Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Politics in the Northeast is the story of belling the cat all over again

In the Shadow of a Perpetual Hegemon, Northeast Politics is Necessarily Transactional

Has the Bhartiya Janata Party really won the hearts and minds of the Northeast, a region once the bastion of the Congress. The party is in power in four states. In the three remaining states too, the party claims to be in power, not by winning electoral majorities, but forging alliances with the winners – all regional parties for now.

It also speaks volumes about BJP’s ideological character that its imprint remains weakest in the three Christian states of the region, Mizoram – where it has just one Buddhist Chakma MLA, Meghalaya 2 MLAs and Nagaland 12 MLAs. This contrasts for instance with Congress which has won or lost majority votes in all Northeast states several times, but never saw resistance to it suggesting a religious hue.

If the electorate in these Christian states have not accepted BJP in any substantial way, what is compelling the winning regional parties to still choose to share power with BJP even when the latter has negligible number of MLAs in their Assemblies? The answer probably is an endemic psychology of insecurity which has led most Northeast states to see themselves in a patron-client relation with New Delhi, making them believe their welfare depends on the patronage of the party in power at the Centre.

Far from being ideological, these alliances are transactional. If tomorrow there were to be a change of guards in New Delhi’s corridors of power, quite predictably party alliances in Northeast too would begin to transform. This is not just true of the Christian states, but also others like Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur which are known for migration tendencies of legislators towards power centres. However, more than fickle politics, this is also the old story of mice belling the cat so as live in peace with the hegemon they cannot avoid.

In Assam and Tripura the first terms of the BJP governments were by electoral victories. In Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, BJP governments’ first avatars were virtually Congress in new bottles, made possible by large scale defections with liberal helps from their respective governors. In their second terms however, going to the elections as ruling parties and bolstered by the clout that their party was also in power at the Centre, BJP retained these four states comfortably.

The February 2023 elections to three Northeast state Assemblies, results of which were declared on March 2, also have interesting insights to offer. The only state BJP won clearly with a little support from local ally, Indigenous People’s Front Tripura, is Tripura. In the house of 60, BJP returned 32 seats and IPFT just 1. Even so, this tally is four and seven short respectively from their tallies in the last elections. In the other two states, Meghalaya and Nagaland, though BJP now claims victory, it is by other means. In Meghalaya the party managed only 2 seats and in Nagaland 12, the same for both as in the last elections.

In Nagaland, BJP’s respectable tally is largely thanks to a seat sharing arrangement with the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, NDPP, of chief minister Neiphiu Rio, which won 26 seats. In the 60-member house NDPP set up candidates in only 40 constituencies, leaving the remaining 20 for BJP, but close observers have pointed out, many winners on BJP tickets would have contested on NDPP ticket were there to be no seat sharing between the two parties. This they say is Rio’s masterstroke. He now has the party in power in New Delhi as friend but suitably reined in.

In Meghalaya, BJP and its ally the ruling National People’s Party, NPP, of chief minister Conrad Sangma, had parted ways before the February elections. Indeed, the BJP campaign, spearheaded by its top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, went full throttle accusing the Sangma government of non-performance and rampant corruption. The party’s belief probably was that although BJP was unlikely to win a majority on its own, the verdict would be hopelessly fractured and the party with its much more abundant resources may even be able to clobber together an alliance it can lead. This hope proved illusory, and the party could only manage to win back the two urban constituencies it held, where non-Christian are concentrated.

This article was first published in The Telegraph, Kolkata. The original can be read HERE

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