Until the Balakot air strikes gave a fillip to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagging popularity, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was not exactly upbeat about its prospects in the 2019 general elections, especially after the assembly election setbacks in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. The BJP war room obviously had to work overtime to shore up support from as many states as possible, including the eight north-eastern states that account for 25 members of Parliament (MPs).
Assam, for instance, sends 14 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In 2014, the BJP won seven seats in Assam, which was then under the Congress rule. Now that Assam’s state legislature is under the BJP, the party hopes to get as many as 12 MPs in its kitty. Add to this number the seats that BJP allies hope to win from the other seven states in the North-East and the party believes the numbers would go up to something around 19-21 seats from the region. Securing that many seats could turn out to be crucial for the BJP.
The Congress-mukt Bharat campaign has been loud in the states that make up the North-East’s seven sisters—Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram and Assam. The only minor setback till now has been the strident opposition in the face of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 (CAB). But the BJP had made no bones about passing the Bill if it comes to power. That was the theme of its campaign in Assam in 2014. Hence, the CAB was no bolt from the blue. The irony is that when the CAB was pushed through in the Lok Sabha, it became a bone of contention. BJP’s allies like the National People’s Party (NPP) in Meghalaya, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam, and the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the NPP in Manipur started distancing themselves from the party.
Conrad Sangma, the NPP supremo and chief minister of Meghalaya, led the anti-CAB campaign. There were expectations that the CAB would be placed before the Rajya Sabha before the government’s tenure ended. But the BJP surprised all by putting the CAB on hold. The anti-CAB forces celebrated what they thought was their victory, and Conrad Sangma became an urban legend. But holding back the Bill hasn’t sufficiently allayed the fears of the tribal minorities in the region who foresee a deluge of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, numbering 12 million.
Tribal and Christian belt
It is through this prism that one must view the electoral battle lines that are getting drawn in the North-East. The BJP, and its general secretary and chief organizer in the North-East Ram Madhav have enough political acumen to understand how torturous it is to enter the hearts and minds of the predominantly tribal, north-eastern states, especially in the backdrop of the recent anti-CAB protests. The BJP has therefore worked out its electoral plans very astutely by forming alliances with the regional parties, which makes better political sense. It is easier for the people of Meghalaya, for instance, to say they are voting for the NPP than to say upfront that they are voting for the BJP. People have learnt to identify the BJP with its Hindutva agenda and, more specifically, the beef ban and the lynching associated with those who are seen carrying beef or eating it. As tribes, they already feel hemmed in by their minority status, and as Christians, they consider it a double whammy to be under the BJP rule.
The only state which may fall outside this broad categorization is perhaps Arunachal Pradesh, which plays politics a bit differently from the rest. In that state, members of legislative assembly (MLAs) can switch allegiances overnight without any qualms. Their dependence on the ruling government at Delhi is so acute that they don’t see why political ethics should deter them from straddling different political formations. Ideology, they say, makes no sense in politics. So, defections are common. After a tumultuous period in the Arunachal Pradesh legislature, which also had stints of President’s rule for 24 days between January and February 2016 followed by the suicide of then chief minister Kalikho Pul in August 2016, Pema Khandu, the present chief minister who was with the People’s Party of Arunachal, joined the BJP with 33 MLAs in January 2017. Khandu continues as the chief minister till date and the BJP has a total of 47 MLAs in the assembly, including the speaker. The Congress had three MLAs of which two left and joined the BJP. This is par for the course in Arunachal Pradesh.
The BJP’s hatchet man in the North-East, Himanta Biswa Sarma who is known to be an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) disciple, is also a shrewd game changer. He started what is known as the North-East Democratic Alliance on 24 May 2016 after the Assam state assembly elections were declared on 13 May 2016. In the elections, the BJP upstaged the Congress which had been ruling Assam for 15 years. The BJP won 60 of the 126 seats; it’s coalition partner the AGP got 14 seats; and the other pre-poll partner, Bodoland People’s Front, won 12 seats. This laid the foundation for the BJP’s expansionist plans in the North-East, which soon became most apparent in Tripura.
Communist citadel falls
In the Lok Sabha polls of 2014, the BJP in Tripura was not even a factor to reckon with. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, won both seats. By 2018, when Tripura went to the polls for the state assembly elections, the BJP managed to win 36 seats while its ally the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) won eight seats. The CPM was reduced to 16 seats and the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Congress didn’t win any seat. The BJP then ensured Sunil Deodhar, the RSS pracharak who spent several years working in the rural areas of Meghalaya and speaks the local language fluently, was planted in Tripura to further the BJP’s expansionist policy. It is unimaginable how the Left bastion not only collapsed, but the BJP actually stormed the Bastille. What is surprising is that the IPFT has decided to go it alone in the Lok Sabha polls and has what it calls a “friendly fight" with the BJP, which has announced its own candidates. It is highly likely that both seats from that state would go the BJP way, more so because the CAB that created tremors in the other six was something that the substantial non-tribal section of Tripura wants in order to legitimize the large number of Bengali Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh.
As far as Assam is concerned, the important ally, the AGP, did a flip-flop of walking out of the BJP on the CAB issue and then walking right back into the arms of the BJP. The AGP’s image as a regional party which nurtured aspirations of the Assamese people after the anti-Bengali, anti-illegal immigrant movements of the late 1970s-80s has taken a huge beating. It is seen as an opportunistic party. It is unlikely that the AGP will win any of the 14 seats this time.
Understandably, the BJP has put up candidates in 13 out of 14 Lok Sabha seats. The party in its no-nonsense approach has axed five sitting MPs. Guwahati MP Bijoya Chakraborty’s name has been set aside on account of her age (she is now 79 years), while sitting MPs Kamakhya Prasad Tasa and Ramen Deka have been dropped due to poor performance. Tezpur MP Ram Prasad Sarmah was axed after his name cropped up in the cash-for-jobs scam in which one of his daughters was involved. Sarmah had allegedly bribed the chairman of the Assam Public Service Commission along with many others to get his daughter selected in the Assam Police Service. Certainly, the BJP would not even touch Sarmah with a barge pole. The party seems serious about keeping its slate clean. Hence, Rajen Gohain, minister of state for railways who is allegedly involved in a case of rape and molestation has also been axed. Gohain tried to push his wife’s name but to no avail. It appears that the BJP will also not entertain dynastic politics in the region.
In the lone seat from Nagaland, the ruling People’s Democratic Alliance consensus candidate and NDPP party nominee, Tokheho Yepthomi, and Congress candidate K.L. Chishi, a former chief minister, are the two serious contenders. Political analysts are of the view that the sitting MP Yepthomi will return considering he has the support of Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio and the BJP. Also, NDPP’s bitter rival, the NPF, has not put up any candidate. Neither has the BJP which knows that it has to ride on its alliance partner, the NDPP.
As far as Manipur is concerned, the two Lok Sabha seats of Outer and Inner Manipur will see a fight between the BJP candidates and the main rival, the Congress. Earlier, both seats were held by the Congress. This time, the Congress has fielded two new faces—O. Nabakishore Singh, former chief secretary of the state, and K. James, an entrepreneur. The party has dropped both sitting MPs. The BJP is fielding the party’s state unit spokesperson R.K. Ranjan and party’s state unit vice- president H. Shokhopao alias Benjamin Mate as candidates.
Interestingly, the NPP and the NPF, which are allies of the BJP in Manipur are both fielding candidates. This weakens the case of the BJP candidates since votes can get fragmented even while the Congress vote bank remains intact.
A slew of friendly fights
In Meghalaya, interestingly, although the BJP with two MLAs is part of the ruling alliance, it has decided to field candidates for both Tura and Shillong seats. This last-minute decision is inexplicable and apparently happened because the state BJP unit feels it should not let the seats go uncontested in favour of state-level allies. Sitting Congress MP Vincent Pala is contesting the Shillong seat and seems confident of winning it because of the disharmony created by the proposed CAB. Meghalaya and Assam suffer the brunt of illegal migration from Bangladesh and they feel strongly about the CAB. It’s a different matter that the issue seems to now have no impact in Assam, at least when it comes to voting the next batch of MPs. The NPP candidate from Tura, Agatha Sangma, has a formidable rival in the Congress’s Mukul Sangma, former chief minister of the state. Hence, while the Congress vote bank in Meghalaya is intact, the opposition coalition does not seem to have done itself any good with each party fielding its own candidates.
In Mizoram, the BJP will have no support overtly or covertly. T.B.C. Lalvenchhunga, 36, a former Navy sailor, was named as the candidate of a new political party—People’s Representation for Identity and Status of Mizoram (PRISM). His central plank, if elected, is to move a private member bill in Parliament for the right to secession from the CAB, which seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring countries but will not allow Mizos in the Chin state of Myanmar to visit Mizoram to see their relatives. The BJP is fielding Nirupam Chakma of the minority Chakma community for the state’s lone seat, while the Congress and Zoram People’s Movement will field a joint candidate, 41-year-old Lalnghinglova Hmar who has creditably put Mizoram on the football map of the country. Meanwhile, the ruling Mizo National Front has put up 61-year-old C. Lalrosanga who retired as the director general of Doordarshan as its candidate.
In Sikkim, DB Katwal, a youth leader, has been given the task of fighting the lone Lok Sabha seat under the aegis of the Sikkim Democratic Party, which is a coalition partner of the BJP. He has the blessings of the sitting MP, Prem Das Rai, an IIT-IIM alumnus and a man who has served the state well, participates actively in Parliament, and has been part of the success story of Sikkim. So, Katwal is expected to win the seat easily.
Coming to Arunachal Pradesh with two seats, it appears that in Arunachal West, Kiren Rijiju, the BJP MP and junior minister of homes affairs, will have a tough fight with formidable rivals Nabam Tuki and Jarjum Ete. Nabam Tuki is a former state chief minister, while Jarjum Ete is a well-known women’s activist who joined the Janata Dal (S) after being denied a ticket from the Congress. Pollsters aver that Rijiju might still get through in Arunachal West but that the Congress will trump over the BJP in the East.
In the final analysis, the BJP and its allies might at best get 15 seats and not 19-21 as claimed by Himanta Biswa Sarma recently at a press conference. The BJP is likely to get seven-eight seats in Assam; one each in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Nagaland; two each in Tripura and Manipur. However, these 15 seats from India’s farthest eastern corner could turn out to be crucial as the numbers get added up on 23 May 2019 in the run-up to government formation.
Patricia Mukhim is a journalist and editor of The Shillong Times.