Is BJP the New Congress in the Northeast?
Victory yes, but the challenges remain
NEW DELHI: In mid 2013, in the hope of finding an ‘in’ into the Bharatiya Janata Party before the ‘Modi wave’ became the formidable tsunami seen today, I called an old college friend who had risen up the ranks of university politics and found a place behind a desk, rather, behind a designation in the party’s national office.
‘Look, we are winning 2014’, he said as we walked outside the crowded 11 Ashoka Road building. Stopping for an icecream he continued, “with Modi, it’s simple. We are pushing development, the Gujarat model, but with development, you get Hindutva for free. It’s the perfect mix. Without alienating our Hindu core, we can garner the support of those who want change.”
And he was right. But for anyone following the rise of Narendra Modi, this wasn’t news, but what he said next, was. “What we are focusing on now, is spreading our base to regions where we have no footprint, among them, is the Northeast. Our leader, Ram Madhav, remind me to introduce you to him, has set about creating a plan to take over the states. You have to understand, we may be a Hindi heartland party and on the basis of that we are definitely winning 2014, but you never know what happens in the future. We are looking to solidify for the future and in Northeast, we have nothing to lose, but we can wipe the Congress out.”
I never did get to meet Ram Madhav, the man every news channel is chasing today, but with their win in Tripura and Nagaland (albeit through an ally), to add to their Government’s in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal, from being a political non-entity in the region, the BJP has all but wiped out the Congress.
But how did we get here and what does this election mean for the region?
Nagaland, the election that almost wasn’t:
Unlike most other states, in Nagaland, elections aren’t about roads, development or jobs, but rather about the elusive ‘solution’. For over six decades now, the Nagas have been fighting for their sovereignty and ever since the central government initiated talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM) in the 1990’s, the state’s politics has been defined by who can and who will facilitate a solution.
To be honest, a real solution, where the Nagas get some form of ‘sovereignty’ and Nagalim, the territorial integration of all Naga inhabited areas of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, seems highly unlikely. However, following suit, all political parties, underground and overground, as well as civil bodies called for the boycott of the 2018 elections. While the media went to town with the news, this was nothing new.
In 2013, all 60 sitting Naga MLAs flew down to Delhi to meet the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President offering to resign and make way for a solution. I remember reporting on the story with as much enthusiasm as the reports that came out this year. However, when I spoke to a very senior leader, he claimed the boycott was less about the Naga cause and more about the money. He chuckled as the phone line crackled, “You have to understand, in Nagaland you have to spend a lot of money to win elections. Right now, before the elections, everyone is willing to step aside for a solution, but if we fight the election, we will want to make our money back.”
According to a study done by YouthNet, a youth organisation in Nagaland, in the 2013 elections, candidates spent INR. 937 cr. to woo voters. To put that into perspective, in the State’s 2017-18 budget, it was estimated that the State’s own tax and non-tax revenue would be INR 795.96 cr.
This is the vicious cycle of Nagaland's politics - boycott elections for a solution - no solution - huge campaign expenditure - rampant corruption to regain money spent to win said election - no development at the end of five years - boycott elections for a solution.
There was, however, one big difference in this Nagaland election, the return of the three-time former Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio.
In 2014, Neiphiu Rio stepped down as Chief Minister of Nagaland, won an MP election and travelled to Delhi in the hope of securing a ministerial post at the Centre. But his risk went without reward and Rio found himself isolated in the capital, fast losing relevance back home. While his party, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) an ally of the BJP, had moved on, it’s important to remember, in Nagaland elections are about names and there are few bigger names than Rio. Orchestrating the creation of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), while still with the NPF, Rio brokered an alliance with the BJP before the NPF and set about his campaign.
While the church actively campaigned against the BJP for being anti -Christian, elections in the state aren’t about parties, but about candidates, so Rio’s NDPP and the BJP went on a recruitment drive, collecting big names to bolster their campaign. If ground reports are to be believed, despite the efforts of the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) and their clean election campaign, lots of money was spent on all side.
Another interesting aspect is that in Nagaland, there is no such thing as a secret ballot. I mean, of course, you walk into the booth alone when you vote, but who you vote for is often decided by your tribe, family, clan and village council. This idea of pre-selecting candidates possibly stems from the traditional form of Naga democracy where you have the Runa Peyu or the first among equals.
This system was best described to me by a friend in Khonoma, ‘Traditionally our leaders are appointed through a process of selection, not election. There are no candidates, there is no voting, the best amongst us is unanimously selected and then we jointly approach him to represent us.’
As I write this on the evening of March 3,2018, it still remains to be seen who will win a majority and form the government and if Rio loses, he possibly faces his political end. However, one thing is clear, for the BJP Nagaland is a win-win. Both the Nagaland People’s Front and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party are allies. Both are willing to form a government with the BJP and there is an outside chance, that as it happened five years ago, everyone will merge back together and for one government.
In one sense, the Nagaland election has been relatively easy for the BJP. They truly have nothing to lose, but the real challenge starts now.
Once in government, can the BJP deliver? Not on roads, development or jobs, which the state desperately needs, but rather, on the elusive ‘solution’. Yes, PM Modi signed the framework agreement in 2015 with NSCN (IM). But it is sort of an agreement to make an agreement, seemingly more of symbolic gesture before the passing of Isak Swu, the I in the IM, who passed away in 2016.
Yes, the centre has brought in all other rebel groups into the conversation towards a solution, but what exactly is the conversation? No one knows. The BJP may have won Nagaland, but holding on to a state charged with historical, emotional and cultural baggage will be complex.
It is similar to their move in Assam to push out the ‘illegal immigrants’ through the National Register of Citizen where a verification process is been carried out to determine who is a real citizen and who isn’t. It was a big election promise, they are now dragging their feet and in the end, it could all come to nought as the whole process stands on questionable legal ground, as might be the case with the ‘solution’.
The opportunity for the BJP would possibly come from the post-conflict generation, the generation brought up post the 1990’s ceasefire. For them, the conflict and sovereignty are passed down as stories not lived realities, as partition is for many of us in the north, and they want their share of India’s growth story.
Tripura - Where the left is not right:
The election in Tripura was a blowout, an end of an era, more specifically, the Manik Sarkar era. After twenty-five odd years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is out of power in the state and on the face of it, it doesn’t make sense. I mean, in 2013 the BJP got less than 2% of the vote share, 49 of their 50 candidates lost their deposits. On the other hand, Manik Sarkar is publically known to be squeaky clean, his government not only defeated the insurgency, they even managed to rid the state of AFSPA and the state has the highest concentration of government schools in the country. So what went wrong.
Quite simply, their time ran out.
While the Congress has been the long-standing opponent of the Left in Tripura, there has seemingly been an unwritten deal between the two, support in Delhi for a walkover in the east. But this time, the Left was faced with a real opposition force, the BJP and they played smart.
In an almost Left-esque approach, the BJP hit the ground running two years ago, recruiting (from the Congress among others) and creating and a cadre base which went house to house surveying, creating a game plan and then campaigning. They worked out the ethnic formula perfectly, giving huge space to the tribal minorities who have felt alienated from the politics of the region since independence.
Quick background. Before 1947, Tripura was a tribal kingdom. However, over time, the slow trickle of Bengali Hindus from East Bengal, which was initially started by the rulers themselves, was drastically and irreversibly bumped up by both partition in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. This reduced the tribal population from over 50% to less than 30%, making Bengali Hindus the numeric and political majority. This led to the formation of several underground groups, decades of violence and tribal resentment that remains till today.
This gave the BJP fodder to galvanise the tribal hills and form a poll alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (8), who are currently still demanding a separate state for the tribals, Tipraland.
Having played their ethnic card, it was time to play the ‘Gujarat model’. The BJP entered the state at a time when like in Nagaland, a post-conflict generation was old enough to vote. So while the CPI(M) had taken the state from insurgency to peace, and those who remember remained somewhat loyal, the need of the hour was job creation.
Roughly 30% of the state population is between 15 and 29 and at just under 20%, the state has one of the highest unemployment percentages in the country. Unlike Nagaland and Meghalaya, where the BJP was viewed as communal, with a majority Hindu population, Tripura cheered as PM Modi promised them HIRA - Highways, I-ways (internet), Railways and Airways. They promised one job per family and probably the most ambitious and effective promise, bringing in the 7th pay commission for state government employees.
The pre-existing tribal non-tribal rift and the large Hindu population in Tripura, possibly made this the most familiar environment for the BJP and quite undoubtedly they were at their best, but have they promised too much?
The first thing they will have to deal with is the IPFT’s demand for a separate state. Now to be fair, the IPFT’s demand is more rhetoric than reality, but the BJP has failed in a similar situation in Assam with the Bodo. If the BJP is not able to create enough political space for the tribals of Tripura they could be viewed as snubbing or overlooking the indigenous people of the state and be clubbed together with the CPI(M) and Congress.
Now in power, with development on their mind, the BJP is going to not only have to deal with the northeast monsoon, four months of rain that make any infrastructural development almost impossible, they are going to need huge reserves of money. The state budget is inadequate to deliver on their pay commission promise, where will the money come from?
Meghalaya - a state of coalition:
I think everyone knew, a fractured mandate was forgone in Meghalaya and it still remains to be seen who will play king-maker and cobble together an alliance. Will the Congress, which is the single largest party with 21 seats, manage to retain power or is the BJP heading for another Manipur?
As Rio was the big X-factor in Nagaland, in Meghalaya, it was all about Mukul Sangma. Taking oath as Chief Minister in 2010, Congress’s Mukul Sangma, brought in a rare phase of stability to a state riddled with political turmoil, but his iron-fisted style has rubbed many the wrong way. So much so, that there has been an exodus of leaders from the Congress to the BJP, Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party as well as a new party the People’s Democratic Front.
Last year, in the build-up to this election, there was growing chatter about the BJP gaining ground in Meghalaya. A lot of that had to do with the RSS working overtime in the state and the BJP forming the government in Assam and Manipur on the twin planks of development and getting the ‘illegal’ outsiders out.
Meghalaya, like a lot of the region today, has a growing fear of illegal immigration. The fear is that soon, the tribals of the state, like in Tripura, will become a political and numerical minority, a fear the BJP was actively working on. However, the saffron political juggernaut came to a grinding halt with the ban on cow slaughter. It was seen as a Hindu imposition on the Christian / tribal way of life.
As news stories and viral videos of lynchings and mob violence against those transporting cows found their way through social media, the very fear the BJP was looking to act on is the prism they were now viewed through. The sentiment was so strong that the NPP, a national ally of the BJP, chose to go it alone, refusing to openly talk about their alliance.
While the BJP may form the government, Meghalaya should be seen as a loss for them, at least in terms of investment to return. According to people on the ground, the BJP was looking at getting about 10 to 14 seats, allowing them to apply the Manipur formula, form the government with enough seats to matter in the alliance. Plus they had a lot going for them.
The NGT coal ban had massively hit the Jaintia hills, killing their main source of income and it also brought the state economy to a standstill. In 2014 alone, 6 million metric tonnes of coal were extracted and the state government earned INR 600 cr. The ban killed this entire economy, which in turn reduced purchasing power, jobs and concurrent industries like cement. While the ban was imposed by the National Green Tribunal, people blamed the Congress government for not doing enough. To cash in on this resentment in the Jaintia hills the BJP promised a solution in 8 months if brought to power, something that should have brought them political currency in the coal belt.
On the other hand, the political leadership and bureaucracy were unhappy with Mukul Sangma, they wanted change and like in other parts of the Northeast, the party in power at the Centre is always appealing. The state economies are small and they depend on the centre for grants, aid, jobs and contracts. This should have put the BJP in the driver's seat, but as a party, they have not done well and that’s possibly because, in Meghalaya, they failed to understand the complex tribal dynamics.
The state is divided between three main tribes, the Garos, the Khasis and the Jaintias. Each region has its own political parties - Congress (21) and NPP (19) both have Garo leaders and a strong base there, the UDP (6) is from the East Khasi Hills, the HSPDP (2) is from the West Khasi Hills and the state has a history of strong independents (3).
This ethnic mix makes Meghalaya a political jigsaw when compared to Nagaland with their NPF off shoots and Tripura’s neat tribal non-tribal divide. Again, as the party in power at the centre, the lure of an alliance with the BJP will be strong. This is a situation that Amit Shah probably dreams off.
Is BJP the new Congress?
The BJP has moved into the space the Congress held in the region and to a large extent by recruiting former Congress leaders. A lot of that possibly has to do with the fact that the region often goes with the party in power at the centre and both people and politicians alike, are hedging their bets that the BJP is going to come back to power in 2019.
The real Northeast litmus test for the BJP is going to start now.
-Can they deal with the complex ethnic dynamic of the region?
-Can they curb corruption and push through development while still giving space to the regional parties that brought them to power?
-Can they deliver on the huge electoral promises that impact the idea of India (namely Naga sovereignty and the creation of Nagalim, illegal immigration in Assam, Tipraland, Manipur’s insurgencies, parallel economies)?
-Will they finally be able to create trade centres and routes into Myanmar and Bangladesh?
-How will they create jobs?
-And finally, will they be able to deal with the Monsoon? (You might think I’m being trivial, but trust me, spend a monsoon on the ‘highways’ of the Northeast and you love the potholed roads of Delhi).
If they can, they will solidify their hold on the region, because, in the end, aspiration trumps everything.
(Avalok Langer is a journalist and author of a book on the North East In Pursuit of Conflict)