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Congress fails to seize opportunity created by Citizenship Amendment Bill as BJP fights back to retain grip on North East

Last January, protests swept the North East against the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 which sought to give citizenship to a section of non-Muslim refugees from some neighbouring countries. The ire was against the BJP which had aggressively campaigned and pushed for the passage of the bill in Parliament.

The widespread notion was that the BJP’s performance would be severely affected in the forthcoming general elections. The future of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) – a conglomerate of non-Congress political parties led by the BJP – was in doubt with three allies including the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) severing their ties with the alliance.

 Congress fails to seize opportunity created by Citizenship Amendment Bill as BJP fights back to retain grip on North East

File image of Assam Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. PTI

Weeks later, the situation had changed drastically following BJP’s decision not to table the bill in Rajya Saba. The agitation was over and the AGP renewed ties with the BJP which it had severed two months ago. The BJP-AGP deal includes a pre-poll alliance which allotted three seats to the regional party out of a total of 14 in Assam.

Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma who was in the vanguard of the movement against the bill was quoted by the media as saying that he would reconsider the bill if all the stakeholders in the northeastern states were taken into confidence.

“All are with us,” NEDA convener and senior Assam BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a brief conversation after he was posed with some queries on the alliance.

The North East with a total of 25 seats is high on the BJP’s agenda for the impending polls along with West Bengal and Odisha. Of the 21 seats, it is contesting across all the eight states in the North East, BJP is expecting to perform well in Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur where the party has its own governments.  These states constitute a large share of 20 seats with Assam having the highest share with 14. A post-poll alliance is envisaged with the winners of the other four states who are members of NEDA.

BJP has set an ambitious target of winning more than 20 seats for the alliance. Whether that can be fulfilled remains to be seen but the chances are bright that the NEDA will improve upon its tally of 11 in the last General Elections. The lapse of the bill apart, there are other factors which could put the alliance at an advantage over the Congress in the North East.

“The current situation indicates that the BJP and its allies could have an edge over the Congress in the General Elections. The alliance has remained intact with only two parties – United Democratic Front (Meghalaya) and Nagaland People’s Front – deciding to part ways but that is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the outcome of the polls,” said political commentator Nani Gopal Mahanta. He added that the shape of things to come was evident in the recently held panchayat polls in Assam where the BJP had secured 42 percent of the seats.

Congress on the backfoot

For the first time, the forthcoming General Election will be held without a Congress government in any of the states in the North East. This could put the Congress at a disadvantage since the hill states have displayed a tendency in the past to elect candidates belonging to the ruling party.

Sensing the danger, the North East Coordination Congress Committee (NECCC) was reconstituted last year with former prime minister Manmohan Singh as its patron and former Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma as the chairman. Its goal was to strengthen the party in the region but there has hardly been any impact on the ground.

“BJP’s expansion in the North East and how it has managed to sustain the alliance with regional parties ought to be studied by our (Congress) party. BJP could not fulfill most of the promises made during the previous General Elections and its leaders have also reiterated that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would be tabled in Parliament again if it wins the elections and still the party seems to be going strong. Finally, NECCC could not match the dynamism of NEDA which was seen to be much more active and accommodative,” said a former Congress Member of Parliament said on condition of anonymity.

Among the eight states, Congress is the weakest in Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim which have a total of four seats. Observers are of the view that the ruling regional parties in Nagaland and Sikkim which are also members of NEDA have an edge while the BJP stands a chance of winning only in Tripura. A fierce contest between the Congress and the BJP and its allies is expected in both the seats in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh (West), Outer Manipur and at least four seats in Assam.

Situation in Assam

In Assam, Congress is expected to regain its base among a large chunk of Bengali speaking Muslim voters in the three constituencies of Dhubri, Barpeta and Karimganj from where the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) had won in 2014. AIUDF is increasingly becoming unpopular among this community and fast losing ground in Assam’s political arena like the AGP.

But Congress is fast losing ground to the BJP in its traditional bastions including the tea tribe that inhabit a large swathe in central and eastern Assam. The BJP has made rapid inroads at the grassroots which was reflected in the panchayat polls. In this regard, the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which has been silently working for many years through a range of strategies has been no less vital.

A large number of BJP and AGP workers had opposed the renewal of the alliance and the pre-poll pact between the two parties. So it is uncertain if the party functionaries would actually cooperate in the three constituencies where an alliance has been struck. But the pact has enhanced BJP’s acceptability among large sections of the Assamese speaking voters many of whom had recently hit the streets against the bill.

Finally, the chances of the anti-talks faction of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) indulging in violence ahead of the polls to harm the BJP’s prospects look bleak in the backdrop of the recent developments in Myanmar’s Taga where its camps were dismantled. ULFA is in disarray like some smaller Manipuri separatist groups, forced to relocate and quite unlikely to be in a position to execute major operations very soon. Convincing the Myanmar Army to initiate action against the rebel groups has been a tremendous success for New Delhi which was reciprocated with additional deployment of troops in south Mizoram to prevent the entry of Arakanese insurgents.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 12:08:47 IST

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