In the recent political history of the Northeast, the year 2016 is considered a milestone when the BJP, after forming its first ever government in Assam, launched an aggressive foray to expand its footprint across the region.
Over the last six years, the party has grown at the expense of the Congress, which now finds itself relegated to the margins in most states, having dominated the region in the decades post-Independence.
Yet, as Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Mizoram head to the polls in 2023, the BJP is facing strong headwinds, with its regional partners either showing signs of assertion or losing ground to other local parties.
Contrary to perception, notwithstanding the BJP’s impressive gains in recent years, the political map of the region has not turned fully saffron, with parties that have roots in the region still in the driver’s seat, particularly in the Scheduled Tribe-majority states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.
In Meghalaya, where STs comprise 86% of the total population, the two MLAs of the BJP are constituents of the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA), led by the National People’s Party (NPP). Meghalaya Chief Minister and NPP chief Conrad Sangma recently announced that the party will not have a pre-poll alliance with the BJP for elections to the 60-member state Assembly early next year.
The ties between the two parties have nosedived since the Meghalaya Police arrested BJP state vice-president Bernard Marak on charges of running a brothel. Subsequently, state BJP in-charge Chuba Ao said the party was considering pulling out of the MDA over charges of corruption.
In neighbouring Manipur, where the BJP is on a firm footing, the ties between the party and NPP have been similarly rocky. In the run-up to the Assembly elections held this March, the NPP had alleged intimidation of its candidates by the BJP. But later its seven MLAs pledged support to the BJP-led government, with the BJP having returned to power with 32 out of 60 Assembly seats.
Incidentally, the NPP remains a part of the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) as well as its Northeast variant — NEDA (Northeast Democratic Alliance) — launched in 2016 after the BJP’s victory in Assam, with the stated objective of uniting non-Congress parties of the region.
In Mizoram, the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) is a part of the NDA and NEDA, but with some discomfort.
The BJP won one seat in the 40-member Assembly here in the 2018 polls, days after its then state chief John V Hluna, in an interview to Reuters, identified “Hindutva” as the biggest liability of the party in the state. While the MNF remained in the NDA fold, CM Zoramthanga’s statements questioning the BJP’s ideology have widened the rift between the two parties so much that in February, the local BJP unit demanded President’s rule in the state, alleging lawlessness.
In Nagaland, the BJP, with 12 seats, enjoys more favourable ties with the ruling NDPP (National Democratic Progressive Party), which has 26 MLAs and is a part of the NDA and NEDA. The two had struck a pre-poll alliance in 2018, and have announced that they will replicate the same in the forthcoming elections. The BJP will contest 20 seats and the NDPP 40.
However, here too, things are churning. The NDPP has been growing increasingly queasy over the fallout of its ties with the BJP in a state that is Christian-majority, like Mizoram and Meghalaya.
The problems in this were apparent last month, when the influential AO Baptist Church in Kohima is believed to have declined a request from the BJP for a visit by its national president J P Nadda. This became public when a draft itinerary of Nadda got leaked in which the church was mentioned. Left red-faced, the BJP tried to salvage the issue with a long statement, conveying its “deepest regret” to the church, implying that it was Nadda who had not been able to visit it.
While the two MLAs of the NPP in Nagaland joined the NDPP back in 2019, the Nagaland Assembly, meanwhile, turned “Opposition-less” in June, after legislators of the main opposition Naga People’s Front (NPF) too joining the government. The official reason was the need for an early settlement to the Naga political problem.
In Tripura, where the BJP is running its first government in the state after dislodging the mighty Left, the party is on a sticky wicket in the hill areas due to the rise of the TIPRA Motha party led by royal scion Pradyot Kishore Debbarman.
The fledgling outfit has cornered the BJP’s tribal ally IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura), which had bagged eight out of the nine ST seats it contested in 2018. Of the remaining 10 ST-reserved seats in the 60-member Assembly, the BJP had won eight and the CPI(M) two in the 2018 elections. But two tribal MLAs, one each of the BJP and IPFT, have now switched to the TIPRA Motha.
While the BJP might still hold on to its Bengali votes, as elections loom on the horizon, there are signs of trouble on the indigenous communities front. In August, a rally by Nadda in Khumulwng, the headquarters of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council governed by the TIPRA Motha, saw a very poor turnout, which was seen as a clear indication of the shifting sands of Tripura’s hill politics. The BJP, which was forced to concede that the turnout was below its expectations, attributed it to attacks on its supporters by TIPRA Motha workers and hot weather.