Modi seeks change of fortune in Assam election

Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses a gathering during a conference of start-up businesses in New Delhi.
Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses a gathering during a conference of start-up businesses in New Delhi. PHOTO: REUTERS

Indian PM hopes north-east state can break his party's recent string of electoral setbacks

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kicked off his party's election campaign in the north-eastern state of Assam, promising growth and development, as he seeks to reverse a recent trend of electoral setbacks for his party.

Assam is the gateway to the region bordering Bangladesh and Bhutan and residents have long complained that successive federal governments have ignored development there. Mr Modi yesterday promised to reverse that trend and criticised the Congress party, which has been in power in Assam for 15 years, of achieving little.

"Why does Assam have so many problems when the same government is there for 15 years?" Mr Modi said at a rally yesterday. "The first and foremost need for development in this area is infrastructure... which is why we have launched the Act East policy... We will join this area with the mainstream of development in the country."

Mr Modi's Act East policy, a relaunch of the Look East policy, seeks to improve connectivity by linking the north-eastern states to the rest of India and to South-east Asia through a network of roads and rail links.

Analysts said Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needed an electoral win in Assam, where its chances of victory are the highest among the state-level elections scheduled this year. The elections are for 126 assembly seats, with dates yet to be announced.

Dr Sandeep Shastri, the pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore, said: "Assam is a critical election for the BJP this year... If the party can hope for some good news on the electoral front, it is only in Assam. In the other states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal (which are heading for elections), they will not do too well."

The BJP had a tough electoral time last year. It lost politically important elections in Delhi to the Aam Aadmi Party and in Bihar, where Mr Modi had campaigned extensively, to a regional alliance that included its key rival Congress.

That has been followed by smaller setbacks in city and village council elections, including in Gujarat - Mr Modi's home state.

The electoral losses have been seen as a reflection of the mood on the ground towards the BJP.

"After the Bihar election results, the BJP would like to do something better so that at least it can substantiate its claim of Modi being an invincible politician. He still, of course, remains a popular leader but it is also a prestige issue," said political science professor Bidyut Chakrabarty at Delhi University.

For the Congress, too, Assam is an important election as the northeast remains one of its last remaining strongholds.

Hot-button issues in the elections are likely to include illegal migration from Bangladesh and youth unemployment.

Still, analysts said, the BJP faced challenges such as ensuring a winning alliance and appealing to rural voters. In the last assembly elections, the BJP won only five seats.

"The BJP should do well but it doesn't mean it will win. That depends on the alliance it can stitch up with regional parties," said Delhi-based political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Modi seeks change of fortune in Assam election'. Print Edition | Subscribe