All eyes on Northeast
Tripura, Meghalaya, and Nagaland brace for high-stakes polls.
The election scenario in three Northeastern states – Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya – is extremely complex and the poll equations have been changing fast. Tripura is the first to have Assembly election on February 18, followed by Nagaland and Meghalaya on February 27. Incumbents in the three states are expecting major challenges from BJP which is making aggressive campaign in Tripura, as well as Christian, dominated tribal states of Nagaland and Meghalaya.
BJP has managed to make inroads into Tripura by taking advantage of the Congress' depleting base, besides forging alliance with a prominent tribal group. The party has, however, to play second fiddle to influential regional parties in Christian states of Nagaland and Meghalaya. In Tripura, the incumbent Left Front government led by four-term Chief Minister Manik Sarkar hasn't faced a challenge of this magnitude in years. A resurgent BJP is not only matching CPM's slogan for slogan, its big development pitch is gaining ground among Tripura's young voters. Added to this, two decades of anti-incumbency pressures and the appeal of heavyweight BJP campaigners like Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be making Left Front a little nervous.
Tripura is the last remaining bastion of the Left–it has been politically cut down to size in Bengal; while in Kerala, there is alternating trend between Marxists and the Congress. Having tasted success in Manipur with its promise of Central aid, BJP is hoping for a repeat performance in underdeveloped Tripura. The latter has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and suffers from poor infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Left is banking on Sarkar's clean image to counter the saffron's surge. Sarkar has astutely managed relations between Tripura's tribals and Bengali speaking population, leading to the containment of insurgency in the state. This allowed Tripura to lift the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 2015. Thus, if BJP's message in Tripura is development, the Left's message is peace.
This time, BJP is contesting 51 out of the total 60 seats leaving nine ST seats to its ally IPFT (Indigenous People's Front of Tripura). The CPI-M is contesting 57 seats and its allies – CPI, RSP, and Forward Bloc – are contesting in one seat each.
The Congress, the principal opposition in the state before the BJP push, has fielded Pradyot Kishore Manikya, the Maharaja of Tripura as the most likely chief ministerial candidate; he is the working president of Tripura Congress. Because of the Maharaja's popularity, some of the tribal votes may accrue to the party. Also, 1,000 Tripura Congress workers returned to the party after defecting to Trinamool in 2016. To sum up the situation, ruling CPI(M) is unsure, BJP is exuberant, while the Congress is looking to quietly exploit opportunities in Tripura.
Campaigning has only just begun in Nagaland and polling day – February 27 – is still ten days away. And yet, Nagaland already has its first legislator. On Monday last, former Chief Minister and leader of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), Neiphiu Rio was declared "elected unopposed" from the Northern Angami II constituency. The Election Commission declared the 'result' after the only other candidate, Chupfuo Angami from the Naga People's Front (NPF), withdrew his nomination.
BJP has snapped its 15-year-old alliance with the ruling Naga People's Front (NPF) to forge poll alliance with newly formed National Democratic People's Party (NDPP) led by former Chief Minister and Lok Sabha member Neiphiu Rio who quit NPF just before forming NDPP. BJP will contest in 20 Assembly seats while NDPP in the rest of 40 seats. Rio is the Chief Ministerial face of the BJP-NDPP alliance, while NPF is contesting alone with incumbent CM, T R Zeliang as its CM candidate.
Meghalaya is one of the two states where Congress is in power in the Northeast. Faced with a strong anti-incumbency factor, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma hopes for a possible division of votes among Opposition parties to be able to hold onto power. He has been ruling the state for the second consecutive term.
Though BJP and NPP (National Peoples Party) are allies in Manipur and in the NDA in Delhi, the two have not forged a formal alliance in Meghalaya apprehending rejection of NPP
by Christian voters in the event of ties with BJP. BJP is ready to play a junior role to the NPP in the post-poll scenario that may be marred by a fractured mandate, a trend in the state since 1972.
(Views expressed are strictly personal)