Has BJP taken over the Northeast?
(First published in New Indian Express. The article argues the BJP’s impressive performance in the recent Assembly elections in the three Northeast states of Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, is confined to a psychological arena, for on the statistical plane, the victory is at best marginal, and is unlikely to be useful to read the results as a barometer for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the Northeast. That is, the BJP still has a lot more work to do to consolidate its gains. For the other parties, this also means all is far from lost as yet.)
Expectedly, the general impression after the Assembly election results in the three Northeastern states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland, is that there has been a BJP takeover of the region, and if there is any resistances left from other parties, the Congress and CPM in particular, they will likely be erased soon. As to whether all opponents of the BJP are on the verge of being irreversibly marginalised in the region is a matter of speculation, but of the former claim that there is already a BJP takeover, it can be said for certain that the statistics do not agree.
Even in terms of seats won, the BJP’s victory is not at all total. Of the 180 seats in the three 60-member Assemblies of these three states, the BJP won just 49. In Meghalaya its performance was the poorest with the party bagging only two seats.
In Nagaland the party’s performance was credible with 12 seats won, but even this was due to a seat-sharing arrangement with a new regional party. It is only in Tripura that the BJP got a resounding victory, bagging 35 seats on its own, to which its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), added another eight.
A closer consideration of the vote shares of the parties will also bear evidence that the fight for the heart of the Northeast is still far from over. This is so even in Tripura where the BJP obviously considers its victory sweetest. Unlike in the other two states where the BJP’s victories are only a show of the party’s mastery in alliance making, in Tripura they had to fight block by block with the CPM, which had been in power for over 25 years. While the BJP’s 35 seats against CPM’s 16 makes the win seem like a one-sided drubbing, the vote shares make the result seem like a tie. The BJP totalled 43 per cent votes and the CPM 42.7 per cent.
In terms of number of votes too, the margin seems thin, with BJP getting just 6,518 votes more than the CPM overall. Of course, the BJP had a seat-sharing arrangement with their ally IPFT in the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, and together with the 7.5 per cent votes of their ally, this winning margin would be a little higher, but it also means it is very important for the BJP to keep this partnership secure. This can prove daunting, for amongst the campaign thrusts of IPFT was the bifurcation of Tripura to create a tribal state of Twipraland which Tripura’s Bengali majority would not accede to regardless of party affiliation, and if this matter is not resolved amicably amongst the partners, it can spell trouble for both.
In Nagaland, the BJP won 12 seats, but this is unlikely to be due to the party’s own support base. In the 2013 Assembly election, the party won only one seat, although in the months after the election, their number increased to four after three NCP MLAs merged with them.
What helped the BJP this time was a near complete decay of the dominant Naga People’s Front (NPF), on account of a very unseemly power struggle between three of its top leaders, Neiphiu Rio, T R Zeliang, Shurhozelie Liezietsu, all former chief ministers, towards the end of last term, leading to constant switching of party loyalty amongst their followers, disillusioning and disgusting the Naga electorate. Weeks before the election, Rio caused a vertical split in the party to form a new party, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). In a stroke of alliance-making genius, the BJP moved in to strike a pre-poll seat sharing partnership with Rio’s new party, without disowning their old ally for 15 years, the NPF led now by Zeliang.
Anticipating a precariously hung Assembly, Zeliang was helpless to protest the BJP move, and equally, Rio was unable to insist on the latter severing ties with the NPF. The BJP thus made the best of the bad situation giving themselves the option of going with either of the two front runners, depending on the nature of the anticipated hung verdict.
The NDPP went one step further and agreed to a seat-sharing arrangement with the BJP and gave the latter 20 in the 60-member house. It is of these 20 seats that the BJP won 12 and it is doubtful if the party could have won as many without the NDPP voters’ support. In the contest for Nagaland’s lone Lok Sabha seat in 2019 then, the BJP probably would be out of contention even before the contest.
The scenario is not very different in Meghalaya. Here the BJP won only two seats and its vote share was just 9.6 per cent, far behind the Congress’s 28.5 per cent and National People’s Party’s (now the ruling party) 20.6 per cent. Although there is a tendency for Northeast states to lean towards the party in power in Delhi, it is unlikely the BJP would have a free run in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, both with two Lok Sabha seats each, or Assam (14 Lok Sabha seats) either.
In Manipur, in the last Assembly election, the Congress was the largest single party with 28 seats and the BJP, though ultimately the party that formed the government, followed with 21 seats. In Arunachal, it was an engineered mass defection from the Congress that brought the BJP to power, and the Congress still has not lost its support base.
In Assam too, the vote shares in the last Assembly election tell a similar story. The BJP was on top with 36.5 per cent and Congress followed with 29.6 per cent, ensuring again that it would be alliances which will hold the key. The BJP would also be the one bearing the burden of anti-incumbency in 2019. And in Mizoram, the BJP has no base at all so far.
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