an issue in the state, neither the United Progressive Alliance government nor the NDA government has displayed much interest in erecting a mechanism for their detection and deportation. In 1998, the then Assam governor, the retired lieutenant general SK Sinha, submitted a report to the centre detailing the immediate steps to be taken to check illegal immigration. The report, however, continues to lie in cold storage at the ministry of home affairs. The Supreme Court of India intervened, and directed the government to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Since the first sakha—a daily gathering of RSS workers—was held in Guwahati and Dibrugarh in 1949, the RSS’s growth in Assam has been sluggish.  Information provided to me by its establishment in Guwahati suggested that as many as 833 sakhas are held on a daily basis in different parts of the state.  In the 1990s, when the militant group the United Liberation Front of Asom was at its peak, the sakhas were discontinued, but they began to gradually reappear after 2001.

“So the RSS has worked at different levels for the election in Assam but through different organisations,” Das told me. “It is not necessary to flaunt the name of our organisation all the time, and hence the need of different forums.”