Assam verdict, NDA rule at Centre hurdles for Congress to regain foothold in North East as four states from region vote within two years
The significance of the region can be understood from the fact that it accounts for 25 Lok Sabha seats, more than half of which come from Assam alone
Over the next two years, four North-East states – Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura – go to the polls. In 2016, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got elected in Assam for the first time, it had a ripple effect in the rest of the North East region as it struck alliances with regional parties and went on to wrest power in all the states.
On Sunday, the BJP improved its own record and became the first non-Congress government to return to power in Assam, the largest state in the North East. BJP’s expansion in the North East has happened largely at the cost of Congress which until 2014, till it was in power at the Centre, was incumbent in five North-East states including Assam.
Senior leaders of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a political coalition floated by the BJP in 2016, feel that the Assam verdict could help them consolidate their political strength but Congress is of the opinion that it could stop the incumbents from being voted again by focusing on its electoral strategy for the region. Experts however feel that while it would strengthen NEDA’s position, it could face the challenges of anti-incumbency as they have been in power for five years in all the states.
“The Assam verdict will certainly lead to further consolidation of NEDA in North East, similar to the domino effect that 2016 results had. It may face challenges in some states like Mizoram where its alliance is not very cordial. But in most North-East states, the regional parties do not have much of an option but to remain in this coalition. It is like a TINA (there is no alternative) factor,” said Nani Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University.
The significance of the region can be understood from the fact that it accounts for 25 Lok Sabha seats, more than half of which come from Assam alone. The coalition is in power in all the North East states and BJP has chief ministers in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura apart from Assam. All eyes are now on whether the Assam verdict could have an impact on the North-East states that go to polls over the next two years particularly Tripura and Meghalaya.
“Our development agenda led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi bore fruit in Assam and it will reflect in the rest of North East states as well. In Tripura too, our government is focusing on development. Assam is the gateway to North East and the rest of the states (in the region) connect with it emotionally, politically and commercially. This is unique to the North East. Historically also, parties which do well in Assam have a dominant political presence in rest of North East,” said Vinod Sonkar, BJP’s national secretary and Tripura in-charge.
“It is of course always more challenging to return to power because it comes with a lot of challenges like incumbency, expectations of people. But we returned to power in Assam and the way rest of our state governments are working, I am confident that we will do well in the rest of the northeastern states as well,” he said.
Tripura goes to poll in 2023 and BJP’s key challenger in the election will be the Left Front and the Congress. In 2018, Biplab Kumar Deb took over as the first BJP chief minister of the state ending the nearly 25-year rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the same year, BJP in alliance with the National People’s Party (NPP) and smaller regional parties formed the government in Meghalaya.
Leaders of NPP said that more than the win in Assam, it is NDA’s return to power at the Centre that could give the alliance an edge in Meghalaya when it goes to poll in 2023. “Trend in North East states election show that they tend to go with parties that are in power in the centre. It's not about Assam, it is more about who is in power in Delhi. North-East states depend wholly on the centre,” said Wanweiroy Kharlukhi, senior NPP leader and Rajya Sabha member.
Kharlukhi added that with some rare exceptions, Meghalaya elections have not seen single parties get a majority and the trend is likely to continue in coming years. The constituents of Chief Minister Conrad Sangma led Meghalaya government includes his party, NPP, BJP and other regional players like United Democratic Party (UDP), Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and People's Democratic Front (PDF).
NEDA’s ascent to power in North East over the last five years has happened at the expense of Congress whose political footprint in the region has drastically reduced since it lost power at the centre in 2014. Senior leaders of the party feel that the Assam verdict will not have any impact on the rest of the North East region and a lot will depend on how the Congress strategises for upcoming elections.
“It totally depends on how we prepare for the election. Whatever happened in Assam does not mean that it will happen in Meghalaya or other North-East states as well. It depends on how we give tickets, what the preparations are and how we do our homework properly. Normally the trend is what happens in Assam, does not repeat in Meghalaya because it has its own ideology, identity and issues,” said Vincent H Pala, senior Congress leader and Lok Sabha member from Shillong constituency.
Pala attacked the BJP saying that the people of North East have realised that despite the party being in power at the Centre, the region has not got any special focus or financial aid. “States like Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are in a financial mess because they are not even getting their due share properly,” he said.
Experts however feel that the verdict in Assam and BJP’s return to power at the Centre in 2019, will make it more difficult for Congress to revive itself in the North East. They add that apart from a shrinking political footprint, it is also not the preferred national party for regional parties to ally with.
“With the shrinking base of Congress, they are no longer an option for the regional parties which have largely relied on the BJP to strike alliances. Congress is in a performance dilemma. It is an all-umbrella party that wants to capture all issues which do not keep in mind that India’s politics is becoming more specific. Congress has lost its traditional vote base in the North East and its revival will only get difficult from here,” Mahanta said.
The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports at the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.
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