BJP starts campaign to capture North-East

Politically year 2018 is going to determine the outcome of the next general elections scheduled for 2019. Beginning with assembly elections in three states of northeast namely Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, 2018 shall end with five more contests in Karnataka, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

It is worth a while to have a close look at Tripura. Meghalaya and Nagaland where the BJP is making a determined effort to fulfill its poll promise of a Congress-mukt Bharat or Congress-free India. After its spectacular success in Assam in 2016 and forming a government despite not being the single largest party in Manipur in 2017, the BJP is leaving nothing to chance to register victories in three northeastern states where assembly elections are likely to be conducted in February.

The BJP, in fact, has launched its poll campaign for the region very early. Party president Amit Shah had given responsibility for turning northeast friendly for the saffron party to Himanta Biswa Sarma who had defected from the Congress to the BJP in 2015 by appointing him as convener of Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA. Highly ambitious and politically dexterous, Sarma has been aggressively strategizing to bring the political dividends to his new party.

While the RSS has been doing the ground work among the tribal population particularly with the objective of stopping Christian missionary activities in the northeast for decade, the BJP began spreading its influence since 1998 when the first BJP led NDA government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee came to power at the center.

While in Meghalaya and Nagaland it may be relatively easier for the BJP to form governments not on its own strength along but in coalition with smaller regional parties, Tripura is not going to be a cakewalk for the saffron party to oust a 24 years old CPM led left Front government four time Chief Minister Manik Sarkar.

Notwithstanding the BJP’s national leadership to make inroads into the three poll going states and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s early poll campaign in Meghalaya when he inaugurated a road project and committed an investment of Rs 90,000 crores on December 16, road to victory is not without hurdles.

Tripura, where voter turnout was 93.57 percent in 2013 and women voters outnumber their men counterpart by a margin of 2.13 percent, the BJP is facing an uphill task. If the BJP wants to defeat the CPM government that has been in power since 1993 then it needs to win over tribal electorate that constitutes 31.76 percent of the state population according to 2011 census.

There are 19 tribes in the southernmost state of northeast. Twenty of 60 assembly seats are reserved for tribal while 30 are for the general category and 10 are reserved for scheduled caste candidates.

The BJP is caught in a serious dilemma because a section of tribal population want a separate state called Twipraland and if it aligns with some regional parties accepting their demand of a separate state then it may reap rich political dividends but the same may backfire in Assam where demand for separate Bodoland has been going on for years. The BJP local leadership has been telling these parties like the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) and Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) that they should desist from their demand as the whole state belongs to them but it is not cutting much ice.

In the 2013 assembly elections, the Left Front had won 50 seats while the rival Congress had won 10 seats, The BJP had managed to secure only 1.54 percent votes. It had contested 50 of the 60 seats, won none and forfeited security deposits in 49.  However, with power at the Centre, it is attracting MLAs and leaders from the Congress and other parties. The BJP made a major breakthrough in September when it admitted six Trinamool Congress MLAs into the party.

Manik Sarkar has already started admitting that the CPM has a direct battle with the BJP. There is an interesting battle in Tripura in coming months. Meghalaya is the best bet for the BJP. Congress government of Chief Minister Mukul Sangma is facing 10 years long anti-incumbency. The BJP has been trying to make inroads for a while but its first success came on 29 December when eight MLAs including five from the ruling Congress resigned from the Assembly to join the National People’s Party (NPP), an NDA constituent. Earlier another Congress MLA had resigned from the Congress on 15 December.

The BJP is not directly entering into the fray fearing that Christian population may not accept it and that is why it is doing backdoor maneuvering through the NPP and other outfits. The NCP, too, has political clout and base in the state as it had won 12 seats in 2013 elections. The NDA stands a fair chance of wresting power from the Congress. It remains to be seen whether the Congress manages to salvage its reputation or it sinks there.

In Nagaland, political situation is interesting. The Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, a state level coalition of political parties formed in 2003, has been in power. The BJP is part of the coalition along with Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) and Janata Dal (U). The NCP and 8 independents are giving outside support to the government of Chief Minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu who replaced T R Zeilang in February 2017. The Congress has only eight MLAs in the 60-member assembly.

While the BJP may not form a government in any of these states and may only be a small player in any coalition arrangement but its guns are trained at 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The North-East states collectively account for only 25 parliamentary seats and that is what it is aiming at.

It would be of immense interest whether the Congress that seems to have gained some traction after its relatively good performance in Gujarat in December is able to remain a player or is wiped out of the northeast political map.

(Shobha Misra)