NE Assembly Elections and Portents; Three shades of a BJP surge
(First published in Indian Express)
Much has been written and talked about after the assembly elections in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the results for which were declared on March 3. In much of these analyses, the picture portrayed has been that of a grand sweep of the region by the BJP. It is said that this is an augury of things to come in the Lok Sabha elections next year. The real picture is somewhat different. Though the BJP undoubtedly put up a great performance, it would be wrong to see the election results in all the three states as driven by the same political dynamic. Indeed, it may only be in Tripura where the BJP has grown roots. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, although the BJP’s gains are substantial, the party could do little more than piggyback to success on stronger regional contenders.
Very briefly, in Tripura, ideological penetration resulted in victory for the BJP; therefore the party may have built itself a stable base in the state. In Nagaland and Meghalaya, both overwhelmingly Christian, this is hardly so. In these states, the electoral strategy of alliance formation — made easy by the BJP’s clout as the party in power at the Centre — influenced the election outcomes.
Nowhere was this strategy pursued with more ingenuity than in Nagaland. In the last assembly, the BJP with four MLAs — three of whom were in the party because the Nationalist Congress Party merged with it — was an ally of the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF). But towards the end of the assembly’s term — when the NPF was thrown into an existential crisis by revolts within, and one of its leaders, former chief minister, Neiphiu Rio, decided to leave and form a new party, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) — the BJP made a very calculated move. Without disowning the NPF, led now by former chief minister, T R Zeliang and stalwart Shurhozelie Liezietsu, the party formed a pre-poll alliance with the NDPP. The power balance being what it was — and with the prospects of a hung assembly — the NPF could not afford to protest.
The results are known now. It is a precariously hung verdict, with the NPF emerging as the single largest party with 27 seats in a house of 60. The NDPP returned 16 plus Rio’s seat, which he won uncontested. The BJP has a creditable 12 seats. The remaining four seats were shared by the National People’s Party (two), JDU (one) and an independent. The BJP is in a very happy position. It can go along with its pre-poll ally, the NDPP. Together, the two account for 29 MLAs and the alliance can rope in two more members from the smaller parties. Or, the BJP can return to its long-time partner, the NPF, and be a partner in a coalition of 39 legislators.
In Meghalaya too, the verdict is hung, but a much more fractured one. In the 60-member house, the ruling Congress is the single largest party with 21 seats and close on its heels is the National People’s Party (NPP) with 19. The latter is in a loose partnership with the BJP as both are part of the Northeast Democratic Alliance, the brainchild of the BJP’s mastermind in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma. But the BJP has won only two seats, a marginal improvement from having one MLA in the last assembly. So even if its alliance with the NPP holds, the combined strength of the two would be 10 short of the majority. Under the circumstance, the 11 seats shared by the smaller parties and independents will be crucial. Plenty of bargaining seems to be in store in the next few days. With its clout as the ruling party in Delhi, the BJP is being seen as the one with more tricks up its sleeves. As in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur earlier, the role of the governor would be crucial.
In Tripura, the shift in voters’ loyalty is probably more fundamental. The CPM-led Left Front was undone by both anti-incumbency as well as its inability to turn around a stagnant economy. The old Communist order believed that living within modest means was enough, but the younger generation — literate, but stuck in a job-scarce state — aspires for much more. This dilemma was so painfully visible in the case of Dipa Karmakar, the young gymnast who charmed the country in the 2016 Rio Olympics with her Produnova Vault performances. She returned a BMW presented to her by Sachin Tendulkar, saying she liked the car but preferred cash as there was no road in Tripura to drive the automobile.
But deeper than this picture of economic stagnation, there are other reasons to qualify the changes as tectonic. These changes are informed by the state’s peculiar geography, history and demography. Tripura is surrounded by Bangladesh. Yet, the pulls and pushes of economic migration, unlike in Assam and other Northeastern states, have brought little or no influx of Muslim peasantry into the state. The state’s experience of the Partition trauma meant that there was always an innate resistance to Muslims settlers amongst the earlier Hindus migrants, though linguistically both are Bengalis. This subterranean passion was what the Left Front managed to harness all along. And this was what the BJP, with its own brand of nationalistic identity, also tapped into.
There are more complications. Bengali migrants have now marginalised the indigenous people of the state to about 28 per cent of the population. Friction between the two has always formed a constant backdrop of the state’s political profile. The CPM tried to harness this contradiction. It tried to win over the tribal population to the party’s prescription of Marxist moderation. Tribal Marxist leaders like former chief minister Dasarath Deb were part of this endeavour. Proponents of ultra-tribal nationalism, including the violent insurgents, therefore always opposed the Communists who, they felt, were eating into their base.
The days of insurgency are now over, at least for now. But the feeling of alienation amongst the indigenous communities persists. The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which represents this sentiment and champions the formation of a separate Twipraland state, won eight seats. The party is a partner of the BJP. The two won 16 of the 20 reserved seats for tribals, once a virtual monopoly of the CPM. It remains to be seen how the BJP manages reconciliation, for no Tripura Bengali, regardless of party affiliation, will agree to a bifurcation of the state.
However, what will work in the BJP’s favour is that the party is in a commanding position in Tripura with 35 seats; its ally, the IPFT, has eight seats.
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