So long the ‘gateway to the Northeast’, and often called ‘India’s Gateway to Southeast Asia’ and vice-versa, the Assam capital has in the past one year become more the BJP’s gateway to the region. It was a year ago that the first BJP-led government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal assumed office in Assam; two more states soon came into the BJP fold (Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur) with the saffron party now eyeing Meghalaya and Tripura which are heading into assembly elections early next year.
For the BJP, winning the Assam election was not easy, especially when the Congress had already performed a hat-trick by winning three elections in a row since 2001. However, top Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma joining the BJP and the party tying up with Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Bodo Peoples Front (BPF) and other regional/local outfits put the election in the BJP’s favour, so much so that the Congress strength was reduced to 26 from an all-time high of 79 in a house of 126.
This thumping victory prompted BJP President Amit Shah to constitute North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), an umbrella body intended to expand the party’s reach in the region. With Himanta Biswa Sarma appointed its convenor, it took only seven months to convert the Congress government of Pema Khandu in Arunachal Pradesh totally saffron. Less than a year later, in March 2017, it was Manipur’s turn to have a BJP-led government, thus putting as many as four out of seven north-eastern states in the party’s basket (Nagaland has been ruled by the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, a local alliance led by Naga People’s Front with BJP as a partner since 2003).
With Meghalaya and Tripura along with Nagaland holding assembly elections in early 2018, NEDA convenor Sarma is confident that the BJP can give the ruling Left Front in Tripura a run for its money in the elections. In Meghalaya, the BJP already has an ally in the late P A Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) since 2013, and ousting the Congress seems entirely possible.
In Assam, however Sonowal’s BJP-led government has been unable to push most of its election promises through in the past one year. While it had promised creation of 25 lakh jobs and the setting up 100 BPOs in five years, in reality only about one lakh jobs have been created so far, of which 40,000 were in industries that have come up with an investment of Rs 6,000 crore in 12 months.
The state government’s most significant step so far has been to adopt a zero-tolerance stand against corruption that has already led to arrest of over 55 officers including the APSC chairman. Removing encroachers from government land, including those belonging to some vaishnavite satras and forests has also made some headway.
The alliance had come to power with the promise of protecting “jati, maati and bheti” (identity, land and homes – the latter from floods and river-bank erosion) but has not moved forward much on them. Instead the Centre’s move to grant citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh has not only caused widespread resentment with the indigenous communities struggling to protect themselves from being outnumbered, it has also irked the AGP, its most important ally. While updation of the National Register of Citizens – intended at segregating Bangladeshi migrants – is yet to be completed –only 33 migrants were actually deported from Assam in Sonowal’s one year in office.
Tasks at hand: While keeping the election promises in Assam (and also in Manipur) will continue to remain a major challenge, the BJP governments – both in the states and at the Centre – have to focus more on speeding up infrastructure projects, improving connectivity and of course curbing corruption.
Pilferage and misappropriation of funds is a common malaise across the region. On Tuesday, the NIA Special Court in Assam convicted 15 persons that comprised of militants, elected members, government servants, contractors, arms smugglers, hawala operators and at least one BJP leader for siphoning off huge sums of development funds to a militant group.
Moving several hydro-electric power projects forward by assuring protection to the environment and to downstream people, is another long-pending issue. And, above all, the entire region is still looking forward to see what the Centre’s much-hyped Act East Policy – the erstwhile Look East Policy – actually has for its people, and when.