In the overall canvas of elections to the 543-member Lok Sabha, the Northeast appears as a tiny dot because the eight states of the region sends a total of just 25 members to the all-important Lower House of Parliament. But the battle for these 25 seats had never been so intense with the mascots of the country’s two major political parties, BJP top gun and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, making multiple trips to the region this poll season to campaign for their candidates.
The 25 MPs are important because the region happens to be one of India’s most strategically located stretches that shares borders with five neighbouring countries — China, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan — and is home to a diverse set of ethnicities, numbering 300 or more. To put it simply, these 25 MPs represent the voice of more than 300 ethnic groups and communities with a total population of 45 million. The MPs from the region have generally not been vocal inside Parliament, but that they have a voice is something that cannot be ignored.
Voting for all these 25 seats ended with the third phase on April 23, and if one has to talk about the key features, it has to be said that the fight had been between the Congress on one side, the BJP and its allies on the other, and a plethora of other regional parties. The main contest though had been between the solitary Congress (except in Assam, where it got the indirect support of the AIUDF) and the BJP, aided by an array of regional allies. In the Northeast, the 2019 elections are critical for the BJP because the party has so far not been able to send any MP to the Lok Sabha from six of the states, barring Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The polls were held in the backdrop of the BJP managing to oust the Congress from power in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and defeating the Left Front in Tripura. In Nagaland and Meghalaya, the BJP is part of the coalition ruling the states, and in Mizoram, the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) is still a part of the National Democratic Alliance. This leaves out Sikkim, where the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front — seeking re-election this time with the simultaneous state Assembly polls that were held — is not considered a dependable ally of the NDA. The long and short of the story is that the BJP and its allies have managed to achieve its target of a “Congress-mukt” or “Congress-free” Northeast. The challenge now for the BJP is to have representatives from the region in Parliament and that too at a time when every single win could stand to count.
Can the BJP achieve its publicly stated target of winning at least 19 of the region’s 25 seats along with its allies? One has to wait and watch, but what the BJP may not have expected is the expansionist campaign in the region by one of its key allies, the National People’s Party (NPP), headed by Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma. The NPP, founded by one of the region’s political stalwarts and former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A. Sangma, has expanded to become a pan-Northeast party and fielded candidates of its own and even entered into independent alliances. For example, the NPP candidate is the frontrunner in the Tura Lok Sabha seat in Meghalaya, but for the Shillong seat, the NPP has put up a common candidate of the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance coalition, of which the BJP is also a part. But interestingly, kicking the alliance dharma aside, the BJP on its own has put up candidates in both the Meghalaya seats — Tura and Shillong. This technically means the NDA, of which the NPP is a constituent, had two candidates in the fray at least in Meghalaya!
The confusion is blatant because there also is a BJP-floated platform of like-minded parties in the region called the North-East Democratic Alliance, or NEDA, headed by the BJP’s main strategist in the Northeast, senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sharma. Now, parties like the NPP are a part of NEDA. Then, take the case of Mizoram, where the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) is both a part of the NDA and NEDA, but faced a BJP candidate in the state’s lone Lok Sabha seat. The BJP had fought the recent Assembly polls as well in Mizoram. But the focus automatically comes back on the party to watch, the NPP, because it absorbed and fielded eight sitting BJP MLAs, including two ministers, in Arunachal Pradesh, which also saw simultaneous Assembly polls. This is because the BJP had denied them tickets to seek re-election.
Anyone would like to ask the question as to what’s going on — why is a big national party like the BJP tolerating such defiance by smaller parties like the NPP? The answer is not far to seek — the BJP is on a mission to consolidate its hold in the region and is prepared, therefore, to not only be flexible to a fault but compromise on many of its stated stands and allow itself to be regionalised. Contrast this with the Congress, which was in power in most of the northeastern states until 2015 but fought a near solitary battle in the region, once its bastion. Even in Assam, the Congress kept away from any official alliances although the decision of the pro-minority AIUDF, led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, to contest only three of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats led to speculation of an understanding between the two parties. The Congress has denied any deal with the AIUDF, but miffed at the Congress’ decision to field candidates against even AIUDF chief Maulana Badruddin Ajmal in Dhubri at the last minute, the AIUDF said five Congress leaders had entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the party but later “betrayed” them. The only open support the Congress got and took was from the opposition Naga People’s Front for the lone Nagaland seat.
Talking about issues — the region has many. Some of them are a solution to the Naga insurgency issue, the annual problem of floods and erosion in Assam, poor connectivity in Arunachal Pradesh, poor road conditions in Nagaland, law and order and higher education bottlenecks in Manipur, the security situation in Tripura, poor infrastructure in Mizoram, and others. And yes, how can one forget the issue of illegal migration when the Supreme Court, in the middle of the poll campaign, pulled up the Assam government over the disappearance of 70,000 people declared as illegal Bangladeshi migrants by Foreigners’ Tribunals! But these were not part of the core poll discourse in the region. The political bigwigs in their campaign appearances mostly indulged in rhetoric and tried to pull each other down. It is now left to the MPs to change the narrative in the days ahead — from rhetoric to real work.