Who will rule the North-East?
In an exciting poll season, the BJP is relying on anti-incumbency whereas the Congress is actively propagating peace.
The most neglected northeastern region has come into focus in the political calculations of the BJP, the Congress and the regional parties in view of the ongoing Assembly elections in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. For decades, successive governments at the Centre, often in collusion with their regional allies, had failed to develop the region. The resultant poverty, unemployment and criminal neglect of the region had become a hotbed for insurgency and violence.
Having peaked in the North, the BJP is now eyeing the North-East and the South for expansion. The region has traditionally been a Congress stronghold, as till 2016, the Congress ruled five of the eight northeastern states. Since Modi came to power, the BJP has wrested power in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Therefore, the current polls are a test for both the Congress that is struggling to survive and the BJP that is hoping to find a foothold in the region. After ousting the Congress in Assam in May 2016, the party took Arunachal Pradesh six months later, luring 43 Congress MLAs, including Chief Minister Pema Khandu. In March 2017, the BJP formed the government in Manipur even though the Congress emerged as the largest party in the polls.
In the expansion map of the BJP, which is focused around 120 seats that it has never won before; the North-East is crucial as it has 25 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP has been making systematic efforts and formed the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in 2016 for uniting the non-Congress governments in the region. This was part of the BJP's efforts to spread its wings as a pan-national party. For this, the BJP has formed an alliance with the regional parties in the region instead of fighting against them. The BJP is also bonding with those outside the traditional vote banks by wooing the Christians, tribals and ethnic groups.
Interestingly, from an average 3 per cent vote share of the BJP in the region, it went up to around 14 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. BJP chief Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have visited the poll-bound states several times. To make the North-East a 'Gateway for Southeast Asia' connecting it to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan, the Prime Minister has promised balanced development in the region, which includes a Rs 40,000 crore investment in road and power infrastructure, railway projects and small airports under the UDAN scheme.
However, the contradiction appears to be on the religious side. Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya are overwhelmingly Christian-majority states, while Assam, Manipur and Tripura have significant tribal populations. Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have a large number of Buddhists. The latest issue of The Economist magazine has pointed out that the Hindu nationalist ruling party (BJP) is trying to win over Christian regionalists. The BJP is depending on the anti-incumbency as a result of unemployment, lack of infrastructure and improper implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission. The Congress, on the other hand, is trying hard to swing back to power in Meghalaya, with slim chances of winning in Nagaland and Tripura.
Tripura, where the Left Front has been ruling since 1993, is where the BJP is hopeful of improvement. Even Chief Minister Manik Sarkar acknowledges that the BJP is the Left Front's main challenger. The party had emerged second in the three by-polls since 2015. The BJP is wooing Tripura's 32 per cent tribal population where the RSS has done good work. It has allied with the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT). The Congress is struggling against depletion of its MLAs with defections while the BJP is buoyed by defections to its fold from the Congress and TMC MLAs.
In Nagaland, the ruling Naga People's Front (NPF) has unilaterally ended its alliance with the BJP recently. The party is depending on the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), which has projected the ex-NPF chief minister Neiphiu Rio as its CM candidate. Nagaland suffers from the lack of development and political corruption. The framework agreement of a Naga accord signed between New Delhi and the Manipur-based National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) in 2015 is creating some tension.
In Meghalaya, which has 74.59 per cent Christians, the fight is between Congress chief minister Mukul Sangma and Conrad Kongkal Sangma of the National People's Party, an alliance partner of the BJP. Despite the charges of corruption, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma is confident of his victory counting on the "stability card" in a state notorious for interrupted regimes. The United Democratic Party (UDP), the largest opposition group in Meghalaya, and independent MLAs might emerge as kingmakers.
Whoever wins or loses, there is an urgent need for developing the 'Seven Sisters' who have remained withoutcare. Stability and development are the two important needs of the region. The new governments must concentrate on this.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)