The news from the three states in the Northeast going to the polls next month is that it’s going to be a pull in four different directions, with the BJP reinforcing itself to try and make a difference to the end result of the political tug-of-war. If one takes the three poll-bound states together — Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya — the fight is between the CPM, Congress, the regional parties and the BJP. Five years ago, it was a pull in three directions, meaning this time there’s a new element in the contest. The new force is the BJP, that has almost become the toughest challenger to the ruling CPM in Tripura and the ruling Congress in Meghalaya. In Nagaland, though, the situation is a little peculiar as the BJP is part of the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland government, of which the regional Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) is the dominant partner. The elections in Tripura (February 18), Meghalaya and Nagaland (both on February 27) are extremely important for all three major national parties in the fray — Congress, BJP and CPM. For the Congress, under its new president Rahul Gandhi, retaining Meghalaya and making a bid for power in its erstwhile bastion Nagaland is extremely critical. In fact, if the Congress loses Meghalaya, the party will be left with only Mizoram to boast of about its past glory in the region of 45 million people. And for Manik Sarkar, one of India’s longest-serving chief ministers, and his CPM, retaining its traditional hold over Tripura is critical.
Losing Tripura would mean a death blow to the Left movement in the country as that would leave the CPM with only Kerala where the Left is in power. The NPF has emerged as the flag-bearer of regionalism in the Northeast as it’s the only regional party that is the dominant partner in a coalition government in the region. In Assam and Manipur, the regional parties are minor partners of coalitions led by the BJP. Seen in this context, the polls in Nagaland could be an indicator of the relevance of regionalism in the region. If one leaves Nagaland out as the BJP is part of the NPF-led coalition, the polls in Tripura and Meghalaya are likely to present watchers a ringside view of the leadership skills of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Congress’ newly-elevated boss Rahul Gandhi. The BJP is leaving no stone unturned to wrest Meghalaya from the Congress, obviously with the help of its regional allies, and has managed to give the CPM in Tripura some sleepless nights with high-voltage electioneering and political engineering under the leadership of the region’s most influential BJP leader, senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Mr Sarma is the convenor of the BJP-floated North-East Democratic Alliance (Neda) and has been made party in-charge of the Tripura polls. The formation of the Neda immediately after its Assam victory in April 2016 was the BJP’s masterstroke as it has succeeded in altering political alignments in the region with the coming of several major regional parties under its umbrella.
Tripura’s key regional party, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), is not yet a Neda constituent, but talks are on between its leaders and the BJP to try and perhaps come to an understanding. If the IPFT becomes a part of Neda, and there were indications late on Friday that it was a done deal, it will give the resurgent BJP in Tripura a major handle to put pressure on the CPM, the party that has been in power for five terms with CM Manik Sarkar himself being at the helm for four consecutive terms. Significantly, all ruling parties in the three states are faced with anti-incumbency and internal rebellion. In Meghalaya, seven ruling Congress MLAs have resigned, of whom five joined the National People’s Party (NPP), a dominant new regional party headed by Conrad Sangma, and one each joined the BJP and People’s Democratic Front (PDF). Seven other MLAs also quit their respective parties, bringing the total number of elected representatives resigning from the Assembly to 14. This has brought down the strength of the Meghalaya Assembly from 60 to 46 now. This clearly means veteran Congressman and chief minister Mukul Sangma is facing major dissent as he gets ready to lead his party to seek re-election.
In Nagaland too, the ruling NPF (of which the BJP is an ally) is faced with an internal revolt with the chances of the party technically splitting becoming bright. Former chief minister and Lok Sabha MP Neiphiu Rio, one of the NPF’s erstwhile presidents, has since quit and floated a new party called the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). In fact, at least two other senior NPF leaders have since quit and joined Mr Rio’s NDPP. The emergence of a new regional party has the potential to spoil the BJP’s arithmetic of going as junior partner in the alliance seeking re-election. After all, Mr Rio and his party could well turn spoiler and give the dormant Congress some boost. In Tripura, Manik Sarkar is facing anti-incumbency and intense pressure from three fronts — Trinamul Congress, which is waiting in the wings, the Congress, its traditional opposition, and a resurgent BJP.
On the whole, it’s going to be a high-voltage campaign in the days leading up to the polls in the three states. Nagaland may see protests because almost all stakeholders, from the government to civil society, have been calling on the Centre to work out a final solution to the protracted Naga problem ahead of the polls. That, of course, has not happened. In fact, the slogan that has become a chorus across Nagaland is “solution before elections”. No prizes for guessing that both Mr Modi and Rahul Gandhi would be seen in these states in abundance as their personal prestige is at stake. Moreover, the polls will provide yet another indicator of the way things could possibly turn in the 2019 general election....