The BJP got its first government in Manipur, and the third in a Northeastern state, on Wednesday when N. Biren Singh, who came to the party from the Congress six months ago, was sworn in as chief minister. The BJP had finished seven seats behind the Congress, which fell short of a majority by three MLAs, but the party, as in Goa, convinced the governor that it had the numbers. Both in Manipur and Goa, the BJP won over smaller parties that had contested on their own and independents to cobble together coalitions to make it past the halfway mark. In both states, the governors did not follow the established principle of first inviting the single largest party to form the government.
Addressing a victory rally in Imphal, Assam chief minister and BJP leader Sarbananda Sonowal said the party would now set its sights on capturing power in Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Nagaland and Sikkim are ruled by BJP allies whereas Arunachal Pradesh has a BJP government. Indeed, the rise of the BJP in the Northeastern state has been remarkable, even if the means it has adopted have often been controversial. The Congress government in Arunachal fell after a split in the party, and the BJP won over a section of the MLAs through an extraordinary process that saw the rebels first join a regional party and then break that party to merge the splinter group with the BJP.
The pace at which the BJP expanded in Manipur also owes much to former Congress leaders swelling its ranks. Ever since the BJP formed the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in May 2016 to bring together all the non-Congress parties in the region with Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congress minister from Assam, as convenor, the party has fast replaced the Congress as the dominant force in the region — NEDA is in power in five of the eight states and has 11 of the region’s 25 MPs.
The Northeast has always been a focus area of the Sangh Parivar, but the region’s complex social and political matrix rejected its outreach for many years. Smart politics that included stitching alliances with regional forces, outreach to specific communities, and readiness to accommodate rebels from other parties has now helped the BJP expand its influence in the Northeast. The challenge before the party now is to negotiate the many cross-cutting undercurrents that shape politics in the region and steer its course.