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North East India

Development Rhetoric, Ethnic Anxieties

V Bijukumar ( teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The Bharatiya Janata Party garnered sweeping electoral gains in the North East in the recent Lok Sabha elections. Its victory run, if it has to continue, will depend on keeping its ethno-regional allies together and divert resentment against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its regional alliances in the North East were victorious in the elections to the 17th Lok Sabha. The ­onward march of the BJP in mainland India was aided by its spectacular performance in this region. The BJP and its alliance parties bagged 14 and three seats out of the 25 seats, respectively, spread across eight states. The Congress party could manage only four seats, while independents won the remaining four. Out of the eight states in the ­region, the BJP is currently in power in Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, and shares power with its regional ­allies—the National People’s Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)—in Meghalaya and Nagaland, respectively. While the BJP is not part of the governments in Mizoram and Sikkim, the ruling parties are part of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) that support the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre. The Congress, which dominated the politics of the North East for a long time, in the midst of virulent ethnic assertions, identity politics, extremist activities and ­mobilisation and ascendance of ethno-regional parties, has been considerably weakened in this region.

In the 2019 general elections, the largest share of the BJP’s spectacular victory in the North East came from Assam. While the BJP won nine of the 14 seats, the Congress won three and one each were won by the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and an independent. In 2014, the BJP got only seven seats, while the Congress and the AIUDF got three each with one going to an independent. In 2014 and 2019, the BJP’s alliance partners like the Asom Gana ­Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) drew a blank. Of the 10 constituencies the BJP contested, it emerged victorious in nine such as Karimganj, Jorhat, Guwahati, Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Mangaldoi, Silchar, Autonomous District and Tezpur, and was defeated only in Nowgong by the Congress. On the other hand, the Congress contested all the 14 seats, but could win only three—Nowgong, Barpeta and Kaliabor. The AIUDF, which contested in three of its strongholds, could win only Dhubri where its leader and two-time member of Parliament (MP) Badruddin Ajmal ­defeated the AGP. Kokrajhar, the lone constituency contested by the BPF was won by independent candidate Naba Kumar Sarania. In Assam, the ruling BJP secured 36.05% votes against the narrow margin of 35.44% of the Congress. The AGP secured only 8.23%, while the AIUDF and the BPF got 7.80% and 2.48%, respectively.

In another BJP-ruled state, Arunachal Pradesh, the general and assembly elections were held simultaneously, which witnessed triangular contest between the BJP, Congress and the People’s Party of Arunachal Pradesh. The BJP bagged both seats in spite of the volatile issues of Citizen (Amendment) Bill (CAB) and Permanent Resident Certificates by the state government. In the Arun­achal West, union minister Kiren Rijiju defeated Nabam Tuki, the Congress candidate and former chief minister. In the Arunachal East, Tapir Gao of the BJP defeated the ­nearest Congress candidate Lowangcha Wanglat. The BJP’s vote share in the state shot up to 58.22% as against 20.69% of the ­Congress. In the ethnically polarised state of Manipur, the BJP and Naga ­People’s Front (NPF) won the two constituencies of Inner Manipur and Outer Manipur, respectively. While BJP’s ­Rajkumar Ranjan Singh defeated Congress’s Oinam ­Nabakishore Singh in the Inner Mani­pur, NPF’s Lorho S Pfoze ­defeated BJP’s Houlim Shokhopao Mate in the Outer. The Congress can­didate K James could emerge only in the third position. In the BJP-ruled ­Manipur, the ruling party ­secured 34.22% votes as against 24.63% of the opposition Congress.

In the two constituencies of Meghalaya, the Congress and NPP retained their seats in Shillong and Tura, respectively. The Shillong constituency witnessed multi-cornered contest between the Congress, BJP and other smaller parties. Vincent Pala, the sitting MP from the Congress, defeated the United Democratic Party’s (UDP) Jemino Mawthoh, and the sitting member of the legislative assembly (MLA) and BJP’s candidate Sanbor Shullai emerged in the third ­position. The Congress secured 53.52% votes and the UDP got 34.08%, while the BJP won only 9.78% votes. The urban voters went for the BJP, and rural voters preferred the Congress. In Tura constituency, NPP’s Agatha Sangma, daughter of late P A Sangma, defeated the Congress candidate and former chief minister Mukul Sangma. Although the NPP is a constituent of BJP-led NEDA, it contested alone and the BJP put up its own candidate. In the state as a whole the Congress emerged with 48.28% votes. While the NPP got 22.27%, UDP and BJP received 19.55 and 7.93%, respectively.

In Mizoram, the lone reserved seat for Scheduled Tribes (ST), where women voters have outnumbered men, the Mizo National Front (MNF) candidate C Lalrosanga defeated Lalnghinglova Hmar who contested as an independent candidate supported by principal opposition parties like the Congress and the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM). Although the MNF is part of the NEDA, both the MNF and the BJP contested alone. While the MNF secured 44.89% votes, the Congress–ZPM backed, independent secured 43.26% and the BJP managed to get only 5.75% votes. In Nagaland, the ruling party, NDPP, captured a seat from NPF which was represented by the former Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio. Only one seat in Nagaland witnessed three-cornered contest between Congress, NDPP and NPP. The NPF, the main opposition party in Nagaland, decided not to field a candidate and extended its support to the Congress. However, seven of the 27 MLAs of NPF had pledged their support to the NDPP candidate. The lone seat was won by Tokheho Yepthomi of NDPP, the ally of the BJP in the state, by a margin of 16,344 votes against Congress leader
K L Chishi. In the state as a whole, the NDPP got 49.73% votes against 48.11% of the Congress. Since the BJP supported its ally NDPP, it could not secure a separate vote share.

In Sikkim, the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) captured the lone seat from the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). Its candidate Indra Hang Subba defeated SDF’s Dek Bahadur Katwal. In fact, the SDF candidate was winning the lone seat. However, over years its vote share has decreased. For instance, in 2004 it secured 69.84%, in 2009 only 63.30%, which again got reduced to 52.98% in 2014. While the SKM got 47.46%, SDF and BJP received 43.92% and 4.71%, respectively. At the same time, the Congress could manage only 1.13% votes. The two constituencies of Tripura—West Tripura and East Tripura—witne­ssed a multi-cornered contest between the Congress, BJP, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI(M) and the ­Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). The BJP captured both the constituencies from the CPI(M). Since 1996, the CPI(M) has been consecutively winning from both these seats. In the state as a whole, the BJP emerged as a force to reckon with bagging 49.03% votes against the Congress (25.34%), CPI(M) (17.31%) and IPFT (4.16%).

Compensatory Electoral Space

Towards the end of the 16th Lok Sabha, there were debates that since the BJP was not going to perform fairly well like in the 2014 elections, it was looking for new frontiers to compensate for the possible colossal loss in its strongholds. In this context, along with the states of West Bengal and Odisha, the North East region emerged as a compensatory electoral space for the BJP. It needs to be noted that of the 545 parliamentary seats, the eight north-eastern states send only 25 representatives to the Lok Sabha (around 4.6% of the total strength), which is not considered as a decisive voice in national politics. At various points in time, the political significance of North East India was largely reduced during the one-party dominance and one-party rule at the centre due to its low numerical strength. However, for the Hindu nationalist forces, this region was always in their political, ideological and strategic imagination and realisation, beyond its numerical strength.

It got special attention in the BJP’s 2019 manifesto (Sankalp Patra), wherein it claimed that the party brought the insurgency in the north-eastern states under control and the security situation in these states was improved significantly. It assured that it would leverage this situation to ensure accelerated development. Further, it promised that it would continue to focus on the development of infrastructure and improved connectivity in this region to ensure that the northeastern states duly participate in the economic progress of the country. Moreover, the manifesto committed to take necessary steps to leverage the tremendous potential of hydroelectricity, tourism, horticulture, etc, in the region. A commitment was also made to ensure that the unique linguistic, cultural and social identity of the north-eastern states is adequately protected (Sankalp Patra, p 26).

The manifesto observed that there has been a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas due to illegal immigration, resulting in an adverse impact on local people’s livelihood and employment. The BJP committed to expeditiously complete the Nati­onal Register of Citizens (NRC) process in these areas on priority. Further, it stated that in future the NRC will be implemented in a phased manner in other parts of the country as well, and that it will undertake effective steps to prevent illegal ­immigration in the north-eastern states (Sankalp Patra, p 11).

Alliance and Poaching Leaders

Multiple factors contributed to the spectacular victory of the BJP and the colossal defeat of the Congress and other parties in the region. The pertinent factor behind the BJP’s success story was its strategy of alliance building with smaller and ­regional parties, and encouraging defection among the Congress party and poaching its leaders. In fact, the BJP’s desperation for forging alliance in the North East led to the formation of the NEDA, a conglomeration of parties under it in 2016. The NEDA, the North East version of the NDA at the centre, under Himanta Biswa Sarma, the finance minister of ­Assam, emerged as the potential challenger to the Congress and the left in Tripura. Even though many regional parties enthusiastically got wedded to NEDA, on many occasions during elections, its cons­tituents contested against each other while remaining within the alliance. For instance, being a part of NEDA, the MNF and the BJP contested the Mizoram ­assembly elections in 2018 and even in the 2019 general elections, separately. In the case of Meghalaya too, the NPP contested against the BJP in the Tura constituency in the Garo Hills and defeated its nearest Congress candidate. Being a part of NEDA and supporter of the BJP government in Manipur, the NPF too contested against the BJP in the Outer Manipur constituency in the hill areas largely inhabited by the tribal communities and won the seat.

Although the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been working in this ­region for a long time, the emergence of the BJP was relatively a recent phenomenon, and as a result it could not draw leaders from the RSS in most of the Christian-dominated states. Since the BJP lacks leaders with a popular face in many north-eastern states, it encouraged defection in other parties, especially in the Congress, and involved in poaching their leaders by alluring political perks. In fact, half a dozen current leaders and legislators of the BJP in Assam, Aruna­chal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur are those who ­defected from other political parties.

For instance, Himanta Biswa Sarma himself was once the tallest leader of the Congress in Assam and was a close lieutenant of former chief minister, Tarun Gogoi. The leadership vacuum in the BJP was in fact filled by defection from other parties and by poaching their leaders. The BJP felt that by drawing leaders from their own communities, it could electorally mobilise these communities to the party fold and strengthen its base. Otherwise, the North East remained as a religi­ously and culturally different political terrain antithetical to its Hindu nationalist ideology.

Development vs Ethnic Anxieties

Along with the above-mentioned factors, the BJP’s victory in the region was the rei­teration of its developmental imagination and actualisation in the region. Such tactical reiteration on development, in fact, buckles the discontent created by the CAB against the BJP in the region. The CAB, passed by the Lok Sabha on 8 January 2019, sought to make non-Muslim ­illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh eligible for citizenship. Ignoring protests by civil society and ethnic organisations, the BJP pushed for the bill in the Rajya Sabha and it promised that the burden of people mig­rating as per the provisions of the bill would be shared by the country as a whole. The protestors argued that it would enc­ourage further illegal migration and adversely impact the demography, thereby affecting the distinct cultural identity of various ethnic groups, and also the scarce resources in these states. In other words, the protest against the CAB not only stemmed out of ethnic anxiety, but also the materiality of the everyday life of the people in the region. Violent protests were witnessed in ­Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura. In fact, the AGP left the NDA over the CAB, as the party believed that it goes against the spirit of the Assam ­Accord of 1985.

Ignoring protests by the civil society groups, ethnic organisations and political parties, the BJP went ahead with the CAB and passed it in the Lok Sabha and promised to bring it before the Rajya Sabha. However, taking into account these anxieties and apprehension, the BJP promised the burden of legal migration of citizens under CAB should not be taken alone by the North East, but shared with the entire country as a whole. The BJP justified its stand on CAB that the Hindu minorities persecuted in Muslim countries had to be accommodatedin India.

The party used the CAB issue to consolidate Hindu votes in various states and to tackle the ethnic anxieties created by the CAB by emphasising developmental issues and infrastructure development like construction of roads and bridges and accelerating connectivity. Over the last five years, the BJP succee­ded in projecting the region as the eme­rging hub of development, especially its much-hyped Act East Policy (AEP) with border area development, connectivity and infrastructure development. It may be ­remembered that after its ascendancy at the centre, the NDA government renamed the Look East Policy (LEP) to AEP aimed to promote the country’s economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop strategic relationship with countries in the Asia Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels. It also intended to accelerate road and railway infrastructure connectivity and air connectivity. As part of the AEP, the government took the initiative to construct 1,360 km long ­India–Myanmar–Thailand trilateral highway to be completed in 2020, which claimed to boost regional economy within the North East and ASEAN countries.

Amidst the growing protests against the CAB and resentment against the BJP, the party could highlight the developmental initiatives undertaken by the NDA government during the past five years. First, among other things, the BJP highlighted completion of Dhola–Sadiya bridge and the Bogibeel bridge. The Dhola–Sadiya bridge, named as the ­Bhupen Hazarika Setu, is a beam bridge extending 9.15 km over the Brahmaputra river and its tributary the Lohit river. Inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2017, the bridge connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The bridge makes relief operations easier during the Brahmaputra floods and ­ensures army movement from Assam to the India–China border in Arunachal Pradesh. Constructed at a total cost of ₹ 2,056 crore, it ensures ­all-round connectivity between Upper Assam and the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh, and reduce the distance from Rupai on NH-37 in Assam to Meka/Roing on NH-52 in Arunachal Pradesh by 165 km, cutting down travel time from the current six hours to just one hour. The government even claimed that the bridge would save petrol and diesel worth ₹ 10 lakh per day. Interestingly, beyond deve­lopmental pursuit, the BJP did not lose an opportunity to bring in national security and evoke nationalism when China warned against the building of such an infrastructure project in Arunachal Pradesh.

Second, the BJP highlighted the completion of the Bogibeel bridge, which is India’s longest railroad bridge constructed over Brahmaputra river, connecting Demaji and Dibrugarh districts of Assam. The 4.94 km bridge, inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in May 2018, not only provides rail amenities, but also enables fast movement of ­defence logistics along the China border. Constructed at a cost of ₹ 5,900 crore, the bridge cuts down train travel time between Tinsukia in Assam and Naharlagun town (near Itanagar) of Arunachal Pradesh by more than 10 hours. Ironically, being part of the Assam Accord of 1985, it was sanctioned in 1997–98, and its foundation stone was laid by then Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda on 22 January 1997. The Vajpayee government began its construction, which progressed during the United Progressive Alliance governments ­under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, the BJP jumped in and gra­bbed the credit for constructing the bridge. In addition to the above infrastructure developments, the BJP could take out developmental projects such as Sikkim’s first airport at Pakyong, expansion of Pasighat airport at Arunachal Pradesh, upgradation of Guwahati and Agartala airports with new international terminal buildings, opening of the Hollongi–Itanagar four-lane National High­way in Arun­a­chal Pradesh, train connectivity between Guwahati and Mendipathar in Meghalaya, inauguration of the Agartala–Delhi Rajdhani Express, etc.

Moreover, the BJP highlighted the 21% increase in allocation to the North East in the union interim budget for 2019–20 as proof of its determined commitment to the development of the region. Politically, while highlighting all these developmental efforts of the NDA government in the region, the BJP, during the election campaign and other occasions, accu­sed the Congress for the lack of development in North East India. ­Although the much-highlighted nfra­struc­ture ­development was not followed by industrial development, accelerating gross domestic product and creation of job ­opportunities in the region, it attracted the people towards the BJP.

The BJP in its Sankalp Patra asserted that

There has been a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas due to illegal immigration, resulting in an adverse impact on local people’s livelihood and empowerment. We will expeditiously complete the Natio­nal Register of Citizens process in these areas on priority. In future we will implement the NRC in a phased manner in other parts of the country. (Sankalp Patra: 11)

It was able to consolidate Hindu votes among the Assamese, Bengalis, Nepalese and other Hindu ethnic communities such as the Meiteis in Manipur and Brus in Mizoram.

Political Slip-up of the Congress

Though the Congress could keep its early tally of three seats in Assam, its overall strength reduced considerably in the election. The reasons for this dwindling status of the Congress are multiple. First, the Congress failed to capitalise on the resentment against the CAB towards the ruling BJP in the region, especially in ­Assam. Second, the “go it alone policy” of the party in various states costed it more. While the BJP could forge an alliance with the AGP and BPF in Assam, the Congress fought on its own. In fact, by entering into an alliance with the AGP and BPF, the BJP benefited more than its allies, as they could not get a single seat. If the Congress could forge an alliance with the AIUDF, the situation would have been different. For instance, in Karimganj constituency, the BJP won with a vote share of 44.62% against 41% of the AIUDF. The Congress secured 11.36%. In fact, the victory of the BJP was due to the splitting of votes between the Congress and AIUDF in the constituency. The Congress had an apprehension that such an alliance with AIUDF, a Muslim party, would be projected by the BJP so as to say that it had entered into an alliance with a Muslim party to defeat the BJP in the state. Third, perhaps the colossal damage of the Congress could have been averted if it allied with the AGP when it parted ways with the NEDA over the CAB.


The political pragmatism of the BJP brought huge electoral dividends to the party in the North East region. In fact, its leadership vacuum was promptly attended to by encouraging defection in other parties and by poaching their leaders. It helped the party mobilise diverse communities to the party fold and stren­gthen its base electorally. Apart from all these, the party could highlight the ­developmental initiates undertaken by the NDA government during the past five years in the region. With a development-centred positioning, it succeeded in ­arresting the growing protest against the CAB and resentment towards the BJP. Thus a religiously and culturally different political terrain antithetical to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology became another party stronghold. Although the BJP emerged as a potent political force in the region drubbing the Congress in its traditional stronghold, the real challenge to the BJP in the North East lies in passing CAB in the Rajya Sabha.

Earlier too, the BJP claimed that in spite of CAB protests, the party bagged 19 of the 28 seats in North Cachar Hills ­Autonomous District Councils, where elections were held on 19 January 2019. With the recent victory, the BJP may be determined to bring CAB as an endorsement of the provisions in its Sankalp Patra. However, its real political prag­matism will be seen in how it keeps its ethno-regional allies together under the platform of NEDA and its ability to channelise the emerging resentment against CAB into attention towards its development rhetoric.

Updated On : 24th Jun, 2019


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