BY: Khamkhansuan Hausing
The BJP may not see a windfall in the region, but its fortunes are set to improve.
Even as five electoral constituencies in Assam and one in Tripura went to the polls on April 7, with more lined up on April 9, 12 and 24, the Northeast has caught an unusual amount of attention from the national media. This not only underscores better connectivity of the region with mainland India which makes the “live telecast” of immediate electoral campaigns and events compelling, it also shows how the region, which accounts for 25 Lok Sabha seats, has been transformed into an important electoral battleground by the compulsions of coalition politics.
Not surprisingly, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has already made three rounds of campaigning in the region between February 8 and March 30. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi of the Congress have had one extensive tour each in the region so far, during this time.
These campaigns highlighted the contrasting styles and strategies of Modi and the Gandhis in as much as they highlighted their similarities. Modi and the Gandhis have laboriously concentrated their campaigns in constituencies where their strengths are being tested, namely, Silchar and Pasighat for the BJP and Guwahati and Lakhimpur for the Congress. Unlike the above, Sikkim and Tripura did not figure prominently in their campaigns, which suggested their acceptance of the fait accompli: given that the Sikkim Democratic Front and the CPM, respectively, have an unassailable electoral hold over these two states, neither the BJP nor the Congress is likely to make inroads.
While Modi made a serious effort to project himself as an efficient and decisive leader with a pan-India appeal and showed his determination to wipe out the “corrupt” and “inefficient” Congress, the Gandhis underscored the autocratic and divisive leadership style of Modi. They also emphasised the longstanding contribution of the Congress to inclusive development, secularism and decentralisation in the region and beyond. Reportedly, Modi’s theatrical speeches in Imphal, Guwahati, Silchar and Pasighat have not only shored up enthusiasm among the conservative Hindu segments of the populations, but also boosted the morale of party workers, particularly in the three states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Taking this lead, most political analysts focus their attention on the possible impact these high-profile campaigns might have on the Northeast’s electoral politics in general and on immediate electoral outcomes in particular. While the query is a valid one, it is equally important to underline the diversity of issues and conditions prevailing in the Northeast electoral scene that might obscure the tangible effect(s) these campaigns have on immediate electoral outcomes.
At the outset, it must be noted that these campaign tours came after major electoral battlelines have already been drawn up in the Northeast. The North East Regional Political Front (NERPF), led by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Naga People’s Front (NPF), was formed in October 2013 by 10 like-minded regional parties to “protect the distinctive identities of the ethnic tribes and all the people of the region.” Like the North East People’s Forum formed by P.A. Sangma in 2003, the NERPF aligns itself with the BJP and is jointly fighting against the Congress in the region.
Again like the NEPF, the NERPF underscores an incongruous coalition politics as some of the constituent members, like the BJP and NPF on the one hand, and the BJP and AGP on the other hand, are respectively competing against each other in outer Manipur’s constituency and in Assam. Giving primacy to winnability, the BJP is content to play second fiddle in Nagaland and especially in Mizoram, where it has set up a coalition of eight single-state parties under the banner of United Democratic Front principally led by the Mizo National Front to oust the incumbent Congress MP. If opinion pollsters are to be believed, the BJP is likely to improve its current tally of four to five seats in Assam by cutting into the AGP’s support base and also win a seat in Arunachal.
It might be recalled that the AGP in its heydays played a critical role in the formation and sustenance of the ninth Lok Sabha under the V.P. Singh-led National Front (NF) government in 1989-90, and the 11th Lok Sabha both during the H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral led-United Front (UF) government in 1996-97. The consolidation of the Congress in Assam under Tarun Gogoi towards the end of the 1990s has electorally emasculated the role of the AGP not only in the state but also at the national level. Yet, no sensible coalition-makers like the BJP and the Congress, which are alive to coalition realpolitik, can afford to ignore the significant role that single-state parties continue to have in the era of coalition politics.
In undertaking extensive electoral campaigns in the Northeast, Modi and the BJP know for sure that they are fighting against heavy odds. Given that the Congress has a longstanding hold on the state legislative assemblies of five of the eight Northeast states, namely, Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram, and also given that out of the 21 seats in these states on offer, the Congress held 16 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha, the BJP does not have much electoral space to manoeuvre.
The emphatic way in which Modi reassured Nido Taniam’s family and the people of the Northeast that he and his party would eliminate discrimination against them if voted to power, which is also incidentally incorporated into the recently released Congress manifesto, has won some hearts. Despite the inconvenient Hindutva baggage Modi carries, he and his party are seen to be more decisive in settling the stalemated Indo-Naga conflicts. Coincidentally, Neiphiu Rio, the Nagaland chief minister who adopted an “equidistance policy” against the armed groups in Nagaland and who facilitated the extension of the Indo-Naga ceasefire agreement since 2001 is one of the leading candidates. He is reported to have been promised a cabinet berth by the BJP if voted to power.
Many single-state parties in the Northeast have had more comfortable relationships with non-Congress governments, whether the NF, UF or NDA. Indeed, the most extensive development grants and the crucial formation of MDONER (Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region), run by the non-lapsable pool of resources which is drawn from 10 per cent of unspent budgetary allocation of all Central ministries, happened during NDA rule. Although the promised infrastructural developments have never taken off in right earnest in the region, their symbolic significance cannot be dismissed altogether.
Even as the BJP is likely to reopen its account in Arunachal after a decade and improve its tally in Assam, some pollsters have also predicted a surprise win of its Front in Mizoram. The eight odd seats projected to be won by the BJP in the Northeast may not come as a big windfall, yet they would certainly be too significant to ignore either in the making or unmaking of a coalition government at the Centre.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad