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With Immigration Issue on Boil, Assam's 7 Lakh First-Time Voters Take Centrestage

With Immigration Issue on Boil, Assam's 7 Lakh First-Time Voters Take Centrestage

While the BJP claims the youth will vote for development and a strong leader, the All Assam Students’ Union believes they will not be swayed by the saffron party's poll 'gimmicks'.

Guwahati: With the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill being a central issue for Assam in the elections this time, the BJP appears to be counting on seven lakh new voters in the state who it believes can play a crucial role. Although the opposition Congress and other parties have blamed the BJP for its alleged failure in generating jobs and its stubborn stand over CAB, the saffron party believes that Assam’s first-time voters, born after the Assam agitation of the 1980s, are likely to vote for development.

At least 7,06,489 first-time voters have registered in Assam ahead of the elections, a massive increase from 2014 when it was around 4.5 lakh. As per the last summary revision published on January 1 this year, 2,17,60,604 electors were enrolled in Assam.

“Of the first-time voters, at least 4,04,715 are males and 3,01,774 are females. All of them are within the age group of 18 years to 19 years,” said Assam Chief Electoral Officer Mukesh Sahu.

Pranab Lahkar, state BJP executive and former general secretary of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) Assam, said, “Though less in numbers, young voters will play a vital role in this election as well as for the upcoming elections in the state. The BJP government’s multiple schemes of self-employment, skill development, start-ups projects, besides its firm stand against corruption, have been attracting youth. While opposition parties are campaigning with promises of more government jobs, we are offering opportunities where the youth themselves can be the job providers. Today’s youth need development and vision first.”

Lahkar claimed that young voters are not worried about the BJP’s move on CAB.

“They (first-time voters) are educated, smart and more worried about the country’s security and future. These young voters are looking for a global and strong leader and they have found that in Narendra Modi. Moreover, the government has decided to bring the CAB back only after a consensus with all,” he said. Lahkar on Tuesday led hundreds of youths at a bike rally from Morigaon for electioneering.

At a rally in Maharashtra earlier this month, Modi had asked first-time voters to exercise their franchise keeping in mind the supreme sacrifices of the armed forces for the security of the country. Modi’s remarks brought him under fire from opposition parties and the Election Commission as he was accused of “misusing” the armed forces for electoral gain. However, Modi on Tuesday again said the strength of “one vote” had enabled the cross-border surgical strike and air strike in Pakistan. An EC advisory issued last month had asked political parties to desist from indulging in political propaganda involving actions of the armed forces.

In contrast to the BJP’s claims, the state’s biggest students’ organisation of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) believes that first-time voters will not be swayed by the BJP’s poll “gimmicks”. In January, the student group steered a joint movement against the ruling BJP for bringing in the CAB. A massive rally called “Khilongiyar Bojroninad” (thunderous voice of the indigenous people), organised by the AASU, witnessed a sea of humanity, including youngsters and members from more than 30 ethnic organisations at the city’s Latasil playground.

For reasons peculiar to Assam’s recent history, AASU and others are opposed to the bill that aims to provide citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries. These groups say it goes against one of the principle tenets of the Assam Accord of 1985, which promised to detect and deport illegal migrants who arrived after the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, irrespective of religion.

AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said, “Though the first-time voters were born after the Assam agitation and there is an apprehension they might be influenced by Modi’s rhetoric, the young voters must understand how the ruling party has been trying to impose their decisions upon us. It’s not about knowing all the details of the agitation, but it’s a question of our fundamental rights. The ruling party is trying to dominate the democratic voice of people, our political right, and our right over land and natural resources. There are no better job opportunities either.”

“Immigration has always been a threat to the state, including its youth,” added Gogoi. “It’s a fight to secure our future and the future generation needs to understand it by itself. I believe Assam’s young generation is conscious and they know how to critically analyse the reality before making their decisions. Moreover, the air strike episode is still under confusion. The international media has rejected Modi’s claims too.”

During the statewide anti-CAB protests a few months back, students from Gauhati University, Tezpur University and Dibrugarh University had also taken to the streets, torched effigies of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and organised fasts. While the Cotton University Students’ Union (CUSU) had taken part in class boycotts, Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) students wore black badges while on duty. Students from the state, living in New Delhi, had staged protests against the bill as well.

The Assam Survey Report, 2018, points to the fact that the government in power has largely rejected voters’ priorities in the state. This is quite clear from the fact that the party in power has performed poorly and has been underwhelming on all 10 governance issues, as rated by the state’s voters.

“While deciding which candidate to vote for in an election, 87% of Assam’s voters stated that their own opinion mattered the most, followed by voters for whom the opinion of their family members and spouse mattered the most. For urban voters in Assam, the topmost priorities were better employment opportunities (55%), better roads (50%), and lower food prices for consumers (39%). In rural Assam, topmost voter priorities were better hospitals/primary healthcare centres (51%), better employment opportunities (45%), and agriculture loan availability (44%),” said the survey report by the Assam Election Watch. The trend also showed that first-time voters in Assam were not voting in uniform.

Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a professor in the political science department of Gauhati University, said, “We can’t look into it in a homogeneous manner. The young voters’ mandate seems to be a fractured one.”

As no political party addresses the core issues of youth’s concerns, no political party enjoys an edge in commanding their preference, he added.

“Their preferences will be determined by the social media campaign, territoriality, religious and ethnic affiliation, class position as well as educational institutional affiliation. In the Brahmaputra valley, it will be more fragmented, and CAB will be a determining factor for the youth in ethnic Assamese-dominated public education institutions,” the professor said.

Targeting first-time voters, Assam’s Chief Electoral Officer has roped in world-famous sprinter Hima Das to launch awareness campaigns. Das herself will vote for the first time. Mobile applications were launched in various districts to involve youngsters.

Thrilled to be casting his first vote, law student Susmit Ishfaq said, “Dirty politics in the state has always ignored its core issues. Rather than addressing the real problems people face on a daily basis, politicians in the state were found to be politicising them and mudslinging the opposition. Whoever is committed to addressing the issues of unemployment, education and health care in the state will be my priority.”

Assam has already gone through the first phase of poll on April 11 for five parliamentary seats, where 78.27% voting was registered. Assam goes to polls in the second phase on April 18 when voters from Silchar, Karimganj, Autonomous District and Nagaon will vote. Guwahati, Mangaldai, Barpeta, Kokrajhar and Dhubri will vote in the final phase on April 23.