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How the BJP Set the Agenda for Its Ambitious ‘Look Northeast’ Policy

The BJP has continually attempted to build political inroads into the seven states in Northeastern India in 2016 and not entirely without success.

A collage of some of the important players in the politics of Northeast India.

A collage of some of the important players in the politics of Northeast India.

The year 2016 shall go down in the political history of the Northeast as one that saw a national political party other than the usual player – Congress – for the first time try and make an aggressive foray into the region.

With the year taking a turn, a look back at the political developments in the region throughout the past year only points to this strong trend.

The new national party under focus in the Northeast, the Bharatiya Janata Party, embarked on a game plan of capturing power in the region by unseating – or destabilising – almost all five of the seven state governments under the control of its national rival, the Congress, with mixed success even when some of those dispensations were elected barely a year ago.

Assam

The BJP’s ‘look Northeast’ plan yielded its first result in May in the form of a rousing victory against the Congress in Assam. It was the party’s first complete win in an assembly election in a northeastern state.

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Promising the people of the state a poriborton (change) from the 15 years of Congress rule and by cleverly playing the ‘Jati Mati Bheti’ (protection of community, land and base) card against the majority communities’ long-suppressed insecurity of the “illegal Bangladeshis,” the party, together with its allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front, wrested an impressive 86 of the 126 assembly seats, thus catapulting the AGP-turned BJP state president Sarbananda Sonowal to become the chief minister for the first time.

The electoral success in Assam certainly pushed the BJP to get more organised in taking forwards its plan in the Northeast of wiping out Congress from one of its last strongholds. Until then, even after losing Assam, the Congress still held power in four of the seven states.

The result was the launch of the North East Development Alliance (NEDA) in May end, a platform that would allow the BJP to tie up with the regional parties to share power and thereby posit Congress as the sole enemy, responsible for all the ills that had gripped the region. It managed to rope in ten regional parties under the NEDA umbrella.

Guwahati: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah with other leaders at North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) conclave at Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI7_13_2016_000218B)

Guwahati: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah with other leaders at North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) conclave at Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI7_13_2016_000218B)

The BJP had, however, set the ball rolling much before its win in Assam and the formation of NEDA. One could trace it back to the end of 2015 in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, where it had 11 members in the 60-seater assembly – the largest contingent in any northeastern state prior to winning Assam.

Arunachal Pradesh

The party began – first covertly and then openly – backing a group of 22 dissident MLAs of the ruling Congress in the state led by a politically ambitious former minister, Kalikho Pul. In the following months, the tug of war for power between the Congress and the BJP reached a crescendo and led to a series of unfortunate events beginning in December 2015 through the better part of 2016.

For the first time in the country’s parliamentary politics, Arunachal saw its governor J. P. Rajkhowa – appointed by the BJP-led central government in May 2015 – allowing the dissident MLAs to convene an assembly session, first at a community hall and then another in a hotel in December 2015. The permission was given because the Nabam Tuki led Congress government locked up the assembly after the governor decided not to heed to its suggestion to have the session at a later date.

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Kalikho Pul sworn in as Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh by governor J. P. Rajkhowa in Itanagar. Credit: PTI

Delivering its judgment on petitions filed by Tuki and the ousted speaker Nabam Rebia, in July the Supreme Court indicted the governor for overstepping his powers granted by the constitution.

To make matters worse, this imbroglio even led to Pul taking his own life in the coming months. With fellow MLAs being forced to return to the mother party from the NEDA ally People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), where they had parked themselves to form a government, Pul was left out in the cold alone to lick his wounds. Just days after the dissident MLA Pema Khandu was sworn in as a Congress state chief minister, Pul hanged himself at the chief minister’s bungalow in Itanagar.

The power struggle between the Congress and the BJP continued when just weeks after Pul’s death, Khandu deserted the Congress to join the PPA once again. In October, the BJP decided to come onboard and join the Khandu government, thus fulfilling its ambition to become a part of yet another northeastern state government after Assam by unseating the Congress.

Arunachal, which will go to the polls in 2019, now has only three Congress MLAs, even though the people of the state sent 47 to the house in the last polls.

Even as the ugly political theatre in Arunachal was continuing to unfold, the BJP propelled simultaneous efforts against the 15-year-old Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress government in Manipur. The state, going to polls in early 2017, is the next target of the BJP after the Assam win.

Manipur

In Manipur too, the modus operandi adopted by the BJP was the same – reaching out to a group of 25 disgruntled Congress MLAs. The MLAs demanded that Singh execute a cabinet reshuffle that he had promised them some time ago or else they would quit the party.

This time, however, the Congress leadership in New Delhi was not as complacent as it initially was in the case of Arunachal. In March, the Congress president Sonia Gandhi replaced the deputy chief minister Gaikhangam Gangmei with T.N. Haokip to be the state Pradesh Congress Committee chief.

Although some party members and MLAs joined the BJP even after the revamp, the Singh government remains stable.

Lately, what has added further pelf to it is the growing ethnic divide between the Nagas and the state’s majority community, the Meiteis, many of whom are increasingly beginning to believe that the BJP government at the Centre might compromise with Manipur’s borders to fulfill the Naga Accord – the clauses of which have curiously been kept a secret by the Narendra Modi government for over a year now.

They fear that the Centre might give in to the longstanding demand of the separatist group, the NSCN (Isak-Muivah), of greater Nagalim, which includes land from the hill districts of Manipur and some other northeastern states.

The BJP set its eyes on Manipur not without covering its basis. Years of ground work by its affiliate, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – just like in Assam and parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya – had made possible for the right wing party to make a foray into the valley areas inhabited by the Hindu Meiteis, who control 40 of the state’s 60 assembly seats. In September, when the BJP president Amit Shah was in Imphal to address a meeting of party workers, there were thousands of newly inducted karyakartas, primarily from the Meitei community, who attended it.

BJP president Amit Shah addresses a rally in Imphal. Credit: PTI

BJP president Amit Shah addresses a rally in Imphal. Credit: PTI

Led by Khumukcham Joykishan, the BJP’s legislative party leader and a member of its core team set up for election management, the party was seen at the forefront of protests demanding from the implementation of the inner line permit (ILP) from the Congress government, supported by the Meiteis to protect their land from “outsiders”.

It was at a time when the BJP government at the Centre was reportedly fuelling a simultaneous protest in Churachandpur, which was spearheaded by the Paites and other tribes inhabiting the tribal district against three controversial Bills passed by the Singh government in the state assembly in August. The protest – what the Paites alleged – was against the Meites’ attempt at grabbing their land (Singh is a Meitei) and was actively supported by the Nagas.

The fact that the Centre later rejected one of the Bills and returned the other two to the state government for reconsideration led many Meiteis to look at the Modi government with suspicion.

The suspicion increased when the Centre remained silent on the more than a month long economic blockade called by the powerful Naga civil society organisation in Manipur, the United Naga Council (UNC). The blockade, called on November 1 against the state government’s decision to bifurcate some of the Naga-dominated districts to create new districts, had been causing immense hardship to common people from across the state, leading to exorbitant rise in prices of essential commodities.

While the Centre was wavering on the issue, Singh made the right noises to match the rising public anger, particularly in the valley districts. He demanded that the Centre intervene to influence the UNC to call off the blockade and even put its president Gaidon Kamei and a senior functionary behind bars.

By the time the Centre rose to the issue and condemned the blockade and sent the home minister Kiren Rijiju to Imphal on December 23, considerable damage had been done to the party’s base among the Meiteis. To the surprise of the party, Joykishan left the BJP to join Congress, thus signaling the way in which the wind had begun blowing in the state. Even the BJP’s election management committee president, Thounaojam Chaoba Singh, had reportedly threatened to quit the party.

It now looks like the NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma – who until recently was a prominent member of the Congress’s so-called “dirty tricks department” to ensure electoral success – has a tough task ahead in 2017. More so, because Singh, the man he helped to power in the last elections, is said to not only have gained the lost ground among the Meiteis, but is also garnering support of the Kuki community, a dominant hill tribe traditionally seen as a rival of the Nagas in the state.

By relenting to the Kukis’ longstanding demand for a full-fledged district made of the SADAR Hills by slicing it out of the Naga-dominated Senapati district, Singh made his case rather watertight.

Nagaland

The growing proximity between the Nagas and the BJP had led to an interesting turn of events in Nagaland in 2015 itself. Today it is the only state in the country that has a ruling dispensation supported both by the Congress and BJP.

According to the state unit sources, the BJP, however, did try to do in Nagaland what it did in Arunachal and Manipur with some help from the former chief minister Neiphiu Rio, the leader of the Naga People’s Front, an ally of NEDA.

According to news reports, in early 2015, the party tried to topple the NPF leader T.R. Zeliang-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government with the help of Rio, also from NPF and considered particularly close to NSCN (I-M), the outfit the Centre had been in talks to settle the Naga issue with.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chief Minister of Nagaland, T.R. Zeliang at a meeting in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with chief minister of Nagaland, T.R. Zeliang at a meeting in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

As many as 22 of the 38 NPF MLAs expressed their lack of confidence in Zeliang’s leadership in a letter sent to the governor. Rio, as per the purported script, supported the dissidents. However, he failed to reap result there as Zeliang and the remaining 16 NPF MLAs were given support by the eight Congress MLAs and seven independents. With barely any option left, the BJP declared support to the Zeliang government. The dissident MLAs later joined the government.

Every now and then the uneasy relationship between Zeliang and the BJP continues to surface, the latest instance being the party’s opposition to the Modi government’s recent decision to not lift the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Nagaland.

In October, Zeliang sacked the BJP MLA Mmhonlumo Kikon from the post of parliamentary secretary for labour and employment, skill development and border affairs for “anti government activities.” The BJP had opened its account in the state assembly with one seat but was later joined by three more MLAs who defected from the Nationalist Congress Party.

Mizoram

Meanwhile, to make possible a strong foray into neighbouring Mizoram – a Christian majority state like Nagaland where the RSS has not been able to make much headway – the BJP brought Zoramthanga into the NEDA fold, the former state chief minister and a powerful regional leader.

The head of the Mizo National Front (MNF) and a part of the bloody uprising of the 1960s against the then Indira Gandhi-led Congress government – the only instance in the country where a government used aircraft to bomb its own people – had to face criticism from many quarters including the church bodies for siding with the saffron party.

He had to vociferously defend joining the NEDA, which he said at a press meet in Aizawl in July “doesn’t mean MNF has joined the BJP.” He said he had joined NEDA only “because of its development agenda for the Northeast.”

A devout Christian, Zoramthanga won many hearts in 2007 in the state when he composed a prayer song, voice to which was lent by a popular gospel singer Joseph Zaihmingthanga. As of now, the BJP is making use of Zoramthanga to talk on behalf of the government with the separatist outfits including the NSCN (Khaplang) to continue the Myanmar peace process.

The tie-up with MNF is, however, BJP’s second attempt at entering Mizoram through a regional party. It first did it in 2014 when it joined hands with Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP) for the Lok Sabha polls, and then in 2015 for the Aizawl municipal corporation polls.

However, in July, ZNP broke the alliance with the BJP stating that the party after being in power at the Centre for two years had begun implementing its hidden Hindutva agenda by “prohibiting cow slaughter and vandalising Churches across the country.”

According to news reports, “saffronisation of education and imposition of the Yoga Day across the state” had worried the Mizoram Hruaitute Committee, a powerful body of major church leaders.

Lately, the Modi government tried to reach out to the common Mizo by responding to a long-standing demand that Mizoram had to push the Myanmar government to protect their family tree located in Sagaing region of that country.

Like in Mizoram, the BJP government at the centre tried reaching out to the people of neighbouring Tripura throughout 2016 more through the development card than any overt saffronisation agenda. The Modi government completed what the Manmohan Singh government started – the broad gauge railway line from Agartala to New Delhi, in May. Also, the much-awaited Agartala-Kolkata passenger train in October.

Throughout the first half of 2016, the people of Tripura faced an acute shortage of essential goods as the national highway no. 44 – the state’s lifeline through Assam – was damaged at many places due to perennial rain and lack of upkeep over the years. There too, the Modi government intervened, releasing adequate funds to repair it.

However, if the November bye-polls in that state is any indication, the ruling Left, which pocketed both the seats, is still going strong. The total number of votes (12,395 against CPI-M’s 15,769) that the BJP bagged in the Barjala constituency, however, indicated that the party was more popular there than the Congress which held the seat in the last polls.

Sikkim

In Sikkim, NEDA’s partner is the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) of Pawan Kumar Chamling. However, some latest developments seem to suggest that the BJP is trying to enter the state on its own steam. The party is reportedly supporting the protest by the Bhutia-Lepcha community, comprising 20% of the state’s population, against the Chamling government’s proposal to expand the state assembly from 32 to 40. The community feared that would reduce the proportion of their representation in the state assembly.

Presently, 12 seats are reserved for the Bhutia-Lepchas besides one for the monks’ body Sangha dominated by the community. A protest meeting in November held in Gangtok saw the presence of BJP state president D.B. Chauhan besides Congress president B B Basnet.

Meghalaya

In Meghalaya, even though the RSS has been successful in creating ground for the BJP in many pockets and had even taken out the outfit’s maiden march in state capital Shillong besides in the Garo Hills in January this year, the party is also trying to make an entry into the local politics through the NEDA allies, the National People’s Party (NPP) and United Democratic Party (UDP).

In May, the NPP, aided by the BJP, swept the Tura bye-polls. As per local media reports, the UDP is likely to forge a pre-poll alliance with the BJP for the 2018 assembly polls to topple the Mukul Sangma-led Congress government. UDP chief Dongkupar Roy told The Shillong Times in July, “If there is a pre-poll alliance, I am sure that UDP and the NPP will easily get more than 32 seats and we will form the next government.”

Mukul Sangma. Credit: PTI

Mukul Sangma. Credit: PTI

In September, the UDP, with which the BJP said in 2013 that it had “an internal alliance”, made a failed attempt at bringing down the Sangma government by moving a no-confidence motion.

In November, the Congress national leadership awarded Sangma for the victory by choosing him to head the reconstituted North East Coordination Committee (NECC). The mandate of NECC, as per Sangma, “is to look at the issues of the northeast by bringing all the NE Congress leaders on to one platform and ensure that they protect the region from agendas which are detrimental.”

Only time will say whether the NECC will be able to thwart the march of NEDA in the coming years. It may be particularly difficult also because most Congress regimes in the region are at least over a decade old, thus bringing in a strong anti-incumbency in favour of the BJP and its allies.

In 2017, Manipur is the big test. One thing is for sure. Now that the ministry of home affairs has shifted its traditional Naga policy in Manipur in order to deliver the Naga Accord that Modi announced so grandly in 2015, the party will have to reformulate its poll policy in that state – similar to what it did in Assam after it faced a devastating defeat in Bihar.