DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
The BJP appears to be in a great hurry to realise its hope of becoming the lead political player in the North-east ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and has maged to charm an array of regiol political parties to achieve its objective. The saffron party is actually pursuing a simple strategy—enter into alliances with the regiol parties and begin by using them as props before goading some of them to possibly merge with the BJP itself.
Party president Amit Shah, general secretary Ram Madhav and other Northeast minders of the party gave shape to this plan right after the decisive victory in Assam. On May 24, the day Sarbanda Sonowal took oath as Chief Minister of the BJP’s first-ever government in Assam, or eastern India for that matter, Amit Shah held a meeting attended by Sonowal, and the chief ministers of Aruchal, galand and Sikkim, Kalikho Pul, T.R. Zeliang and Pawan Kumar Chamling respectively at Guwahati. At this meeting, the BJP formed a platform called the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and made the party’s key strategist in the region, Himanta Biswa Sharma, its convenor.
On 13 July, the NEDA was formally launched in Guwahati at a convention of the BJP units in the Northeast and their regiol allies. After the convention, Himanta Biswa said: “NEDA’s political objective is to have a non-Congress government in each of the northeastern states within a year. Our immediate target is to remove the Congress in Manipur (polls due in 2017) and Meghalaya (2018).” Continuing to talks about its ambitious plans, Himanta Biswa added in the 2019 general elections, the BJP and its allies would strive to win all the 25 Lok Sabha seats from the region. For a party that is in power at the Centre, having almost decimated the Congress, the plan to consolidate itself in the Northeast is no surprise.
At first it appeared as if it would be a cakewalk for the BJP to be able to push ahead in the region which has been a traditiol Congress bastion. First, one saw the Congress split in Aruchal and a section merging with the near-defunct regiol party, the People’s Party of Aruchal (PPA). Congress dissident-turned PPA leader Kalikho Pul became Chief Minister with the backing of the BJP MLAs, making it a PPA-BJP government. This happened after the Governor preponed the scheduled State Assembly session and allowed the Deputy Speaker to convene a House session in a community hall and declare the government of Chief Minister bam Tuki as having been reduced to a minority with several MLAs changing sides. This made the path clear for a new Government under Pul to be sworn in. Of course, in a landmark judgement on 13 July, the Supreme Court set aside the Governor’s action and restored the Congress Government of bam Tuki with a directive to maintain status quo ante as on 15 December 2015.
The BJP’s plan was to have the PPA merge with it for Pul to continue having the majority on his side. But, the Congress averted any further crisis by letting the dissidents choose an entirely new leader in Pema Khandu who enjoyed the trust of both the bam Tuki and Pul factions. Within hours, Pul and his supporters dumped the PPA and returned to the Congress fold. Khandu was sworn in as Chief Minister, pouring cold water into the BJP’s plans. But, considering that politicians in Aruchal Pradesh have generally been fickle-minded in so far as sticking to any particular political ideology, it will not be surprising if a bunch of them were to change colours in the days ahead and help realise the BJP’s hopes.
Assam has been a slightly different story because the BJP had entered into pre-poll alliances with the Asom Ga Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). But here again, the BPF and the AGP were actually eager to align with the BJP. The BPF was for long an ally of the Congress and the AGP was fighting for the same political space as the BJP—trying to corner the anti-Congress votes. The AGP readily agreed to limit its contest in 24 seats and brazened out dissent by sections within the party over the small number of seats left to it by the BJP. Now, the AGP and the BPF are junior partners of the alliance in Assam and they are okay with it.
What is significant is the BJP’s entry in the Christian-domited states of galand, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The BJP is already a partner in the ga People’s Front (NPF) government of T. R. Zeliang and is about to forge an alliance with the Mizo tiol Front (MNF). In Meghalaya, the BJP has a loose alliance with the tiol People’s Party (NPP), led by Purno Sangma’s son Conrad Sangma. The other ally in Meghalaya is the United Democratic Party (UDP). Of course, the BJP has a presence in Manipur and the party got a boost recently when it won ten of the 27 Imphal Municipal Council seats, up from just one in 2011. This after the NEDA was formed and Himanta Biswa visited Imphal ahead of the civic body elections.
That the NEDA means business is indicated by its decision to induct into the platform smaller regiol parties like the Gashakti in Assam, confined to the flood-prone districts of Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Jorhat, and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPTF), active in the hill areas and fighting for a tribal land in the Left bastion. As yet, the BJP is quite vague on how it would accomplish its task of consolidating the party organisatiolly in the northeastern states, particularly in galand, Mizoram and Meghalaya, while at the same time moving ahead to accomplish the job of freeing the region of its main rival, the Congress (Congress-mukt Northeast). Himanta Biswa says the BJP would grow in the region, but not at the cost of the regiol parties who are its allies. This assurance is something that cannot be taken at face value considering the aggressive posturing of the BJP in its Northeast expansion campaign.
The question arises—has the BJP compromised or diluted its known Hindutva ideology to gain space in the Northeast, particularly in the Christian-majority states? This is a difficult question to answer because the Church in Mizoram, for instance, was openly opposed to the practice of Yoga, and, therefore, would not easily favour a party with such a strong ideological mooring on religious lines. But, the BJP has an altertive route for its allies to bank on in some of these states—the plank of development. Some of the regiol party leaders from these states have sought to address this question by saying they are ready to be with the BJP on its development agenda and pledge to boost the economy of the region and bring it at par with some of the developed parts of the country.
In fact, the BJP’s Northeast push, both politically and through development programmes undertaken by Centre, is part of the rendra Modi Government’s strategy to translate its Act East Policy into action on the ground. The NEDA convention in Guwahati, for instance, discussed how the region could take advantage of the Act East Policy and bring in economic growth through connectivity and other means. In fact, Prime Minister Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy has paid dividends from Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Nepal to some extent. Since the Northeast is the bridgehead to South and Southeast Asia, the BJP could be thinking that having party-led governments in the northeastern states could help. In Sikkim, the BJP has an ally in the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). This leaves Amit Shah & Co. to tackle the Left in Tripura! How to regain power in Aruchal Pradesh could also play heavily in the BJP’s mind! Things may not be as easy, and for the results on the ground, one would have to wait and watch.