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When Power Is the Glue

The recent assembly elections in north-eastern India tell three distinct stories.

If there is one lesson the “mainland” must draw from the ­recent assembly elections in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura in north-east India, it is to avoid generalisations. Based on the sweeping victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tripura, where it decisively trounced the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that had been in power for 25 years, the mainstream media in India wrote glowingly about the “saffron sweep” of the North East. They forgot, as they often do in relation to this region, that “the North East” is a geographical entity that comprises seven distinct (now eight, counting ­Sikkim) states with different political, cultural and historical features. To lump them together is to deny them their individual identities. In fact, this attitude in the “mainland” remains a ­major reason for resentment in these states where people feel they are lumped together and relegated to the periphery.

Apart from anti-incumbency as a factor, it is evident that the BJP succeeded in Tripura because of the large Hindu population that responded to its agenda. In the hill states, which are Christian majority, the story was entirely different. But even in Tripura, where the BJP won enough seats to form a government on its own, it entered riding on the coat-tails of a regional party ­demanding a separate state for the tribals of Tripura, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). Although the IPFT is a junior partner in the new Tripura government, it has the potential to be a thorn in the ruling party’s flesh as there is no way the BJP at the centre will accede to the demand of a separate state. 

In Meghalaya and Nagaland, it is the nature of regional politics that tells the real story. Meghalaya was formed as a result of the struggle of the All Party Hill Leaders Conference (APHLC) that succeeded in carving out a separate state for the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos out of Assam in 1972. The APHLC broke apart within a few years, largely due to the machinations of the ­Congress party that was in power at the centre in 1976, a year that coincided with the Indira Gandhi-imposed state of emergency. Since then, its former members either joined the Congress or formed smaller regional groupings. Their one attempt to come together and form a non-Congress government in 2008 lasted only a year, ending in President’s Rule and thereafter Congress rule until these elections. Although the Congress emerged as the largest single party this time, its record of ­misgovernance notwithstanding, it did not have the abilities of the wily “facilitator,” the BJP, to cobble together an alliance. It is possible that the current alliance in power, although unwieldy, could survive this time around as the BJP is a part of it and thus would have no interest in pulling it apart. 

Nagaland remains something of an outlier. The BJP used the principle of regional parties wanting to align with the national party in power at the centre to keep the two main regional parties dangling before the elections. It had a pre-election alliance with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) led by Neiphiu Rio that was formed when the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) led by T R Zeliang broke apart. It was this split in the NPF, based not on substantive issues but on the rivalry ­between Rio and Zeliang, that gave the BJP its political advantage. In the end, though, the BJP stuck with the NDPP and made up the numbers with smaller parties. Given the recent ­political history of Nagaland, where there was no one in the opposition in the assembly, it would not be surprising if, in the not too distant future, the NPF once again breaks apart with some of its ­members choosing to join the ruling alliance. In Nagaland, the lure of being in office remains the ideological glue that holds ­disparate elements together.

So, what conclusions should the “mainland” draw from the elections in the three north-eastern states? First, that the outcome in Tripura does not represent the political reality of the other two states. The BJP has won in Tripura but in the two hill states it is still dependent almost entirely on regional formations. The prospect of it being able to form a government on its own in any of these states in the foreseeable future is unlikely. Second, these elections demonstrate that the party with a difference, as the BJP likes to project itself, is clearly no different from the party it chooses constantly to attack, the Congress. The ­philosophy that anything goes so long as you come to ­power is common to both. Third, the BJP was able to sell the “deve­lopment” mantra in these states because it has no track record of misgovernance there unlike the Congress. This could unravel in the months leading up to the general election as little can be delivered of what has been promised. And finally, while there is no doubt that the BJP is a formidable opponent in a straight fight, as in Tripura or in Assam in 2016, in the rest of the North East, it only wins because it has perfected the art of being a ­“facilitator,” a kinder term for “manipulator,” to cobble an ­alliance of unlikely partners with the lure of power as the main magnet.

Updated On : 16th Mar, 2018


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