As the world’s largest democracy gears up for the biggest democratic exercise of the Nation, the 2024 battleground heats up with battlefield snarls of political conquer. The fever equally grips the Northeastern part of the country, as the Northeastern think tank made no delays in blowing the bugle for the ‘Saffron seizure’ in the region. Exuding confidence over capture of most of the 25 seats of the Northeast, the showstopper of the political red-carpet in the region, Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma has already set the mood for the ‘Bhagwa’ buzz.
Ploughing the saffron prospects in the Northeast however, has been a steady exercise for some years now.
While the exit of the three bigwigs of Northeastern politics, Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, N Biren Singh and Pema Khandu from the Congress orchestrated the decline of the grand old party in the region, the formation of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) created inroads for the BJP into the power corridors of the Northeast as it synthesised the metamorphosis of a more regional look and feel. The first severe jolt to the Congress, however, was the big catch of the BJP in the form of Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma (the present Chief Minister of Assam), a young yet influential and highly experienced leader of the region who is known for his apt and expertise in shuffling political dynamics and presiding over the power gamble.
It owes to the dexterity of Dr Sarma, that the party first barged into domination in 2016 sweeping the polls in Assam, ending 15 years of the Congress hegemony in the State. The same year saw another episode of the ‘Saffron surge’ in the region with Pema Khandu shifting his affiliation to BJP and thereby establishing the BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh. The following years saw the lotus blossoming across the region sweeping Manipur in 2017, Tripura in 2018 and forming coalition governments with regional affiliates in Meghalaya and Nagaland in 2018.The consecutive years of 2019,2021 and 2022 witnessed the National party retaining its position in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur while Sikkim and Mizoram continued to be ruled by regional parties. These successive election wins transformed Northeast into a major strong-hold for the party beyond the Hindi heartland.
The Congress on the other hand lost its political turf in the region it had dominated for decades, owing to latent discontent among the mass reeling in the quagmire of geographical seclusion, political insignificance and stepmotherly attitude of the Centre. The assembly election loss in Mizoram in 2018 paved the exist routes for Congress from the region, erasing the grand old party’s political presence from all the eight states of the Northeast. The undercurrents of disgruntlements articulated political mandates in a way that the Congress, which once ruled five northeastern states was ousted and washed out from the electoral battle. In the recently concluded Assembly elections in the three states of Northeast, the Congress registered a meagre 5 seats in Meghalaya and 3 in Tripura.
Neither the 28 years of its long political trail in Meghalaya nor its ‘left-appeasement’ tactics in Tripura could salvage the honour of this nationally prominent party that was now pinning for littlest of political existential-cognizance. To nail the coffin, the party which couldn’t even bag a single seat in Nagaland shrunk to a miserable 8 seats in a total of 180 seats that was contested for, in the three States in March 2023.
In a recent address to the media, NEDA Convenor Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma launched a scathing attack on the Congress pointing out 70 years of its misappropriation of the aspirations of the Northeast. Dr. Sarma vociferously pointed out at the political instability, geographical isolation, insurgency, development deprivation, and Ad hoc formation of States by the Congress with an intentional ploy to ‘divide and rule’.
Pointing out at the selfless attitude of the incumbent Union government towards Northeast today, Dr. Sarma opined that “No Central Government, since 1947 has invested so much political capital in the region, where some states send just one MP to the Lok Sabha”. Dr Sarma added that the Union Council of Ministers visiting the region for over 400 times and the Prime Minister himself registering more than 60 visits in the last 9 years, only evince and assert the conviction and indulgence of the Centre towards unifying, developing and reviving India’s Northeast. It is due to such renewed indulgence that the expenditure on infrastructure of Northeast ,that was constricted to a meagre 2 lakh crores in the last 67 years (1947 to 2014) has seen a mammoth plunge to a whooping 7 lakh crores in just 9 recent years (2014 to 2023) under the BJP regime.
At this juncture it is also important to note that it was for the first time during the tenure of BJP stalwart Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee that the Northeast received its due regard and attention. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first Central leader who had strong realization and recognition for the significance that the Northeast embody as a gateway to Southeast Asian nations. It was during his term that the DoNER Ministry was formed to formulate and execute developmental policy decisions in the region.
The Bogibeel Bridge and Narnarayan Setu over the mighty Brahmaputra , the Numaligarh Refinery Limited in Assam, the East-West corridor connecting Assam’s Silchar with Gujrat’s Porbandar, the inclusion of Sikkim as a member of North Eastern Council ,expansion of ‘Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojna to NER, launching of mobile connectivity in the region etc. are just a few examples of a slew of landmark moves that the late Prime Minister made to cement the gaps of development in the region and connect it with the rest of the mainland.
The rigorous pursuance of the ‘Look East Policy’ by Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee instilled the spirits to continue its fulfilment by the present government under the visionary pursuance of Sri Narendra Modi, renaming the entire endeavour as ‘Act East Policy’ in 2014, to assert a more result-oriented approach in the nomenclature. The seven ongoing projects in Northeast India namely, the Kolodyne Hydroelectric Project and the Kaladan Muti Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) in Mizoram, the Asain Highway, the Asian Railway Link, The Natural Gas pipeline, the Guwahati Ho-Chi Minh City Flight and the Imphal Hanoi flight facility etc. speaks volumes of the determined pursuance of the government to transform the Northeast into hub of South East Asian and ASEAN transactions.
It is due to such real-time pursuance of the Northeastern cause by successive BJP governments, that the seeds of confidence started sprouting out of the hearts of the Northeastern populace. The conviction of the BJP translated to convince the mass that the Northeast has always been one of the epicentres of its inclusive developmental-politics policy. This explains BJP’s first triumph in Northeast in 2016 immediately after it came to power in the Centre in 2014.
Rome, however was not built in a day! The jubilant rise of the Saffron party in the region bears testimony to the steady, persistent and pragmatic penetration of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh into the socio-political landscape of the region. The BJP owe it to scores of faceless cadre-ship working tediously with painstaking consist efforts, unapologetic sacrifices and relentless resolute hard work since 1946 to dredge out indifference and make way for the ‘Sangh-narrative’ in a region dominated by ethnic and community undercurrents.
Decades of behind-the-scene fieldwork, comprehension of local and ethnic sentiments and extensive targeted expansion of reach-out networks has resulted into adaptation and acceptance of its calculated composure that suits to regional needs. During the 80’s and the 90’s the ‘Vanvashi Kalyan Ashram’ and its ‘Sakhas’ that work for the upliftment of the tribal populace spread its footprints in tribal dominated States of Arunachal, Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram. Since then, slowly and gradually, the consolidation of core Hindu, ethnic and indigenous sentiments found warm reception even in the tribal pockets of the Northeast.
Such manifestation of Northeastern narrative found new ways to engineer its existence in the mainstream citizenry when in 1998 the BJP led central government in the Centre made renewed ways for the RSS to expand in the region. The ‘Luitporiya Hindu Sammelan’ held in Guwahati in 2018 which was addressed by RSS Chief Mohan Bhagawat, where several Traditional Tribal Kings, Chiefs and Community heads and as many as 35000 ‘Swayamsevaks’ across the region assembled under one roof and banner bears testimony to the new found chords of ‘Hindutva’ and ‘tribal’ harmony in the region.
This however, is just one of the many instances where the Sangh can be now seen occupying dominant socio-political stage and space in India’s Northeast. The recent staging of intellectual cultural brainstorming discourse ‘Lokmanthan’, organised by IFNE in Assam, the multiple visits orchestrated by the RSS icon Mohan Bhagawat to the northeastern terrain and more prominently his recent visit to Agartala as a ‘State Guest’, all point towards the growing political relevance of the Sangh in this part of the country.
To add on, the youth outreach and educational missions championed by sister organizations of the Sangh like the ‘Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’, the Vivekananda Kendra, Vidya Bharati etc. have built up the formative edifice of the Sangh in social substrata of the region. This growing camaraderie with the ethnic school of thought engineered the phenomenal victory of a ‘Core-Hindutva’ party in a region dominated by Christian and tribal population. The Lok Sabha results in 2019 bored the fruits of this labour in the form of 18 seats bagged by the NDA , BJP alone making it to 14 out of the 25 Lok Sabha constituencies across Northeast.
Gradually, with the BJP now winning mandates in several states of the Northeast, the socio-economic significance of the region now flaunted to be high on the agenda of the Centre’s commitment has gained tremendous political traction. The region twirling in the mire of central negligence since ages, echoed surge in demand for financial inclusion, infrastructure development, and sustainable economic emancipation that happens to be central to the idea of the regional expectations. A region with strategic advantage and resource abundance, the Northeast, is now a crucial category of concern in every budget session and financial dispensation.
The incumbent Union Government has also been high pitched in its narrative of placing Northeast high in its financial itinerary and economic priority. In his pre-budget speech in 2022, the Former President of India, President Sri Ram Nath Kovind projected and labelled the Centre’s renewed indulgence in the Northeast as a ‘golden chapter in India’s growth story’ asserting that all-round sustainable development in North-east is no longer a distant intangible dream.
The budget which was being christened as a ‘25 year vision budget’ resonated similar spirit and sentiments , in as much as it pumped an initial allocation of a whooping amount of Rs1500 crores for North-East for projects that will not be a substitute for existing Central state schemes, but would rather be new schemes in the spirit of the PM Gati-Shakti scheme. The President’s appreciative gesture gains even more significance as it pinpoints Northeastern States being now brought on the map of rail and air connectivity. With all the capitals of the Northeastern States registering operation in the railway map and new airports and terminals being built in remote parts of the northeast ,the President has applauded the sincere efforts of the incumbent government in containing the connectivity constraints to a huge extent .
The North-eastern master-plan also embeds within its ambit, a new scheme with the nomenclature, ‘Prime-Minister’s Development Initiative for the North-East (PM-DevINE)’ that is mapped to be implemented through the North-eastern Council. The spinal contruct of the PM-DevINE is designed in a way that it touches the core of social and rural development in the most remote villages of the northeast. In conjunction with such motive a host of preliminary projects for construction of village infrastructure, housing, tourist centres, and road connectivity has been pipelined.
The last 9 years have registered unprecedented growth in the Northeast. While the total number of airports in the region rose from 9 to 16, some of the States succeeded in finally registering its presence in the Rail-map of the country. Similar rise in the number of Capital Road Connectivity projects and designs to expand waterways has also substantiated the promises to boost connectivity of the region. Laying the foundation for 26 National Highway projects worth over Rs 17,500 crore for Assam in Guwahati recently, Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari asserted that the Narendra Modi government accords highest priority to the Northeast and has sanctioned National Highway projects worth nearly Rs 3 lakh crore for the region in the last 10 years.
Digital connectivity in the region has also received a major push with the expansion of optical fibre network and 5G revolution. Constrains such as insurgency , border conflicts and inter -State indifferences have been considerably addressed with the direct engagement of the Union Home Ministry and rigorous settlement exercises executed by the NEDA under the direct involvement of Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma. It is due to such refurbished dynamics that the APSFA has been completely removed from States like Meghalaya and Tripura and is only confined to a few areas in Assam, Manipur , Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. The elevated stature and status of the Northeast can also be inferred from the fact the Northeast now have the highest ever representation of MPs of the region in the Union Council of Ministers.
Overall, a bird’s eye view of the north-eastern perspective in the Central mindset provide a taste of a progressive and reformist vision for the North-east encompassing the key elements of socio-economic momentum like infrastructure, connectivity, rural development, livelihood, health, and sustainable development. At a time when the north-eastern intention of the Central government is eyed, analysed and is met with a series of crest and trough of questions pertaining to the real-time accomplishment of the schemes, the on-field execution of the Act East Policy, the improvement of business competitiveness, the scenario of jobs and livelihood generation etc, the financial share and prospective plan for the region in the Union Budget occupies a position of great interest and genuine appreciation.
It is this gush of good vibe in the political pitch that the BJP has been tapping to transform the the ‘momentum’ on ground to ‘mandate’ in the ballot-field’. All said and done, the intensity of this roar is enough to sense that the Lion is poised to pounch!