THE bugle of a crucial and eventful year ahead was sounded with the Election Commission (EC) declaring schedule of election program for the three north-eastern states of Mehgalaya, Nagaland and Tripura on January 11. Accordingly voting will be held in Tripura on February 14, and Meghalaya and Nagaland will go to polls on February 23, to elect their new legislative assemblies. The results of these elections will be declared on February 28.
The geographical area, population and number of assembly seats of these three states put together notwithstanding, these elections will set the course of events in the following months. Five major states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka would go to the hustings later this year. If the elections of the state assemblies of these five states are precursor to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the elections of these three northeastern states could be a trendsetter for these assembly elections.
Buoyant by the spectacular and massive victory at the hustings in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking for expansion of its base in the northeastern region. The BJP has to traverse a very bumpy course to make its presence felt in the political circles. Dominated by Christian thought and religious moorings, the people of this sensitive border region were reluctant if not ready, to accept a party that stood firmly on the Hindutva ideology. The credit goes to grass root workers of BJP like the late Banshi Lal Soni, who, in the 80s undertook strenuous efforts to make inroads into states like Nagaland and introduce BJP in that Christian-dominated state. Soni, then, could get two Naga leaders to contest elections on the party symbol and ticket. Since then much water has flown down the hills of Nagaland which saw the BJP as a coalition partner for a short duration in the state.
The peculiarity of the political situation in the northeastern states is to be understood in the larger context of India’s national politics. Basically, all the present northeastern states barring Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur, were once the hill districts of Assam. Over the years bowing to regional political and social compulsions, the Congress government at the Centre bifurcated Assam into various states carved out of Naga, Khasi, Jayantia, Garo, and Mizo hills districts. The annual budgets of these states were supported by the Centre as their revenue generation capacity was insufficient to meet their demands and requirements. Naturally, the governments in these states had to pledge their allegiance to the party that ruled the Centre. Except the brief period of Janata Party and BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, it was the Congress that ruled at the Centre and as a corollary in the northeastern states too. It so happened at times that entire ruling dispensation changed its party affiliations overnight consequent upon the change of government at the Centre!
Maybe the political scenario has changed. Or, maybe the people of the northeast have started looking at the BJP as a viable alternative to Congress party. Whatever the situation is, it is for certain the BJP has got a chance to improve its position number-wise and organisation-wise in these states now. Of the three states Congress is in power only in Meghalaya; Nagaland and Tripura are ruled by Naga People’s Front and CPM-led Left Front respectively.
Among the major players in the region, the National People’s Party (NPP) formed by former Lok Sabha Speaker and erstwhile prominent NCP leader Purno A Sangma may disturb the political equation in the region. The Congress is in power in Meghalaya and the party is facing the music of rebellion right now. The Congress leaders in Garo hills region of Meghalaya, the home of PA Sangma, have sounded the bugle of rebellion loud and clear. Garo hills comprise 24 out of 60 assembly seats in Meghalaya famous for its panoramic scenic beauty. The Congress, given the dissidence, could well find itself in confrontation with the rebels who refused to toe the line of 10 Janapath as far as declaration of candidates is concerned.
Samuel Sangma, a prominent Garo leader form Dalu in Garo Hills district tendered resignation from the Congress party along with hundreds of his followers. Sangma was denied party ticket on the parameters of ‘win-ability’. There are a number of such cases which prompted rebellion in the Congress party ahead of the February 23 elections.
Adding insult to already injured Congress party, the United Democratic Party, an ally of Congress, said if the Congress riddled with factionalism and infighting returns to power it would be an ‘insult to the people of the state’. UDP President and Deputy Chief Minister of the State Bindo M Lanong said, “there is too much of infighting within the Congress, and if this party returns to power, it will prove that the people of Meghalaya are fools and it will be an insult to the Meghalayans”.
In Nagaland, the issue of settlement with the NSCN-IM seems to be major bone of contention between the ruling NPF and Congress at the Centre. The leaders in Nagaland wanted deferment of polls as they preferred settlement of the NSCN issue. However, the Congress leadership after an important consultation with Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, gave green signal to the EC to go ahead with the poll process. This has angered the NPF and other Naga leaders. Naturally, this will affect the Congress’ prospects at this militancy ravaged state.
In Tripura, the Congress has been out of power for a long time. The CPM-led Left Front is the ruling dispensation there. The Communists will not leave any stone unturned to retain their only and only stronghold in India after having lost Bengal to Mamta Banerjee’s TMC. Besides, Congress is also plagued with inter-party feuds in Tripura- a state where immigrant Bengalis have dominated the ethnic groups.
With Congress General Secretary Oscar Fernandez announcing the list of party’s official candidates, as many as 32 prominent tribal leaders of Tripura Congress including the President and General Secretary of the tribal cell raised the banner of revolt and quit the party along with their followers. They did not stop at that only. They decided to contest 21 seats including 18 reserved seats in the state. The winds of revolt have started blowing in 15 places in the state putting the Congress party in real trouble.
Against the background of this anti-Congress sentiment in the three states, the chances for the BJP to improve its position appear to be bright. The BJP leadership is well aware of the ground reality that it is well nigh difficult for it to get a majority in any of the three states nonetheless; it can concentrate on expanding its base in the region keeping an eye on the 2014 general elections.
The BJP can at least do better to help regional satraps like P A Sangma or Neiphiu Rio to gain power in their respective states so that it could reap the benefits for itself in the future elections. This will go a long way in strengthening the BJP-led NDA in this sensitive region. BJP needs more friends in this region to make the NDA strong to challenge the Congress. The party had already scripted a pre-poll pact with Naga People’s Front (NPF) in Nagaland and also trying to strike a seat sharing balance with Sangma’s NPP in Meghalaya. The region has 25 Lok Sabha seats and a workable sharing formula with the regional satraps of the region can strengthen BJP-led NDA.
The BJP has earned the confidence of Christians in Goa earlier. The same formula can be applied with regional variation in the northeastern states to elucidate the support of the Christian-dominated northeastern states keeping in view the 2014 grand finale of the electoral battle. Can and will the BJP turn this situational advantage to its favor?