NE poll bugle
The Election Commission of India on Thursday announced the dates for Assembly elections in Tripura, Meghalaya, and Nagaland. Tripura will go to polls one month from now on February 18 and Meghalaya and Nagaland on February 27. The Meghalaya Assembly has 60 seats with the Congress in power with 29 seats, whereas the Nagaland and Tripura Assemblies have 59 and 60 seats respectively. The BJP is an ally of the National People's Front (NPF) government in Nagaland, whereas the Left Front is in power in Tripura, with Manik Sarkar as the Chief Minister since 1998. The year 2018 will witness Assembly elections in eight states – Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Karnataka, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The three Northeastern states going to polls in February hold critical significance as these states are not known to be a bastion of any political party or ideology. Geographically distanced from the national capital and the mainland, these states have mostly been ruled by regional parties and the Congress. But the trend has been shifting in favour of the BJP, which won the Assam Assembly elections in 2016 and formed the government in Manipur in 2017, despite trailing behind the Congress in the final seat tally. The BJP's poll strategists and party workers are on the ground since long and are trying to create a favourable atmosphere for the party in the poll-bound Northeastern states.
Traditionally, the right-wing organisations fretted about the presence of a large number of Christian missionaries in the Northeastern states. The missionaries have opened schools and healthcare centres and remain engaged with local people at the grassroots level, leading to a conversion of religion in the poor hamlets of the region. At least, this is how the right-wing organisations look at the sociopolitical canvas of the region. The Northeastern states share borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and most importantly China. A sizeable number of people in these states are immigrants and refugees from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. A large number of these immigrants and illegal refugees have made it to the voters' list and found support from some or the other political fronts, diluting the electoral muscle of the natives and the locals. This has been an important political issue in the Northeastern states and the right-wing organisations have always been complaining about it. As the BJP has made an impressive inroad into the region by forming the government in the two important states of Assam and Manipur, it has a reason to hope that its base will expand and influence the electoral outcome in its favour in the states going to polls in February.
Apart from immigrants and missionary works, the politics in these states is dominated by ethnic identities, militant outfits and development aspirations. A land of beautiful mountainous topography, verdant greenery and ethnic tribes with their distinct culture and captivating traditions, the Northeastern states lack infrastructure such as roads, schools, colleges and healthcare centres. In general, there are fewer job opportunities and the overall environment is just not right for business; law and order issues and disturbances from militant outfits are two major concerns. These hurdles have held back some of these states from achieving a higher economic growth. But the same cannot be said about the Tripura government, where an old comrade with an extremely clean image is in power for the past twenty years. Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has an image of being an indefatigable fighter with a frugal lifestyle matching that of Mahatma Gandhi. BJP has deployed its sharpest brains and best poll strategists in the state in a bid to wrest power from him. And, that precisely makes the battle for the Agartala Assembly the most keenly watched political event of the year 2018.
But the BJP may have an edge in other states, where the voters may take a cue from Assam and Manipur and vote for the party in the hope that it will help the state and the people if the same party rules both at the Centre and the state. The presence of a large number of right-wing organisations and their cadres in the Northeastern states must be propagating this line of thinking. After helping form the government at the Centre and a majority of the states in the country including Jammu & Kashmir, the saffron brigade must be vying to bring the entire North-East under its fold. But, after a spirited fight and better-than-expected results in the Gujarat Assembly elections, the Congress is likely to pose a serious challenge to the BJP aspirations in the Northeastern states. Never underestimate Congress president Rahul Gandhi's ability to stitch alliances and tilt the balance.