Guwahati: The two-phase panchayat elections in Assam would be a major test for the BJP’s popularity in the state ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The first phase of the panchayat poll in Assam is scheduled for December 5, but the ruling BJP is facing a huge challenge from its ally, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and other organisations of the state over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016.

The Bill is aimed to grant Indian citizenship to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

In the 2016 Assembly elections in Assam, the BJP captured 60 out of 126 seats riding on the Modi wave; and by winning the polls in Assam, the saffron party opened a gateway to the Northeast, capturing many states including Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura thereafter.

The BJP also formed a coalition government with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland and is a part of the National People's Party (NPP)-led government in Meghalaya. 

But, the Centre’s bid to pass the Bill in Parliament has affected the BJP’s image and popularity in Assam.

Several organisations including the AGP, which supports the BJP-led government in Assam, are continuing their protests against the Citizenship Bill across the state and the AGP, Congress and other political parties have kept the issue alive during the panchayat poll campaign.

The BJP and AGP are fighting the polls separately and the AGP raised the Citizenship Bill issue in its poll campaign and have criticised the BJP.

Several organisations, who opposed the controversial bill have warned BJP to teach them in the panchayat polls.

The panchayat polls in Assam will be held on December 5 and 9 in 26 districts.

Over 1.56 crore voters of rural Assam are going to elect the panchayat representatives.

Altogether, 16 districts will go to polls in the first phase on December 5 and 10 districts in the second phase on December 9.

The counting of votes will be held on December 12.

According to the Assam State Election Commission, a total of 78,571 candidates are contesting 26,808 seats in the four tier panchayat polls in the state.

Seven thirty-four candidates, including 442 candidates for the first phase and 292 for the second phase, have already been declared elected unopposed.

Candidates of 734 PRI constituencies have been declared elected unopposed and of them, 380 are from the BJP, 193 from the Congress, 28 from the AGP, 10 from the AIUDF, one from the CPM, five from the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF) and 117 independents.

Assam was a Congress-governed state where Tarun Gogoi, the then CM was the son of the soil, and the BJP was perceived as a party from the Hindi heartland. Everything changed after Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the BJP. Sarma has fought for Assamese issues and campaigned relentlessly against the Congress and its soft approach to the Bangladeshi immigrant affair. More so, as a former Congressman, his attack on the Congress on such sensitive issues had a sense of believability. This, along with the leadership of another strong face Sarbananda Sonowal, helped the BJP sweep Assam in the 2016 Assembly elections.