Three key states in the Northeast — Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland — head to the polling booth this month. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally at Sonamura near Agartala could be deemed the launch of the BJP’s poll campaign. What is distinctive about these elections is the emergence of the BJP as a key player in these states, threatening to replace the Congress from the pole position it has held since Independence. In Tripura, where the CPM-led Left Front has been in office continuously for over a quarter century, the BJP has become the main Opposition party by drawing in Congress leaders and supporters. In Nagaland and Meghalaya, it is negotiating alliances with regional parties.
The rise of the BJP in the Northeast is a remarkable case of political adaptation and coalition-building. Since 2014, it has been successful in forming governments in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur by tying up with regional groups and winning over Opposition leaders. In a bid to expand its footprint, the party launched the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in 2016 and exploited the vacuum caused by the decline of the Congress. The party has been careful about the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity in the region and has calibrated its agenda accordingly. It has downplayed Hindutva, hyper-nationalism, beef politics etc and concentrated on incumbency and governance issues. PM Modi has played the Centre card by offering support to resolve local grievances and stoke aspirations: On Thursday, he promised Seventh Pay Commission pay scales to government employees, a politically influential constituency in Tripura. In Nagaland, the BJP broke ties with the Naga People’s Front (NPF), its oldest ally in the Northeast, when it realised the party faced incumbency issues. It has since allied with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, an outfit formed by a splinter group from the NPF. In Tripura, the BJP has sought to exploit the discontent among the tribals by aligning with the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), which wants a separate state.
The coalitions emerging in the region are driven mainly by convenience, not ideology. These alliances could lead to cynicism and resentment among sections of the population. That’s a challenge the parties could face after elections.