The BJP’s victory in the Assam Assembly elections, the results of which were declared last week, was expected but not by the landslide margin the party and its allies took the Assembly, together bagging 86 of its 126 seats. Of this 86, the BJP alone contributed 60, a stupendous rise from the five seats it managed in 2011. Equally spectacular is the way in which the ruling Congress, with strongman Tarun Gogoi at the helm for three consecutive terms, was dispatched with just 26 seats. So much has already been said of the Assam results, now the question is: how will this change of guard in this most populous and important northeastern state impact the rest of the region?
Without question, the developments in Assam would have startled the Congress government in Manipur headed by Okram Ibobi, more so than in the two other Northeast states ruled by the Congress — Meghalaya and Mizoram. Arunachal Pradesh, which returned the Congress in the last Assembly polls, has already slipped out of the Congress sphere thanks to a disgraceful game of defection earlier this year, quite brazenly abetted by the governor, a handpicked appointee of the BJP government at the Centre.
Tripura has always been a Communist bastion, occasionally challenged by the Congress, though in recent times the BJP base is seen as growing, especially in grassroots elections. Nagaland has, since the days of veteran leader S.C. Jamir a decade and a half ago, distanced itself from the Congress in favour of a regional party, Naga People’s Front. Nagaland today has three BJP legislators, but by defection and not election. The NPC, which returned four MLAs, broke up with three of them deciding to leave and join the BJP.
There is no doubt that the Congress governments in Meghalaya and Mizoram too would be vulnerable, but this, if at all, would be in anticipation of what happened in Arunachal Pradesh, whereby the BJP engineers a split and topples governments using its clout as the ruling party at the Centre. The general perception in these small, weak north-eastern states, hugely dependent on Central government largesse for sustenance, is that it is to their advantage to be on the right side of the ruling formation at the Centre, and this mindset would also catalyse any such pressures for a shift of alliance towards the party in power at the Centre.
The equation in Manipur, however, will be a little different, and there are reasons why the state is likely to become the BJP’s next target to conquer. The scenario here is in some ways similar to conditions in Assam that made the victory of the BJP and Asom Gana Parishad, which came out of the “Assam Agitation” of the 1970s and 1980s against illegal immigrants, almost inevitable. For one thing, Manipur’s Assembly polls are due to be held nine months from now, in February 2017, therefore political strategists will see any move to topple the government now would only earn disrepute, as well as strengthen local resistance to what may be portrayed as the ruling party’s unwarranted hegemony.
For another, as in Assam, the state is now in the grip of acute insecurity of a radical shift in its demography due to unchecked immigration, a concern that has become complex because of the ethnic divide between the tribal population in the hills and the largely non-tribal population of the central valley, both of which see the problem quite differently. Three bills passed by the state Assembly late last year which together were purportedly meant to achieve what a British-era law, popularly known as the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS), which restricts immigration and prohibits transfer of land ownership to non-domiciles, has been the cause of a sharp split between the state’s hills and valley, the hills fearing that these bills, if they become law, would adversely affect them.
In Assam the BJP and its ally, the AGP, used the general Assamese insecurity on the immigrant issue as a campaign plank and reaped rich rewards in terms of votes. The party may try to replicate this feat in Manipur too after negotiating the hill-valley divide on the issue. It is another matter whether reaping electoral benefits by playing on such insecurities will prove prudent in the long run, but elections are all about immediate results, and insecure populations will always be ready to fall for some tall promises.
There are other similarities between the Manipur situation and Assam. Unlike Mizoram and Meghalaya, which have an overwhelming Christian majority, Manipur, like Assam, is a Hindu majority state, and therefore the BJP may presume it will be an easier ground to spread its ideology. Unlike in the other two states, Manipur also has an RSS base in the valley districts, that should be encouraging for the BJP. The fact that the BJP has never managed to set roots in Manipur may not be altogether discouraging for the party given its recent sterling performance in Assam, which is also traditionally not BJP territory.
In the 2012 Assembly election in Manipur, the BJP drew a blank. However, after the disqualification of two Trinamul Congress MLAs in a defection drama in 2015, the BJP wooed the disqualified MLAs and fielded them on its tickets in the byelections that followed. The two won their seats, giving the BJP a presence with two MLAs in a House of 60, after almost two decades, when at another peak of BJP power under the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, Manipur saw four BJP MLAs, two of them by defection.
As in Assam, the BJP may also champion the demand of a section of the majority Meitei community for Scheduled Tribe status. There is another section of Meiteis who feel this is retrogressive and do not want ST status, but the main opposition to such a move is likely to be from the hill tribes, who are already in the ST category, who think the possible inclusion of Meiteis in this category may end up depleting their share of the benefits of reservation.
As in Assam, the Congress, under chief minister Okram Ibobi, would have also completed three consecutive terms by the next election, thus similar anti-incumbency scars, besides charges of corruption and incompetence, would also work in the BJP’s favour. In fact, the success of the BJP in keeping its electoral promises in Assam may be the fulcrum on which the fate of Manipur’s Congress government rests.