Politics

How Modi Government Brought the Northeast Into Its Fold

The BJP employed one key strategy in the region – co-opting sitting or former MLAs and ministers from other parties to contest elections under the saffron flag.

New Delhi: Seven out of the eight states that constitute India’s Northeast are now either run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or have governments headed by regional parties broadly aligned with the right-wing national entity.

The lone Congress government in the region beyond the ‘chicken’s neck’ on the Indian map – after the recent round of assembly polls in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland – is Mizoram. Before the year turns, the decade-old Lal Thanhawla government in that northeastern state is set to face fresh elections.

Now that the dust has settled after the February polls, which for the first time saw wide coverage by the Delhi-NCR based news channels, it is time to delve on one of the key tools that the BJP employed in the region to acquire power – co-opting sitting or former MLAs and ministers from other parties to contest elections under the saffron flag.

The spinning force behind it was only – and only – the ‘win-ability’ of a candidate in the elections.

Could they all deliver what they were brought in for? If they did, what did these MLAs get in return from their new party?

Arunachal Pradesh

Since Arunachal Pradesh’s was the first northeastern government to turn saffron after the Narendra Modi government came to power at the Centre in 2014, let’s begin with it. Though the assembly elections in the state are slated for 2019, the BJP managed to bypass the standard practice of going to the electorate by playing with the sections of the anti-defection law in the constitution to its advantage there.

Much has been written about the fact that even though the Supreme Court restored the Nabam Tuki-led Congress government in that state on July 14, 2016, by December 31 of the same year, led by a new chief minister, Pema Khandu, over two-thirds of the MLAs elected on Congress tickets had jumped over to the BJP – thus saving themselves from disqualification from the House under the Tenth Schedule and helping the BJP form its first government in the state.

Nabam Tuki is the only Congress MLA left in the state. Credit: PTI

Nabam Tuki is the only Congress MLA left in the state. Credit: PTI

This, in turn, greatly assisted the BJP roll out the first results as per its wider ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ agenda in the region. Today, Tuki is the only Congress MLA left in the state and constitutes the small opposition along with nine MLAs of the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA).

Assam

While Arunachal was famously brought under the umbrella of BJP-ruled states from the back door, the party’s first-ever electoral success was in Assam. (While the BJP formed its first government in the Northeast in Arunachal under Gegong Apang in 2003, it was done by putting together MLAs elected from other parties, including the Congress. After the NDA government lost power at the Centre in the 2004 general elections, Apang returned to his parent party, Congress.)

Even though BJP was three short of the majority mark, its success in Assam, aside from the pre-poll rainbow alliance with regional players, was notable. However, if we look closely at the data of candidates it fielded in that election, what comes across is the generous use of the same co-opting device.

The strategy was firmly set on the ground in November 2015, when it brought in ten of the then ruling Congress MLAs into the party. That lot included its trump card Himanta Biswa Sarma, often associated with Congress’s electoral success over the past few years not just in Assam but also in other northeastern states.

Himanta Biswa Sarma. Credit: PTI

Himanta Biswa Sarma. Credit: PTI

The party’s change of heart came just months after it released a booklet in July of that year in its headquarters in Delhi in which it named Sarma in the Louis Berger case, considered the biggest scam to be unearthed in Assam till then.

The other MLAs who flocked to the BJP included Bolin Chetia, Pradan Baruah, Pallab Lochan Das, Rajen Borthakur, Pijush Hazarika, Kripanath Mallah, Abu Taher Bepari, Binanda Kumar Saikia and Jayanta Mallah Barua.

Some current and former MLAs from Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) too were seen joining the BJP bandwagon, including Naba Doley, Padma Hazarika and Jagadish Bhuyan. This was but a continuation of the flow of AGP leaders into the BJP, such as Chandra Mohan Patowary (in 2014), Atul Bora (2013), Hitendranath Goswami (2014) and Sarbananda Sonowal (in 2011).

The principal secretary of the Assam legislative assembly, Gauranga Prasad Das, too joined the BJP in the run-up to the May 2016 elections. Pranab Kalita, three-time Independent MLA from Palasbari, was brought in to the party too.

So what led the BJP to rope them in? While Chetia and Bepari won Congress the Sadiya and Golakganj seats in the 2006 and 2011 assembly polls respectively, Mallah won the party the Ratabari seat in 2003 and 2011. Pradan was a three-time Congress MLA. Pallabh Lochan Das, Jayanta Malla Baruah, Saikia, Pijush and Rajen Borthakur had won the 2011 assembly polls as Congress candidates.

Doley won the Dhakuakhana seat for the AGP in the 2011 elections while Padma got the Sootea constituency for the party in the 2006 and 2011 polls. Bhuyan was an AGP MLA in 1996 and 2001.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a visit to Assam ahead of the 2016 assembly polls. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a visit to Assam ahead of the 2016 assembly polls. Credit: PTI

Their past credentials certainly made them attractive choices, something that BJP was hunting for in the state.

Could all of them deliver the results as expected?

Former Congress MLAs Sarma (Jalukbari), Chetia (Sadiya), Pradan Barua (Dhemaji), Pallabh Lochan (Rangapara), Saikia (Sipajhar) Pijush (Jagiroad) and Mallah (Ratabari) were given BJP tickets to contest the May 2016 elections under the BJP symbol.

All of them won.

Borthakur, Bepari and Jayanta Malla were kept out of the candidate’s list, keeping the party’s ‘winning’ strategy in mind. While the Tezpur seat was given to alliance partner AGP stalwart Brindaban Goswami, bringing Borthakur to the BJP fold was crucial as Goswami’s biggest rival would be on his side then.

Bepari was brought into the party to ensure that the Golakganj seat went back to the BJP. Since 2006, Bepari had been winning that seat for the Congress. Ashwini Ray Sarkar was instead given the BJP ticket from Golakganj, which delivered results to the BJP. Bepari seemed to have realised his blunder and went back to the Congress last year.

One-time Congress MLA Jayanta Malla was also not given a BJP ticket in Nalbari in favour of Ashok Sharma for the same reason – to divide the Congress vote so that BJP could score. Sharma won.

Former AGP MLAs Doley, Padma and Bhuyan were also given BJP tickets from their respective strongholds. All of them delivered the results to their new party. So did the independent candidate Kalita.

So what have those who produced a victory for the BJP got in return?

Sarma became the biggest beneficiary with nine portfolios in the Sonowal ministry besides a larger role in the party’s organisational scheme of things. Sarma held most of the present portfolios during the previous Congress regime.

Pallabh Lochan, often looked at as a protégé of Sarma, has, for the first time, become a minister of state with independent charge of two portfolios, including the crucial tea tribes’ welfare department. The tea tribe votes, considered traditionally belonging to the Congress, shifted to a large extent to the BJP in 2016, thus helping the party win many crucial seats in upper Assam.

Doley was made a minister of state with independent charge.

There has been a talk for some time now about the expansion of the council of ministers of the Sonowal government. Chetia, Pijush, Mallah, Saikia, Padma and Bhuyan are among the hopefuls.

Not that the migration of MLAs, former MLAs and former ministers have stopped post the 2016 elections in Assam. Robin Bordoloi, former Congress MLA and son of the state’s first chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi, joined the BJP in end 2016. So did former Congress minister Sumitra Patir – in April 2017.

Ranoj Pegu, a prominent Mishing community leader from Majuli, was also co-opted into the BJP to contest the Dhemaji seat. The seat was vacated by Pradan Baruah as he was sent by his new party as a replacement for Sonowal from the Lakhimpur parliamentary constituency to the Lok Sabha. Pegu won the assembly seat for the BJP. However, Sumitra Patir’s entry is important here as she had won the Dhemaji seat for Congress in the 2006 and 2011 assembly polls.

In all, 12 of the present BJP MLAs in the Assam assembly were MLAs of other parties in the previous assembly. This is besides some of them clearly helping other BJP candidates win the polls by joining the party and not posing an electoral challenge to them.

Manipur

Like Arunachal, the Manipur story too is quite well-known. Though Congress emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats in the March 2017 elections, like it did in Goa at the concurrent polls, it couldn’t form a government in the northeastern state for it was short of three seats to meet the 31 mark of a simple majority in the 60-member House.

The BJP-led coalition government in Manipur was formed with 21 members from the party joining hands with four legislators each from the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the National People’s Party (NPP) and one from the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), besides support from an independent – thus dragging the total tally just to the required number.

If you look closely, in Manipur too, the BJP’s tool of filling up a part of the candidate’s list with dissidents from other parties was seen. While the present chief minister N. Biren Singh left the Congress for the BJP in end-2016 along with fellow MLAs Francis Ngajokpa and Y. Erabot Singh, Congress MLAs Nemcha Kipgen (She was elected to the 2011 assembly from MSCP), Vungzagin Valte and S. Achouba were welcomed to the party a few weeks before the elections.

Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh, whose son has been convicted of killing Irom Roger, though the charge is lesser than murder. Credit: PTI

Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh. Credit: PTI

In mid-2015, three Trinamool Congress MLAs – N Biswajit Singh, Joykishan Singh and Oinam Lukhoi – were the first to join the BJP as part of the party’s co-opting exercise. They ceased to be members of the assembly as they were disqualified under the Tenth Schedule. Just a few days before the assembly polls, Joykumar and Lukhoi, however, jumped from the BJP to the Congress.

The BJP gave tickets to all the former TMC and Congress MLAs and ministers, except Achouba. All delivered the results, except Erabot Singh and Francis Ngajokpa.

So what did they get in return?

Biren Singh got the top-most post while Biswajit Singh was made a minister with five portfolios. Nemcha Kipgen is also a minister (the only woman in the ministry).

Of the 21 BJP MLAs, there are four former MLAs of other parties. Another point to be noted here is, similar to the party’s Assam strategy, many of the BJP MLAs were first-time winners. This was certainly keeping the expected tendency of the voters to try out a new face after a rather unpopular 15-year-old Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress government.

Like in Assam, the exodus of Congress MLAs to the BJP continues to help the party raise its simple majority mark to 31. A few days after the elections, Congress’s T. Shyamkumar joined the BJP. He is now the state forest and town planning minister. In April 2017, Lukhoi returned to the BJP from the Congress along with four other Congress MLAs – Y Surachandra, Ngamthang Haokip, S Bira and Ginsuanhau.

Thereafter, Congress MLAs K. Biren Singh and Paonam Brojen too joined the BJP in July last year. The latest to join the BJP bandwagon is T. Lokeshwar Singh. Besides, T. Robindro Singh too has defected from his party, Trinamool Congress, to the BJP. This has made the Biren Singh government reach a simple majority on its own.

Now, the Congress tally has come down from 28 to 19. Though under the Tenth Schedule, they can be disqualified from the House for joining BJP without giving up their seats, the Congress has, till now, not lodged a complaint and the speaker has therefore refrained from disqualifying them.

BJP continues to expand footprints across the region. Credit: PTI

Meghalaya

Meghalaya, where the assembly polls were held on February 27, also saw the BJP using the same formula as one of its tactics to win seats. Veteran Congress MLA and minister in the Mukul Sangma government, A.L. Hek, and party MLAs Billykid Sangma and Adolf Lu Hitler Miller moved to the BJP barely a month before the polls.

NCP MLA Sanbor Shullai too joined the BJP in January 2018. Independent MLAs Justin Dkhar and Robinus Syngkon were also brought in around the same time. John Manner Marak and Omillio K Sangma too were welcomed from the NPP. Though Manas Chaudhuri, Congress MLA and owner of the newspaper Shillong Times, too joined the BJP hoping to get a party ticket to contest the South Shillong seat, he returned to the Congress upon his failure to bag it.

Except for Adolf and Chaudhuri, all of them were given BJP tickets.

Could they deliver the results?

In an election where the BJP’s mainland India Hindutva politics caught up with it, only Hek and Shullai could hand out the Pynthormukh and South Shillong seat to the party.

What did they get in return?

With just two seats in a member assembly, BJP obviously couldn’t resort to hard bargaining. Still, the party managed to get a cabinet berth for Hek.

Nagaland

Another northeastern state that went to elections recently was Nagaland. By employing the clever strategy of entering into a seat-sharing agreement with the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), the BJP produced an impressive win in 12 of the 20 seats it contested. This strategy, which was never allowed by its earlier partner NPF and one of the reasons why BJP didn’t go with it this election, delivered to the party as it could transfer the NDPP votes to it.

But here too, the party had to use its tool of bringing MLAs and ministers from other parties to contest elections under its symbol.

It began using the co-opting exercise soon after the Modi government came to power at the Centre, riding on the common analogy that MLAs prefer to go with a party that rules the Centre as it is largely dependent on it for funds. Though it had won only one seat in the 2013 assembly polls – by P. Paiwang Konyak – this helped BJP increase its tally to four after three NCP MLAs joined the BJP by June 2014. While M. Kikon was a first time MLA, Imtilemba Sangtam was the then NCP president and T. M. Lotha was a former home minister.

Barely a month before the recent assembly elections, NPF MLA and former home minister Y. Patton also joined the BJP. NPF MLA S. Pangyu Phom, Tovihoto Ayema and Longrineken also joined the party. So did Jacob Zhimomi (it won the 2013 elections as an independent).

Former Congress chief minister K. L. Chishi too was brought in in the run-up to the February 27 polls.

Did all of them get a BJP ticket? Yes.

Who among them delivered a victory?

While Patton won Tyui, Pangnyu Phom got BJP the Longleng seat. So did Jacob Zhimomi in Ghaspani I. While T. M. Lotha won the BJP the Wokha seat, M Kikon won in Bhandari. Imitelba Sangtam too won in Longkhim Chare. So did Longrinneken in Jangpetkong.

The total number of seats that former MLAs and ministers of other parties delivered to the BJP is seven out of 12.

Among those sworn in on March 8 as ministers included Patton (as the home minister and the deputy chief minister), Jacob Zhimomi and Pangnyu Phom.

Tripura

If there is any thrilling election victory story in recent history across the country, it has to be BJP’s stellar win from 0.54% vote share to 43% in Tripura to grab 35 seats in the 60-member assembly. Wresting Tripura from the CPI (Marxist) certainly fades the BJP’s win in Assam. However, among the many result-oriented strategies the party made use of to win that state, the one about bringing in MLAs and former ministers of other parties played an important role.

Let’s see who all came into the BJP prior to the elections. Congress MLA Ratan Lal Nath joined the BJP in December 2017. CPM leader Lal Mohan Sarkar also joined the party in end 2017. Sudip Roy Barman, the Cong MLA who moved to the TMC, also shifted sides to BJP in 2017. So did fellow turncoats from Congress to TMC – Biswabandhu Sen, Diba Chandra Hrangkhawl, Dilip Sarkar, Prasenjit Singha Roy, Ashish Kumar Saha.

BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav and Tripura BJP chief Biplab Kumar Deb celebrate the party's win in the Tripura assembly polls. Credit: PTI

BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav and Tripura BJP chief Biplab Kumar Deb celebrate the party’s win in the Tripura assembly polls. Credit: PTI

Congress MLAs from the 2008 assembly – Subal Bhowmick (Sonamura), Surajit Datta (Ramnagar) and Manoj Kanti Deb (Kamalpur) – too joined the party. So did former Congress minister Sunil Chandra Das.

Did all of these MLAs and former MLAs get BJP tickets to contest the polls? Yes, except Sunil Chandra Das and Lal Mohan Sarkar.

Could they deliver?

While Ratan Lal Rath won Mohanpur, Sudip Roy Barman got the Agartala seat for the BJP. So did Surajit Datta (Ramnagar), Ashish Saha (Town Bordowali), Dilip Sarkar (Badharghat), Subal Bhowmick (Sonamura), Manoj Kanti Deb (Kamalpur), Dibachandra Hrangkwal (Karamchhara), Bishwa Bandhu Sen (Dharmanagar) and Pranjit Singha Roy (Radhakishorepur).

Out of the 35 seats the BJP won on past March 3, ten were by former MLAs and ministers of other parties.

What did they get in return?

Ratan Lal Rath, Sudip Roy Barman, Pranjit Singha Roy and Manoj Kanti Deb have been sworn in as ministers in the Biplab Kumar Deb government.

Mizoram

At end 2018, Mizoram will go to polls. Though the BJP failed to open its account in the 2013 assembly polls, it is likely to build a strong campaign against the ruling Congress with some crucial help from its NEDA partner and the main opposition, the Mizo National Front (MNF).

In October 2017, in an interesting development, the Maraland Democratic Front (MDF) merged with the BJP to counter the Congress. MDF had contested both the 2008 and 2013 assembly elections in partnership with MNF. While it failed to get a single seat in 2013, it bagged one in 2008.

The Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP), which won two seats in 2008, fought the 2015 assembly by-poll for the Aizawl seat as a part of the NDA. Besides, ZNP, the BJP, along with MNF and Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC), contested the 2014 parliamentary elections together. However, MNF decided to go alone in that Aizawl by-poll while MPC forged an alliance with the Congress for it. Congress minister Lal Thanzara won that seat.

However, some time ago, ZNP decided to snap ties with the BJP citing its “hidden Hindutva” agenda. However, the RSS, having made inroads particularly into the Chakma Autonomous District Council areas, is hoping to help BJP open an account in the state in the coming polls.

In the present 40-member assembly, while Congress has 34 seats, MNF has five and MPC has one.

Sikkim

In Sikkim too, though the assembly polls are slated for 2019, the co-opting strategy of the BJP has begun. In December last year, three of the former ministers (also former MLAs of the 2009 assembly) of Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), an ally of the BJP’s North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), joined the party. Besides R. B. Subba, K N Upreti and Birbal Limboo, former SDF leader Prem Karki too has joined the BJP.

After R.N. Chamling – brother of the present chief minister Pawan Chamling – was reportedly seen having a “closed door meeting” with Ram Madhav – the BJP national general secretary in charge of Northeast – he has formed a new political party, the Sikkim Rajya Manch.

Flaying his brother’s government at the launch in December 2017, 49-year-old R.N. Chamling said, “The SDF has failed to deliver goods to the people during the 23 years’ of uninterrupted rule since 1994. Sikkim and Sikkimese people’s interests will be the core agenda of my party if elected to power.” R.N. Chamling had won the Rangang-Yangyan seat vacated by his elder brother, who contested from two constituencies in the 2014 elections.

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