The BJP has managed to charm an array of regional political parties in the North East and is clearly on course to realise its hope of becoming the lead political player in the region ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The saffron party is actually pursuing a simple strategy—enter into alliances with the regional parties and begin by using them as props before goading some of them to merge with the BJP itself.
Party president Amit Shah, general secretary Ram Madhav and other North East minders of the party gave shape to this plan right after the decisive victory in Assam. On 24 May, the day Sarbananda 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 Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Sikkim, Kalikho Pul, TR Zeliang and Pawan Kumar Chamling respectively in Guwahati. At this meeting, 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 convener.
On 13 July, the Neda was formally launched in Guwahati at a convention of the BJP units in the North East and their regional allies. After the convention, sarma 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, Sarma added in the 2019 General Elections, 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 North East is no surprise. What is significant, however, is the ease with which the BJP has been able to push ahead in the region which has been a traditional Congress bastion.
First, one saw the Congress split in Arunachal Pradesh and a section merging with the near-defunct regional party, the People’s Party of Arunachal (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 then chief minister Nabam 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 Nabam Tuki with a directive to maintain status quo ante as on 15 December 2015.
Now, the PPA is harbouring plans to merge with the BJP, and prove its strength on the floor of the House in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict. The idea is to have a complete BJP government in the sensitive frontier state. This is a concrete example of what I call the BJP strategy of first entering into an alliance and then pursuing the party to shed its identity and merge.
Assam has been a slightly different story because the BJP had entered into pre-poll alliances with the Asom Gana 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-dominated states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The BJP is already a partner in the Naga People’s Front (NPF) government of Zeliang and is about to forge an alliance with the Mizo National Front (MNF). In Meghalaya, the BJP has a loose alliance with the National 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 10 of the 27 Imphal Municipal Council seats, up from just one in 2011. This after the Neda was formed and Sarma visited Imphal ahead of the civic body elections.
That the Neda means business is indicated by its decision to induct into the platform smaller regional parties like the Ganashakti 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 organisationally in the northeastern states, particularly in Nagaland, 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). Sarma says the BJP would grow in the region, but not at the cost of the regional 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 North East expansion campaign.
The question arises—has the BJP compromised or diluted its known Hindutva ideology to gain space in the North East, 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 alternative route for its allies to bank on in some of these states—the plank of development. Some of the regional 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 North East push, both politically and through development programmes undertaken by Centre, is part of the Narendra 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, Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy has paid dividends from Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Nepal to some extent. Since the North East is the bridgehead to South and Southeast Asia, the BJP could be thinking that having party-led governments in the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya 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! For the results on the ground, one would, of course, have to wait and watch.
The author is a political commentator and is executive director of the Guwahati-based Centre for Development and Peace Studies.