By Nasreen Habib*
The recent assembly elections in the three Northeastern states, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura, made one thing crystal clear: the BJP’s ability to strike smart alliances has turned things around in its favour. Its wins range from ousting the Left in Tripura after 25 years in power, to bringing down the formidable Mukul Sangma government in Meghalaya. Mizoram is now the only state in the Northeast that has a Congress government.
BJP’s central leadership understood that the party lacked a natural base in the Northeast and its Hinduvta brand of politics would not cut ice with the people here. They thus formed the Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in 2016, under the leadership of arguably the craftiest leader in the region, Himanta Biswa Sarma. His role in Tripura was limited as Sunil Deodhar, the man in charge of Prime Minsiter Modi’s Varanasi campaign, led the campaign here. In Nagaland and Meghalaya, Sarma’s role in ‘convincing’ the smaller parties and independents to support the alliance has been substantial. It must also be pointed out that Northeastern states are heavily dependent on the Centre for funds:90 per cent of the funds are given by the central government and only 10 per cent is provided by the individual states. Thus, they prefer a government that is ‘friendly’ and will not hamper this comfortable arrangement.
In Meghalaya, the Indian National Congress (INC) emerged as the single largest party with 21 seats, but the National People’s Party (NPP) with 19 seats managed to garner the support of six legislators from the United Democratic Party (UDP), four legislators from the People’s Democratic Front (PDF), two legislators from the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and two independents. The BJP won only two seats of the 47 it had contested. However, the NPP, led by Conrad Sangma, son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Mukul Sangma, realised that they has to go with the party in power at the Centre. A cursory glance at this alliance is enough to suggest that it is not a stable one; cracks have already developed with UDP threatening to break away if “indigenous rights/local issues” are not made central to the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance and “BJP acts as the big brother.” It also remains to be seen what solution the NPP-led government offers to the issue of coal mining: there is a National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on coal mining in the state and the NPP had promised a way out so that locally, coal mining could continue. Many believe NPP benefitted from this promise.
In Nagaland, interestingly, just before the elections, civil society groups had taken to the streets to canvass against the assembly elections with the slogan “solution before election,” demanding a solution to the decade-long issue of Naga sovereignty. All political parties supported this demand initially (the BJP had also suspended a member over this),and as a constitutional provision, elections were held. Just before the elections though, BJP in a master move allied with the newly created party Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), which was formed as a result of the split in the Naga People’s Front (NPF) led by Neiphiu Rio, without disowning its earlier alliance partner NPF, led by TR Zeliang. They managed to win 12 seats in Nagaland, a Christian majority state, where church leaders infrequently warned against voting for an “anti-minority” party. This was a huge improvement from their earlier tally of 1. This was partly because they benefitted from their association with Rio’s party, a former chief minister and powerful political figure. Here, too, it remains to be seen how the rivalry between Rio and Zeliang plays out and the understanding they reach. There is apprehension that NPF which had won 27 seats (the NDPP-BJP combine gained 29 seats) may demand a larger share of the pie. Trouble is already brewing in the NDPP-BJP alliance with the BJP securing more berths in the cabinet than the NDPP, including the deputy chief minister’s post. Also, if the NPF manages the support of just four more MLAs, it can stake a claim to the government. It is understood that Zeliang had given his word to Sarma over this. But promises, as they say, are meant to be broken.
In Tripura, the only state where the BJP won on its own, work on uprooting the Left bastion had begun more than three years ago when Sunil Deodhar, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, was handpicked for the job and sent to work in the state. The BJP Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb who was a gym instructor in Delhi and an RSS member was also carefully honed for the job, though the party had not announced his candidature prior to the elections. With almost clinical precision, the BJP-RSS combine worked to turn over the entire rank and file of the Trinamool Congress party, the only definite opposition to the Left at that time. A look at the vote share reveals that the CPM’s vote share was 43.5 per cent whereas the BJP’s was 42.5 per cent. Political commentators have said that this was because the BJP concentrated on winning seats rather than only garnering votes. There was a definite structure to their whole campaign, with work being delegated at all levels efficiently. Of course, the resentment against the long Left reign also helped the BJP, with people complaining about jobs being given as political favours and non-implementation of the 7th Pay Commission. The tribal discontent against the Left is also clear with the BJP’s only ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), winning 8 seats out of the 9 it contested, a huge improvement over the last elections.
The stability of the alliances stitched by the BJP in the Northeast is now the most important question, and its future remains to be seen. It will have to keep its flock together and work at stemming discontent within the various camps.
* Nasreen Habib
Editor, Eclectic Northeast Magazine