Shortly after the results of the tribal council polls were announced on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it as a “historic” victory. According to observers, the BJP’s win is no surprise given its resources, organisational strength, and the fact that it heads the state government. All this gave the ruling party an edge in the campaign for the polls held on June 8. Its campaign was also unlike anything seen before for a tribal council election. Sarma and top state BJP leaders held at least 18 rallies as the ruling party threw all its weight into retaining the KAAC.
Gauhati University history professor Uttam Bathari said it was “natural for any party to want full control of the government at all levels — be it local bodies, panchayat, or even autonomous district councils”. He added that since autonomous district councils were dependent on the state government for funds, votes tend to swing towards the party already in power in the state.
The KAAC covers four Assembly seats and the parliamentary constituency of Diphu. Earlier, Sarma described the tribal council as a “stepping stone” to the Diphu Lok Sabha seat. “If you win KAAC, you win Diphu,” Sarma said, adding that it was “also important to connect with our Karbi brothers”. Since 2016, the BJP has been successful in mobilising tribal votes at the grassroots.
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Focus on tribal issues
Candidates of the recently formed All Party Hills Leaders Conference (APHLC) finished second in at least 13 constituencies. Making a quiet, yet significant, entry, they beat principal Opposition Congress in several seats. However, since the APHLC is not formally registered with the Election Commission of India, all 26 candidates contested as Independents.
According to observers, the APHLC’s “tribal-specific” focus helped attract voters in some tribal-majority constituencies. Their poll plank included a corrected voter list for the Karbi areas under the Sixth Schedule with only tribal names, as well as the demand for an “autonomous state” under Article 244(A) of the Constitution.
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APHLC spokesperson Angtong Ingti Kathar said the results were encouraging. “Had it been a free and fair election, we would have won a few constituencies,” he said, alleging that the “BJP engaged in proxy voting in some constituencies”.
Talking about his outfit’s relative success, he added, “We have a strong political ideology centred around tribal issues that matter.”
Lack of unity
Older parties such as the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) and the Congress placed second in one and eight seats respectively. The Aam Aadmi Party, which is trying to get a foothold in the state, managed second place in one constituency as well. Daniel Teron of the ASDC said the Opposition failed to put up a united front. “We had approached the APHLC and the Congress, but their arrogance propelled the BJP’s win,” he said.
The Congress ruled the KAAC from 2001 to 2015. Like in 2017, the grand old party drew a blank this time too.