How BJP won without winning in Nagaland
(First published in Economic and Political Weekly)
Nagaland politics is probably at its nadir at this moment. The events of the few months before the Assembly election, the results for which were declared on 3 March 2018, demonstrate this. Moreover, the formation of a new government was delayed till four days after the results were declared.
It was a hung verdict, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) skilfully and cunningly put itself in a position where it would not lose, even though it did not have the numbers to lead. Two political parties—the Naga People’s Front (NPF), led by outgoing chief minister T R Zeliang, and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), led by Zeliang’s bitter rival and former chief minister, Neiphiu Rio—had emerged at the top of the table with the NPF bagging 27 seats (four short of a majority in the house of 60) and the NDPP 17. The NDPP is a very new political party which Rio formed in the last few weeks before the elections after breaking away from the NPF. The BJP managed to return a credible 12 seats, while the remaining four seats were shared between National People’s Party (two seats), Janata Dal (United) (one seat), and Independent (one seat).
The BJP’s support hence became crucial. The single largest party, NPF, could have done without the BJP, but none of the smaller parties were ready to be its partner. The NDPP did not have the numbers either and this was so even after the BJP offered its 12 seats. However, after this decision of the BJP, the support of the smaller parties became almost a natural consequence, given that all of them preferred to be on the side of the party in power at the centre. Now, the state is preparing for another term with Rio as chief minister.
One question is still intriguing. How did the BJP manage to put up such a credible performance? Before the results were declared on 3 March, it would have been difficult for many to believe that the BJP would win 12 seats in the staunchly Christian Nagaland. This was especially true because there were calls by the influential Nagaland Baptist Church Council to not allow any inroads by the party in the state. In the last election, the party could win only one seat. Although, not long after this, its tally in the assembly increased to four, thanks to three Nationalist Congress Party legislators who decided to merge with it.
The Power Struggle
The answer to this question has a lot to do with the manner in which the ruling NPF discredited itself before the Naga public especially after the countdown to the assembly election began. Bitter power struggle between three of the party’s top leaders—Zeliang, Rio, and another veteran Shurhozelie Liezietsu (all former chief ministers)—put the party in an existential crisis. Party Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) were split irreconcilably and mass and multiple floor-crossing became the order of the day. The role of the state governor, P B Acharya, a former secretary of the BJP in charge of the North East, had also come under public scrutiny then.
It was in the midst of this struggle that Rio formed the NDPP, splitting the NPF support base vertically. The BJP’s moves thereafter were masterly and shrewd. All through the internal turmoil, the party stuck with its 15-year-old partnership with the NPF in the Nagaland Assembly, which effectively marginalised the Congress which had once held sway in the state. The NPF is also a partner in the NDA government at the centre. However, just before the filing of nomination began, the BJP struck a deal with the NDPP without disowning the NPF. It had calculated that the two were evenly matched and it did not want to put all the eggs in one basket. Given the power balance, the NPF could not muster courage to protest the BJP move, nor did the NDPP insist on the BJP severing ties with the NPF. This ensured that the uncertainty of the power struggle lasted well after the election results were known. Till the last moment before the BJP took a decision, both the NPF and NDPP were profusely pledging allegiance to the BJP.
Rio made a bigger sacrifice in enlisting the support of the BJP, and for now, this has proven to be a more politically deft decision. He allowed a pre-poll seats sharing arrangement with the BJP such that his party contested in only 40 seats and in the remaining 20, it agreed to support the candidates fielded by the BJP. This should explain the increase in BJP’s seats—from one seat in the last election to 12 in this one. What was witnessed was not actually a steep rise in the BJP’s popularity in the state, but an outcome of the party riding on the support base of Rio’s party, which in turn is roughly one half of the original NPF’s support base. That the NPF, which set up candidates in all 60 seats, won 27 seats, while the NDPP-BJP combined won 29 seats, should give a picture of this balance. If there was no split in the NPF, and if the BJP had gone to the polls on its own, in all likelihood, its performance would not have been any better than in the 2013 assembly election.
What About the Neighbouring States?
There are some more entanglements though. In neighbouring Manipur, the NPF with four MLAs is an ally of the BJP government. The Nagaland NPF tried to use this card to influence the BJP to put its lot behind them, but to no avail. Much to the Nagaland NPF’s chagrin, the BJP’s North East strategist, Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam, told a press conference that the Manipur NPF and the Nagaland NPF are two differently registered political parties and therefore, there was no contradiction in the BJP being an ally of the party in one state but not in the other. How far this contention is true is not known, but this probably will not matter anymore. The Manipur NPF has also been ominously silent on the matter.
If the electorate equation in Nagaland remains as it is, the anticipation in the national media that the BJP will be a formidable contender for the lone Lok Sabha seat from Nagaland in the 2019 general elections, is farfetched. The BJP will probably still have to depend on its clever alliance-making skills to be part of the winning team, because it will be too ambitious for the party to think of contesting for this seat on its own strength. However, things can change dramatically in the days ahead to alter this equation. For instance, it is not altogether unrealistic to imagine that the NPF, now sitting on the opposition benches, may not be able to keep its flock together to avoid a total disintegration.
The Rio government has a very thin majority of 33 as of now, and this too with the support of MLAs of four different parties. It is then only to be expected that, in the days ahead, Rio will start looking to splinter the NPF further and have its MLAs join his ranks and consolidate his position. The Tenth Schedule forbids this, but if the affairs in neighbouring Manipur are anything to go by, this will be no hurdle. In the Manipur election almost exactly one year ago, the Congress was the single largest party with 28 in the house of 60 and the BJP was second with 21. The BJP however managed to enlist the support of all the smaller parties to form a coalition with a thin majority.However, within a few months, it managed to woo the support of eight Congress MLAs. The anti-defection law still remains uninvoked, so that the turncoat MLAs are technically still Congress but lending support to the BJP.
It is expected that Rio will soon begin resorting to the familiar tactics of flagging loftier issues to New Delhi, in particular that of a permanent solution to the “Indo-Naga Problem,” in order to divert attention from the abysmal state of political affairs at home. While everybody wants a solution to the Naga issue, it is also everybody’s knowledge that a rushed accord can have big repercussions in Nagaland as well as in the neighbouring North East states. The danger is that politicians, when domestically under pressure, often save their skins by invoking visions of these bigger dangers and challenges before the larger community.
In summary, it would be preposterous to treat the results in the recent assembly elections in the three North Eastern states—Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura—as a barometer for the Lok Sabha elections 2019 in these states. In Nagaland (one seat) and Meghalaya (two seats), the BJP can only hope to be an ally of the winners. Even in Tripura (two seats) where the BJP won resoundingly, the answer is far from decided as the narrow margin in the votes shares indicates. The BJP and the CPI(M) are almost tied at 43% and 42.7%. The 2019 result will therefore depend on how secure the uneasy partnership between the BJP and the Indigenous People’s Front Tripura remains.
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