The Northeast: The Last Frontier

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The BJP’s many strategies to capture power and popular imagination in the northeast

THERE IS A subtle battle of metaphors in Tripura, amidst a resounding ideological war. In this Left bastion, where images of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara,with his long hair and silver star-studded beret, surface on his birth anniversary on June 14th before Left cadres, the BJP put up photographs of former king Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarma Manikya Bahadur, in his bejewelled turban and royal finery, in over 3,170 booths on his 110th birth anniversary on August 19th. The BJP—accusing the CPI(M) of favouring ‘outsiders’ like Lenin, Stalin and Che, while trying to erase memories of Tripura’s royal family which ruled the state till 1947—has been celebrating the king’s birth anniversary for the past three years. The party has now demanded that a Bharat Ratna be conferred on the king posthumously and that the Agartala airport be named after him.

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that Debbarma’s contribution to the development of Tripura cannot be forgotten, which the Marxist Government has refused to acknowledge. An ideological and political battle has begun in the state, which has been ruled by Marxist leader Manik Sarkar two decades. The BJP’s delving into the state’s history to project the Manikya dynasty— striking a cultural chord with the people—reflects the essence of its strategy to conquer not just Tripura, but the entire northeast, a melting pot of cultures, in the 2018 Assembly polls.

The party came to power in the region for the first time last year when it defeated the Tarun Gogoi government in Assam. The story of the right wing’s foray into the region goes back to 1946— much before the BJP or Jan Sangh were born—when the RSS, the party’s ideological mentor, sent pracharak Dadarao Pramarth from Nagpur to Assam, then the fulcrum of the region. By the 1970s, RSS pracharaks were spread out across the northeast, quietly building the organisation through ‘contact, communication and cultivation’. Seven decades later, the BJP has started to reap the gains in a part of India that has long been dominated by the Congress and regional parties.

Deviating from its narrative in the rest of the country, the BJP has adopted a two-pronged strategy in the northeast, projecting itself as a force while warming up to regional parties across the eight states in the region. Careful not to tread on their diverse traditions and cultures, the BJP, seen as a cow belt party, is trying to bond even with those outside its traditional vote banks, including Christians, tribals and other ethnic groups. Instead of fighting regional players, the party aligned with them, winning over the support of eight small regional players, which are now part of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). When leaders of these parties met last month in the national Capital, BJP chief Amit Shah made the point that NEDA will not be a mere political platform but will also try to “culturally unite” the northeast, which has over 200 social groups and 180 languages, and establish its emotional link with the rest of the Indian landscape. NEDA will set up a research centre in Guwahati to understand the socio- cultural, economic and linguistic issues of the tribes of the region. It will also look into connectivity, economic development and a unified framework for the northeastern states.

The BJP, which rules in three states—Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh—and has coalition partners heading governments in Nagaland (Naga People’s Front) and Sikkim (Sikkim Democratic Front), seeks to conquer the entire region by 2019. It is going up against the Congress and the Left in three states— Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.

The Prime Minister, the BJP’s face cutting across state and ethnic boundaries, is leading from the front. From an average three per cent vote share in state Assemblies, the BJP’s share in the northeast went up to around 14 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which the party fought under Modi’s leadership. In Manipur, where the party formed the government earlier this year, the BJP’s vote share soared from 2.12 per cent in the last Assembly elections in 2012 to 36.28 per cent in 2014. Ahead of the Assembly elections this February, when Modi had appeared in a red-and- white Meitei headgear with peacock feathers and traditional attire in Imphal, it did not matter to most Manipuris that he spoke in Hindi, a language nearly half the crowd did not understand. As BJP leaders placed the Ningkham Samjin on his head just before he addressed a pre-election rally at the Langjing Achouba, the audience went into a frenzy. The headgear of the Meiteis, the largest ethnic group in the state, is similar to an ornament worn by women playing Krishna in Manipuri dance. Having established the cultural connect, Modi went beyond it with promises of peace and development. Addressing the rally amidst a boycott call by insurgent groups at Imphal, Modi assured the people that if the BJP was voted to power, there would be no blockade in the state. He targeted the Congress, which had ruled Manipur for 15 years. “Those who cannot ensure peace in the state have no right to govern Manipur,” he said. Modi had worn traditional gear even in 2014 in his rally ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Earlier, in Nagaland, he had worn a long red hat with horns, the traditional Naga warrior headgear, while attending the Hornbill festival.

To make the Northeast a ‘gateway for Southeast Asia’, Modi has promised balanced development in the region, which includes a Rs 40,000 crore investment in road and power infrastructure, railway projects and small airports under the UDAN scheme. That the region is important to him became evident soon after the BJP-led NDA came to power in 2014. The Prime Minister’s Office wasted no time planning fortnightly trips of Union ministers to the region. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister had asked ministers visiting the northeastern states to spend at least one night there to send out a message that the region was safe. He wants to link tourism and development in the picturesque terrain of the northeast. Modi will also be inaugurating the first-ever global investment summit to be held in the northeast in February next year.

From an average 3% vote share in state assemblies, BJP's share in the Northeast went up to around 14% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections under Modi's leadership

AMONG THE BJP’S strategies to change the status quo is to take advantage of the northeast’s geo-strategic significance, with 4,300 km of shared borders with South and Southeast Asian countries, to connect it with Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. According to sources present at the NEDA meet, Shah told local leaders that the 3,200 km India-Myanmar-Thailand road would be a game-changer for the region, ensuring investment and employment opportunities.

In Shah’s expansion roadmap for 2019, which envisages the BJP focusing on around 120 seats that it has never won before, the northeast is a crucial part. Of the 25 Lok Sabha seats across the eight states, the BJP had won eight—seven in Assam and one (Union minister Kiren Rijiju) in Arunachal—in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Shah is hoping to capture 19-20 seats in the next General Election, which would mean an additional ten seats from the region. He is leaving no state and no seat to chance. Of the eight states, Mizoram, Sikkim and Nagaland send just one MP each to the Lok Sabha. Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura go hold Assembly polls early next year, while elections in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim will be held in 2019.

The results of the 2018 Assembly elections will be seen as a litmus test for Shah’s mission. In May, Shah spent two days in Tripura—which sends just two members to the Lok Sabha—as part of his 95-day nationwide tour to expand the party’s footprint. The BJP, which has made Tripura its next target, is trying to project itself as the main Opposition party and is banking on the anti- incumbency against the ruling Left, which had won 50 of the 60 seats in the last Assembly elections. Six Trinamool Congress MLAs recently joined the BJP, which does not have a single MLA in the state, and got a 1.54 per cent vote share in the last Assembly elections, with 92 per cent polling being recorded. The BJP is also trying to firm up an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which has the backing of tribals, a section for which a third of the 60 Assembly seats are reserved.

While the BJP is in coalition with the ruling NPF in Nagaland, Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram and Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) in Meghalaya have allied with the BJP. “The idea is to demolish the Congress, not the regional parties. The message is that the BJP is not here to expand at the cost of regional players, which represent the tribal cultures,” said Assam’s high profile minister—and NEDA convenor— Himanta Biswa Sarma, a key figure in the BJP’s northeastern mission. Sarma is the convenor of the NEDA. The BJP, he said, is following the “friendship model” proposed by Modi and Shah. The popular leader chaperoning the BJP in its quest for a Congress-free northeast was himself a Congress man till 2014, when he resigned from the Tarun Gogoi government, where he was health and education minister. He continues to hold the portfolio in the Sarbananda Sonowal government. Sarma, whose slogan ‘Jati, Mati Aaru Bheti (identity, soil and hearth)’ had resonated ahead of the Assam elections, is determined to ensure implementation of a population policy incentivising a two-child norm. The draft he released in April said people with more than two children will not be eligible to apply for government jobs or any kind of government service, including becoming members of panchayats and civic bodies.

In a state where the 2011 census estimated the Muslim population to be at 34.22 per cent, the BJP dislodged the Congress, which had enjoyed three consecutive terms, fighting in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front. The BJP’s vote share went up to 29.5 per cent from 11.49 per cent in 2011 and its tally rose to 60 (of the 89 seats it contested) from five in the previous election when it fought 120 seats. The wounds from the Bihar debacle were still raw when the BJP decided to project Sarbananda Sonowal, a former AGP leader who had joined the party in 2012, as its chief ministerial candidate. The strategy paid off. “We realised the northeast was going the Congress way by default. We needed to tell the people there was a way out. So we decided to localise the election,” said Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary in-charge of the northeast, who had mooted the idea of the NEDA. He believes that the combination of Sonowal, who could consolidate the tribal vote, and Sarma, a bulwark against the Congress, helped the BJP.

“We realised the Northeast was going the Congress way by default. We needed to tell the people there was a way out” - Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary in-charge of northeast

Barring Assam, the BJP’s vote shares in the northeastern state Assemblies were in single digits in 2014, when the Modi government took the reins in Delhi. The change in the political tenor of the region was discernible in the 18 times increase in the BJP’s vote share in Manipur earlier this year. Though the party got 21 seats, ten less than the magic figure, it managed to cobble up the numbers to form the government with the help of the NPF, the NPP and other MLAs. In the run up to the elections, the 78th king of Manipur, Ningthou Leishamba Sanajaoba, shared the dais with Shah at a rally, for the first time endorsing a candidate. He was later invited to the Prime Minister’s rally where he recalled his childhood association with the RSS, which indirectly ran Bal Vidya Mandir, where he studied. He urged Modi to dispel fears about the territorial integrity of the state. The Sangh’s groundwork in the state, where Hindu Meiteis hold sway in around 40 of the 60 seats, is finally paying off.

In Arunachal Pradesh, where the BJP’s vote share went up from 5.21 per cent in the 2009 Assembly polls to 30.97 per cent in the 2014 state elections, the party managed to form a government in December 2016, after 33 of the 43-strong People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) led by Pema Khandu joined hands with it. Interestingly, there was nearly a 16 per cent drop in the party’s vote share in comparison to the General Elections the same year. The state has 60 MLAs and sends two members to the Lok Sabha. Assam had shown a similar trend, with the BJP’s vote share waning from 36.86 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to 29.51 per cent in the 2016 Assembly polls.

The BJP faces big challenges in this uncharted political terrain. While it tries to expand at the oath level, it has to fight mindsets, familiarise with concerns of diverse populations, address strong regional sentiments, dispel apprehensions that it would inflict a Hindutva agenda, confront hurdles of militancy and take on 15-20 year-long regimes. Three of the states—Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland—heading for elections next year are Christian dominated. “The immediate challenge is Tripura. We are gearing up for a battle royale. It’s time to end the misrule of the CPM. We have formed 80 per cent of the booth committees,” said Ram Madhav.

The BJP will raise issues of non-implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission, the controversy over recruitment at educational institutes, journalist Shantanu Bhaumik’s murder, the state’s links with the Rose Valley chit funds and the ‘non-performance’ of the Communist regime, said BJP state in-charge Sunil Deodhar. The party has made Biplab Dev the Tripura unit president. “Up until the 1990s, the royal family still figured in text books. Only later was history painted red. Even renowned musicians SD Burman and RD Burman were not given due recognition because they too belonged to the royal family,” said Dev. In this ideological battle, the BJP is confronting the CPM head on. “The Left is living in the past and feeding the people on alien ideologies. We are trying to come out with alternative politics, trying to touch the hearts and minds of local people,” said Rajat Sethi, who along with Shubhrastha led a team of volunteers in the BJP’s campaign backroom in Assam. The two are now working for the party in other northeastern states.

In Sikkim, though Pawan Chamling’s ruling SDF is an ally of the BJP and a member of NEDA, there is an unease in their relationship. A BJP leader said the SDF was not giving space for the party to grow. The BJP, which had zero vote share in the Assembly elections of 2009, got 2.39 per cent votes in the Lok Sabha and 0.71 per cent votes in the Assembly in simultaneous elections in 2014. If Chamling gets a fifth term next April, he will break Marxist leader Jyoti Basu’s record as the longest-serving chief minister.

According to Sethi, Meghalaya is a difficult state to predict given that of the 60 seats in the Assembly, around 15-20 were plucked by independents. The BJP has recently given newly inducted Union minister KJ Alphons, a Catholic, charge of the Christian-dominated state, where Congress has been in power for a decade. Though Conrad Sangma’s NPP is an ally of the BJP, the two are likely to fight separately. The BJP’s vote share in the 2013 Assembly polls was a minuscule 1.27 per cent and it increased to 9.16 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections the following year. The NPP, with a presence in the Garo hills, the family turf of Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, is expecting several Congress leaders to join the party while the BJP is hoping to win some seats in the Jaintia Hills. Conrad, the son of former Lok Sabha speaker PA Sangma, won the Tura Lok Sabha bypoll last year, defeating the chief minister’s wife Dikkanchi Shira by 192,000 votes. The victory has emboldened the party to take on the Congress on its own. In a bid to allay fears over the BJP curtailing local culture, the party has clarified there would be no beef ban in the state, following apprehensions in the wake of the May notification regulating cattle trade. With the BJP open to possible alliances with non-Congress parties, regional players like the United Democratic Party (UDP), the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) are weighing their options.

“In the Christian-dominated states, there was stiff resistance to the RSS. But the Sangh worked through affiliated organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and the ABVP,” said Ramesh Shiledar, a former RSS pracharak who worked in the northeast for 25 years, starting out in Assam in 1974. He said the RSS now has around a thousand shakhas in the region.

In Mizoram, another Christian-dominated state ruled by the Congress, the BJP is relying on Zoramthanga, a Christian, to make inroads. The BJP got a mere 0.37 per cent votes in the last Assembly election. Zoramthanga is also playing a role in talks between the government and the NSCN (Khaplang) to go ahead with the Myanmar peace process.

The BJP and Nagaland’s ruling NPF, a NEDA partner, don’t see eye to eye on all matters. At the NEDA meet, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio said the framework agreement with the NSCN should be made public and settled before the election. He also suggested that the GST threshold limit, which is Rs 10 lakh in the northeast, should be increased as they were consumer states. In Nagaland, where the Christian population is 88 per cent, the BJP’s vote share was 1.75 per cent in the last Assembly elections.

BJP sources quoted Jitendra Singh, who heads the Doner ministry, as saying at the NEDA meet that rather than bringing the northeast closer to India, an attempt should be made to take India closer to the northeast. He also said in the past three years, the Centre has spent Rs one lakh crore for the development of the northeastern region. Whether the BJP achieves its goal of capturing power, directly or indirectly, in all eight states remains to be seen, but the sun of ambition sure appears to be rising from the east.