Guwahati: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could pay a heavy price in the North East for taking a “tough stand” over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which had stirred the hornet’s nest in the region in December 2018 and the following month.
The Bill was viewed as a threat to the indigenous population of the North East and had triggered widespread agitations. The BJP — which has set a target to win 22 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats spread over eight states in the region — may not find it easy to achieve its goal as most of its erstwhile allies have decided to contest forthcoming polls on their own.
BJP national general-secretary Ram Madhav — after holding discussions with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Bodoland People's Front (BPF), Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), National People's Party (NPP), Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) on 13 March — had hinted at “all not being well” for the BJP in the North East.
Addressing a press conference after winding up his North East visit, Madhav had said: “In some of the Lok Sabha seats, our North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) partners are contesting against the BJP, as they are contesting separately. We welcome their decision and wish them luck. However, after the election, they will join the NEDA, and will support Prime Minister Narendra Modi post the polls.”
The falling apart of NEDA
The NEDA is a political platform that was floated by BJP in 2016. The NEDA comprises of regional political parties from the North East and all of them are fundamentally anti-Congress.
At least eight partners of NEDA had joined the agitation against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government for taking a “tough stand” against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in December 2018 and January 2019. For the BJP, it was important to cement its grip over the electorate of the North East — quick pre-poll alliances were of great significance, but the developments did not go the way BJP national president Amit Shah had wished.
BJP is now pitched in electoral fights in at least four states in the North East. In Tripura, where there are two Lok Sabha seats, the IPFT — BJP ally in the state government — has decided to fight against the BJP, turning the poll battle multi-cornered with the Left and the Congress also in the fray. “And this happened despite the negotiations being held by Ram Madhav himself,” a BJP insider said.
Ideally, the BJP should have been on a roll in the North East, but it is finding itself on a sticky wicket, with almost everything — from party candidates to partners, and even a resurgent Opposition — going against it.
It all started in 2018. During the Nagaland Assembly polls, held in February 2018, BJP dumped its ally Naga People's Front (NPF) and entered into an alliance with the newly-formed NDPP led by Neiphiu Rio, the incumbent Nagaland chief minister. NPF leader and former Nagaland chief minister TR Zeliang was a founder member of the NEDA.
The December 2018 Mizoram Assembly election witnessed a high-voltage drama as NEDA partner Mizo National Front (MNF) decided not to forge an alliance with the saffron party and go alone. BJP also fought the election, but only managed to win one seat, while the MNF won 26 out of the 40-member Assembly.
Following the Assembly election, the region witnessed widespread agitation over the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Local allies had no choice but to distance themselves from the BJP. The AGP even left the BJP-led government over the Bill.
Now, the Bill has lapsed in Parliament and the AGP has returned to the BJP fold, but by doing so, the party has put its credibility at stake.
Rise of a new leader
Protests against Citizenship Bill saw the rise of a new popular leader in North East – Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma – and his party NPP. The NPP has moved out of its home turf in Meghalaya and will contest on as many as 33 Arunachal Pradesh Assembly seats in the 11 April Assembly election. The NPP has also fielded its candidates from 14 Lok Sabha seats in the North East. Though NPP is not averse to BJP, but a pre-poll alliance with NPP — just like the AGP — would have taken the steam out of the backlash that BJP is still facing over Citizenship Bill.
NPP national general-secretary Vivekraj Wangkhem said NPP has "never believed in a pre-poll understanding as we have our own identity.”
Asserting that NEDA is a political alliance and not an electoral alliance, he said, “We fought Assembly polls in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland alone and now we are contesting the election in Arunachal Pradesh without entering into seat-sharing agreement with any party. In a post-poll scenario, we will take a call."
Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a professor in the political science department of Gauhati University, said that the regional parties were left with no option other than distancing themselves from the BJP. “The backlash against the BJP over Citizenship Amendment Bill made the regional allies uncomfortable. They had no choice but to back-off... In run up to the elections, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill protests have not sustained. The protesting groups are no more talking about it and AGP has again rejoined the BJP," he opined.
He said the NPP, led by present Meghalya chief minister, deciding to contest the election alone is big jolt for the BJP.
Dutta claimed that Congress was unable to derive political mileage out of the agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
“Voters here have also matured beyond emotive politics. This time, the voters have maintained silence so it is difficult to read what’s in their minds. Ultimately, it will also be about their day-to-day issues, and if their MP has been able to solve these or not. The eectorate would assess the performance of the government at state and Centre, and BJP has more chances with new faces," he said.
SKM backs off
The Himalayan state of Sikkim would witness a simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, to decide the fate of country’s longest-serving chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling of Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). The BJP has maintained ‘distance’ from Chamling and his party, although the SDF has been a part of NEDA for the past one year.
The BJP was hoping to join hands with SKM, which is the main Opposition party in Sikkim. Ram Madhav had even tweeted about both the parties entering into an alliance. However, SKM walked out from the deal.
Sikkim Krantikari Morcha SKM is the main opposition party in Sikkim. It’s leaders led by President of SKM, Sh P S Goley and 2 MLAs met me today to finalise alliance with BJP in the state. State BJP President D S Chauhan and Prabhari Nitin Nabin we’re also present pic.twitter.com/1fC1sCpdKp
— Chowkidar Ram Madhav (@rammadhavbjp) March 8, 2019
BJP fields new faces in Assam
In Assam, BJP has dropped five of its seven sitting MPs, including veteran RSS functionary and Tezpur MP RP Sarmah, Union minister Rajen Gohain from Nowgong constituency, veteran leader Bijoya Chakravarty from Guwahati, and Ramen Deka from Mangaldoi.
In a surprising move, the BJP also denied ticket to NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma as the party wants him to deliver maximum seats in the North East rather than concentrating on one seat, a very unlikely move from the BJP, which claims to be a cadre-based party and doesn’t usually rely on individuals.
Interestingly, before the schedule for the general election was announced, Sarma had told reporters in Guwahati: “We have no doubts that BJP, along with other NEDA partners, will win as many as 21 seats out of 25 in North East. These MPs would help Modi form government for second straight term.”
The rise and fall of BJP since 2014
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, riding high on strong Modi wave, the BJP had won seven out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam. There was a BJP surge, boosted by rebellion in the Congress. In 2016 Assam Assembly polls, massive switch-over led by Himanta Biswa Sarma saw history being made with the formation of the first BJP-led government in the state.
In a bid to adopt the Assam success model across North East, Ram Madhav brainstormed to form the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and Sarma was made its convener.
What followed in next three years set a record of sorts as the Sarma-Madhav duo, along with regional partners, and dissident Congressmen made entire North East “Congress-mukt.”
Out of the eight northeastern states, BJP led the government in four – Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. BJP is a part of two other governments in Nagaland and Meghalaya, and their NEDA partners are in power in Mizoram and Sikkim.
In fact, while participating in a NEDA meeting in March 2018, BJP president Amit Shah had laid out the framework on how BJP and its allies should approach the Lok Sabha polls. The agenda was set: To get maximum seats from the North East. However, things haven't fallen in place.
Senior Congress leader and former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi said, “The BJP government has nothing to show for itself in Assam. That’s the reason it has dropped so many sitting MPs and brought new faces.”
Gogoi claimed that Congress has “regained its lost ground” across North East. “Many regional parties can also ally with us in a post-poll scenario. That’s something which the BJP is very uncomfortable and scared about,” he added.
Meanwhile, in Assam, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) — the second-most powerful Opposition political party — has decided to contest from only three Lok Sabha segments that it had won in 2014. The party, led by Badaruddin Ajmal, has influence over Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam, and in 2014 the party had contested seven seats. The BJP is calling it a "Congress proxy".
BJP’s state president Ranjeet Dass said, “AIUDF was formed with minority agenda. In the past, they have fought sometimes against Congress and on few occasions as an ally of the Congress. But this time, it (their alliance) is no secret as AIUDF is contesting from three seats only.”
He said that BJP is not only contesting in Hindu-dominated areas, but also from the places where minorities have a say.
The author is Guwahati - based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com
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Updated Date: Mar 28, 2019 22:09:53 IST