Mix Of Anti-Incumbency And Chutzpah Help BJP Gatecrash Into India’s North East
What factors contributed to the BJP’s improved performance in the Northeast?
COLOMBO: A mixture of anti-incumbency sentiment and sheer chutzpah has helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, gatecrash into power in the North Eastern States of Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya in the recently held State Assembly elections.
These states were long thought to be the preserve of the Congress, the Left, and local parties. They were thought to be inhospitable to the BJP which was seen as a North Indian-centered party of Hindu nationalists. Except for Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya have non-Hindu majorities mostly Christian.
But the scenario has completely changed now. Due to a variety of factors, these States now see the BJP in a new light even as the BJP has shown that it can change its image to suit local conditions.
With wins in the latest State Assembly elections held in late February, the BJP is in power in 22 of the 29 Indian States. It is expected to form the government in Meghalaya also though the Congress emerged as the single largest party.
The BJP won the Tripura elections convincingly by defeating the entrenched Communist Party of India (Marxist). But it captured Nagaland and Meghalaya governments by forming both pre and post polls alliances with local parties.
The BJP’s main aim was to dethrone the Congress and the CPI(M) in the North East. And towards that end, it encouraged local tribal parties to unite and make a bid for power with its support. It has succeeded in this endeavor.
In Meghalaya, the BJP has ousted the Congress brazenly by forming a post poll tie up with a formidable local party, though the Congress had emerged as the single largest party at the polls. The BJP has repeated what it did in Goa, where too, the Congress had emerged as the single largest party but could not form the government because the BJP had cleverly forged a post-poll alliance to pip the Congress to the post.
Though the BJP has only two Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), it encouraged Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) to tie up with other tribal parties like the UDP, HSPDP and the PDF and make a bid for power with 34 MLAs in the 60-member House to prevent Congress from forming the government as the single largest party. The BJP would be a part of the new government.
In contrast, the Congress failed to rope in allies just as the CPI(M) failed to do so in Tripura.
Why BJP Succeeded
One of the reasons for the success of the BJP and the failure of the Congress and CPI(M) lies in history. In the North Eastern States, the BJP has no big baggage to carry as it is a new entrant. But the Congress and the CPI(M) have a big baggage, which is a long period of “incumbency”.
They are forced to safeguard their long established “primacy” in every election and government formation. They have been the top dogs for long and feel the need to continue to be that. Therefore, they are not amenable to compromise with other parties to the latter’s satisfaction.
It is therefore time both the Congress and the CPI(M) tried to respect other parties if they want to come back to power.
Architects of BJP’s Victory
The BJP would not have registered such stunning success if it did not have good poll managers. The architects of the BJP’s successful electoral and post electoral management are its President Amit Shah and its National General Secretary Ram Madhav, whose innovative thinking and bold moves helped the party reach out to local tribal groups even though they are mostly Christian.
The duo was able to rid the local Christian majorities of fears that the BJP, being a Hindu nationalist party, would obliterate the uniqueness of the local tribes which are not only non-Hindu but culturally very different from the rest of the Indian population.
They were able to overcome the high decibel anti-BJP and anti-Hindutwa propaganda by successfully propagating the value of achieving economic development through a cooperative relationship with the BJP-led Central government in New Delhi. The development cooperation line struck a chord with the educated youth looking for employment and modern facilities.
However, clever and skillful political policies and management were not the only reasons for the BJP’s victory. It had a lot to do a lot with anti-incumbency arising from the inability of the ruling parties to solve pressing local issues despite being in power for long.
In Tripura, time had run out for the CPI (M) and its long serving Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. Though the CPI(M) had rid the State of insurgencies, it had not solved the problems of the modern generation.
Roughly 30% of Tripura’s population is between 15 and 29, but the State has one of the highest unemployment rates in India. Tripura youth fell for Modi’s promise of “HIRA” or “diamond” comprising “Highways, I-ways (internet), Railways and Airways.” He promised one job per family. He also promised a huge hike in salaries of State government employees.
The BJP also used the rift between the immigrant Hindu Bengali majority and the local Tripura tribals. While appealing to the Hindu Bengalis on the basis of jobs and Hindutwa nationalism, the BJP overnight became the champion of the political ambitions of the tribals in the face of decades old migrant Bengali domination.
As an observer put it, In Nagaland, elections are not about development but about money to spend in elections and earning money through corruption after the elections.
Believe it or not, according to a study done by YouthNet, a youth organization in Nagaland, in the 2013 elections, candidates spent INR. 9370 million (US$ 144 million) to woo voters! To put that into perspective, the State’s total tax and non-tax revenue projected in the 2017-2018 would be less at INR 7960 million (US$ 122 million)! Naga politician openly admit that they need money to fight elections and make money after winning elections.
In Nagaland, having the support of local tribal personalities is very important for winning elections. The BJP wooed the most prominent ones. And both the local parties, the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) were coopted as allies.
The BJP, which had won only one seat in the 2013 Nagaland State Assembly polls, bagged 12 seats this year, while its ally, the newly-formed NDPP, won 17 seats in the 60-member House. The NPF became the single largest party in the House with 27 seats. But with the support of the Janata Dal (United)’ one member, the NDPP with BJP is expected to form a government.
In Meghalaya, the ruling Congress faced a challenge from regional forces like the homegrown National People’s Party (NPP), a rare pre-poll alliance of the United Democratic Party (UDP), Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Garo National Council (GNC), and the new entrant BJP.
Though the Congress emerged as the single largest party, it could not form a government because it could not rope in allies while the BJP could, even though it had won only two seats. This was because it encouraged the NPP and other local parties to unite and make a bid for power. For such an encouragement it will be given a place in the government, albeit as a junior partner.
The Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance (MUA) government headed by Mukul Sangma had an incumbency issue. The Chief Minister was accused of running a Presidential form of government keeping with him 18 portfolios and taking arbitrary decisions. Many rebelled against this and these included Rowell Lyngdoh (Deputy Chief Minister and legislator since 1983), Prestone Tynsong (a three-term legislator), Sniawbhalang Dhar, Ngaitlang Dhar, and Comingone Ymbon who helped bankroll the Congress in the last elections.