Lok Sabha election results in Northeast: BJP emerges at the top, despite Citizenship Bill controversyhttps://indianexpress.com/elections/lok-sabha-election-2019-results-5738686/

Lok Sabha election results in Northeast: BJP emerges at the top, despite Citizenship Bill controversy

With the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the issues of identity and migration have assumed assumed overarching importance this election in the Northeast.

The exit polls on Sunday indicated a windfall for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies will emerge with majority seats in Assam.

Despite the controversy and protests around the Citizenship Amendment Bill, trends from the Northeast indicate a clear BJP lead.

The Northeast went to polls in three phases this Lok Sabha election (April 11, 18 and 23). Simultaneous Assembly polls were held for Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim on April 11. Of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the Northeast, Assam, the biggest state, accounts for 14.

According to the election data provided by C-voter, BJP candidate Pradhan Baruah has been declared a winner from Assam’s Lakhimpur seat.  

The Northeast — particularly Assam — has been on edge ever since BJP decided to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 and grant citizenship to non-Muslim minority communities who fled religious persecution from three neighbouring countries.

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Apart from being criticised for its obvious religious discrimination, the Bill is also perceived to be contradictory to the ongoing updation of the NRC, which seeks to make a list of bonafide Indian citizens in Assam by identifying those who entered the country “illegally.”

In his election campaigns, party chief Amit Shah has been vocal about implementing NRC in other Indian states to remove illegal migrants from Bangladesh, referring to them as “termites”. However, according to the BJP, this does not apply to members of the Hindu community whom the party’s proposed Bill seeks to protect.

The Bill —  which saw widespread protests in Assam and through the Northeast — has become the main poll plank of the other parties. Earlier in February, Congress president Rahul Gandhi set a target of winning at least 20 out of 25 seats across the Northeast. He listed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, NRC and job crisis as three primary issues that the party would focus on when it comes to power. However, reports from the ground suggest that the anti-Bill sentiment did not necessarily shape electoral choices.

The exit polls on Sunday, too, indicated a windfall for the BJP and its allies in the Northeast.

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All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) members raise slogans during a protest against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in Guwahati, Friday. (PTI photo)

The Rise of the BJP In the Northeast

With the Mizo National Front (MNF) emerging victorious in the Mizoram Assembly elections in November 2018, the Northeast, once a Congress bastion, is now completely “Congress-mukt”. The declining trend started in 2014 when the Congress lost election after election in the region.

In 2016, when BJP formed a government in Assam for the first time, the party also formed the Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) — a front for all non-Congress political parties of the Northeast — to strengthen its hold over the region.

The Assam defeat set the mood for the following state elections in Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya in early 2018. In all these states, the BJP was able to form their own government or in coalition to edge out the Congress.

The developments in the past one year, especially with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was likely to hurt BJP’s prospects in the region. However, it is apparent that the Congress did not use this to their advantage, as support for BJP, especially in Assam remains strong.

On the other hand, the National People’s Party (NPP), a party which heads the coalition government in Meghalaya, has emerged as a strong regional player following its adamant anti-Citizenship Bill stance. In Meghalaya, where it is coalition with the BJP, the NEDA partner has decided to contest independently, and even against BJP in what the politicians have termed a “friendly fight.”

A look at each state

Assam

Assam — which sends 14 MPs to the Lower House (the maximum among the 8 states of the Northeast) — witnessed a tumultuous year where the issue of identity and citizenship assumed overarching importance with the publication of the final draft of the NRC, a list of bonafide Indian citizens and BJP’s proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that aims to give citizenship to non-Muslim religious minority communities from three countries. 

The latter led to widespread protests in Assam, and across the Northeast. However, reports from the ground suggest that the anti-Bill sentiment did not necessarily shape electoral choices, even in constituencies in Upper Assam, where opposition was the strongest. In these constituencies BJP’s development pitch and welfare schemes seems to have held wider currency.

The exit polls on Sunday, too, had optimistic predictions for the BJP+AGP+BPF alliance, with many predicitions giving them a bump-up from 2014, with 9-10 seats. The important constituencies are Silchar, Dhubri, Barpeta, Kaliabor and Guwahati.

What makes Silchar — home to a majority of Hindu Bengalis in Assam — interesting is the polarising politics of BJP’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The Bill, which faced massive opposition in the rest of Assam, received widespread support here and boosted support for the BJP, especially amongst the Hindu migrants. Fighting to win Silchar against BJP’s Rajdeep Roy, is MP Sushmita Dev of the Congress, the daughter of seven-time parliamentarian Santosh Mohan Dev and president All India Mahila Congress. In the riverine areas of the Dhubri constituency — dominated by Bengali Muslims — AIDUF’s Badaruddint Ajmal is hoping to secure a third term. Kaliabor, a Congress bastion, is pegged to be a direct contest between Congress’s Gaurav Gogoi and Mani Madhav Mahanta, who has been fielded by AGP, BJP’s ally. The Guwahati seat, apart from being a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress, is also a constituency where both candidates are women: BJP’s Queen Ojha and Congress’s Bobbeeta Sharma.

Arunachal Pradesh

In the run-up to voting, the state has seen violent protests against the granting of Permanent Resident Certificates (PRC) to non-tribal communities as well as opposition to the BJP’s Citizenship Bill. But this might not necessarily affect voting.

With two seats in Lok Sabha, one is held by the BJP while the other by the Congress. Candidates in fray from Arunachal East are Tapir Gao (BJP) and Lowangcha Wanglat (Congress); while from Arunachal West are BJP’s Kiren Rijiju and Congress’s Nabam Tuki. The latter is an interesting contest as Tuki is Congress stalwart and former CM of the state. 

Tripura

The main issues for Tripura revolved around reviving Brand Narendra Modi and nationalism for BJP while Congress focused on Citizenship Amendment Bill, unemployment and NYAY. CPI (M), on the other hand, was seen to have mostly reduced to simply reacting against BJP over communalism and attacks on democracy.

Twenty-four candidates wait fought it out in the two Lok Sabha seats of the state – West Tripura and East Tripura constituency.

The West Tripura Lok Sabha constituency saw sitting MP Shankar Prasad Dutta battle against BJP candidate Pratima Bhowmik, Congress’s Subal Bhowmik, Brishaketu Debbarma of Tripura’s ruling ally Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), Maman Khan of Trinamool Congress and few independent candidates.

The East Tripura constituency, has got sitting MP Jitendra Chaudhury contesting against nine candidates this year including Tripura ‘princess’ and Congress candidate Pragya Debburman, BJP’s Rebati Tripura and others. In East Tripura seat, Congress candidate Pragya Debburman emerged as the major challenger, leaving BJP well behind, due to her royal factor and slogans against controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, which was promised by BJP in its manifesto.

Manipur

The Lok Sabha Election, 2019 for Manipur’s two parliamentary seats namely Inner and Outer constituencies went to poll in two phases.

The electorate of Manipur usually votes in favour of the party which is in power in both the state and centre owing to bitter experiences in the past with regard to financial crises in the state. In 2014, the INC registered a comfortable win in both the seats in Manipur by virtue of the power in the centre and the state. The grip of the INC, which ruled for 15 years in Manipur slackened after BJP came to power in the centre. Arguably, the voting pattern this time could falter owing to the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill.

While eight candidates were in the fray for the first phase election to the outer Manipur parliamentary constituency, it apparently was a triangular fight between the BJP, INC and Naga People’s Front (NPF).

The Citizenship Bill could prove to be a leverage for the NPF, which was also the runner-up of the last Lok Sabha election in outer constituency. Similar equation was also at play in the inner constituency between the INC, BJP and CPI.

Meghalaya

With two seats in the Lok Sabha, Tura and Shillong (both reserved for STs), the INC and the National People’s Party in 2014 had won each seat.

While Vincent H Pala of Congress and Sanbor Shullai of BJP are set to contest in Shillong (ST), the Tura seat is the one to watch out for. It is significant because former CM Mukul Sangma of the Congress is taking on NPP’s Agatha Sangma, sister of Conrad Sangma, the current CM of Meghalaya. The BJP, despite being in coalition with NPP, has also fielded its own candidate, Rikman Garrey Momin.

Mizoram

While the INC’s 83-year-old  C L Ruala has won two successive Lok Sabha terms, the fight this time is between independent candidate Lalnghinglova Hmar (backed by the Zoram Peoples’ Movement and the INC) and the ruling Mizo National Front’s  C. Lalrosanga, a former Doordarshan Kendra director general.

Nagaland

The polls in Nagaland happened in the context of the unresolved Naga peace talks. The Naga People’s Front (NPF) had won the one seat in Lok Sabha in 2014. This time it is not fielding its own candidate but supporting the Congress’s  K L Chishi. CM Nephiu Rio’s Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, which is in alliance with the BJP, has fieleded Hayithung Tungoe.

Sikkim

With a single seat in Lok Sabha, the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front had won the seat in 2014. Of the 32 constituencies, the party had bagged 22 seats in the 2014 Assembly elections, while the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha had taken the remaining 10. Pawan Kumar Chamling of the Sikkim Democratic Front is the current chief minister.

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This election, four candidates are in the fray: Dek Bahadur Katwal of SDF, Independent candidate Indra Hang Subba, Laten Tshering Sherpa of BJP and Bharat Basnett of Congress.