Democracy creates the ideal conditions for the formulation and expression of political identity. The electoral process encourages groups to identify themselves politically and bestows real political meaning on the concepts of majority and minority, reinforcing the existing cleavages in society. The Northeast Indian state of Assam provides an example of politics being influenced largely by issues concerning ethnic identity. The unusually large rate of migration into the state since the heyday of British rule and the varied array of ethnic groups, each striving to preserve its identity and its interests through the political process, led to a situation of ethnic conflict in the post-independence period as politics became centred on issues of immigration and ethnic identity. The state underwent various political shifts ranging from a situation of Congress dominance till the mid-1970s to the rise of regionalism in the mid-1980s, and gradually moving towards a largely bipolar contest between two national parties in the 21st century.

Issues relating to ethnic and religious identity came to the fore as the state held one of its most keenly contested State Assembly elections in early April 2016. Against the backdrop of three successive wins by the Congress in the Assembly polls since 2001 and of the BJP’s upsurge in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2015 municipal elections, the polls promised to be a clash of titans in a largely bipolar scenario between two national parties with active intervention of ethnic-regional players. This chapter examines the relatively recent rise of the BJP, a party representing Hindu nationalism at the national level, in a state that has traditionally witnessed the dominance of ethnic politics based on linguistic and tribal identities. Specifically it will look at the salience of religion as a political factor in an ethnically divided milieu and examine trends towards religious consolidation with the issue of illegal immigration from across the international border emerging as a key point of polarization.