Many political commentators attribute the Congress’s current predicament to the fact that the party’s centralised command structure has not left it with any strong regional leader. But the election results of Manipur should make us ponder whether that explanation is adequate to explain the Congress party’s decline and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise as the pole around which politics in the country revolves today.
Although the BJP is not the single largest party in the current assembly, it has witnessed a phenomenal increase in vote-share, and has formed the government in the state. In the 2012 Manipur assembly elections, BJP had just 2.1% of the popular vote. The Congress party, led by the formidable Ibobi Singh running for his third term as chief minister, commanded 42% of the popular vote. Five years later, BJP’s vote has increased to more than 36%, taking it beyond the Congress’s figure of 35.1%.
After Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur becomes the third state with a BJP government after Prime Minister Narendra Modi scripted a landslide victory in 2014.
Has the BJP established itself as the dominant political force in the North-East?
Historically, North-Eastern states have been known to be inclined towards the party running the Central government, partly because of the heavy dependence of the region on grants and funds from the Centre’s kitty. However, it is also a fact that the support for the BJP after Narendra Modi’s 2014 victory is much greater than what the BJP had when it first enjoyed a full-term at the Centre between 1999 and 2014.
The vote share of the BJP in the last three assembly elections held in Arunachal Pradesh (2014), Assam (2016) and Manipur (2017) have been robust: at 31.3%, 29.8% and 36.3%, respectively, which is much more than the highest vote share it could manage when the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was in power from 1999 to 2004. The numbers were 19.2% in Arunachal Pradesh (2004), 9.3% in Assam (2001) and 11.3% in Manipur (2000).
What explains this exceptional success for the BJP in a region which was considered to be a Congress bastion? It seems to be a mix of BJP’s increasing popularity and its ability to strike smart alliances. In the 2016 Assam assembly elections, the Congress had a bigger vote share than the BJP, but it got only 26 seats against BJP’s 60. BJP’s alliance partners (Assam Gana Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front) ensured that it was comfortably past the halfway mark in the assembly.
Even in states where the BJP has not been able to surpass the Congress in seat share, it has been able to cobble alliances to stake claim to power. In Manipur, the BJP has the biggest share of popular vote, but it is Congress which has emerged as the single largest party, seven seats ahead of the BJP’s 21. Even then, the BJP has been able to secure the support of non-Congress parties. It seems the BJP is a more acceptable political force in the North-East today after Narendra Modi’s massive 2014 election victory.
Nani Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University, notes that in the North-East, the BJP has transformed itself from a “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” party to one that has co-opted regional parties and their agenda. The North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), BJP’s non-Congress, non-Left umbrella grouping, has also helped the party to build a presence by providing a somewhat neutral platform where other parties can engage with the BJP without formally joining the NDA, Mahanta adds.
BJP’s unbeaten track record in government formation in the North-East since 2014 should worry incumbent governments in other states in the region. BJP is pitted against its adversaries only in the states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Nagaland and Sikkim already have governments ruled by parties which are part of NEDA.