Catch 2017: Not as fiery as 2016, but BJP had a solid year in the North East
For the Bharatiya Janata Party, 2016 was a blockbuster year in the North East: the party managed to win a decisive mandate in Assam and engineered defections in Arunachal Pradesh to form the government. In other states of the region, it struck crucial alliances with several regional parties that made it a political force to reckon with.
In comparison, 2017 was relatively calmer but politically significant. For the first time, the saffron party managed to form the government in Manipur despite Congress emerging as the single-largest party.
Since its resounding victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, BJP has continued its march in the North East, where it now has the government in three states – Assam, Manipur and Arunachal – with coalition partners ruling Sikkim (Sikkim Democratic Front) and Nagaland (Naga People's Front).
Out of the eight states in the region, the remaining three – Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram – do not have any imprint of the BJP yet and that is where the challenge lies. For the party is hell-bent on making North East Congress-mukt. To the BJP's advantage, 2018 does offer it the chance of achieving its goals, considering these three states and Nagaland go to polls early next year.
At present, Meghalaya and Mizoram are ruled by Congress while Tripura is under the iron grip of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the BJP can clearly sense an opportunity to dethrone these parties to stamp its authority in the region where it was primarily seen as a cow-belt entity earlier.
BJP and its strategists have every reason to believe that it can wrest control of these states and replicate its stellar performances in 2016 and 2017.
BJP's performance has seen a dramatic rise in fortunes in the last couple of years, which clearly reflects in the way its vote share has increased since the 2014 elections. Before the 2014 elections, BJP's vote share stood at a paltry average of 3% in the north-eastern states which jumped manifold to an average of 14% in 2014.
This surge in favour of the BJP did not just stop there and it registered a vote share of 29.51% in Assam in the 2016 Assembly polls, up from 11.47% in 2011.
Though the party didn't repeat its performance of 2014, where it registered 36.86% vote share, it still managed to form the government in Assam with the help of its alliance partners. This was despite Congress' vote share being higher than that of the saffron party, which with a lesser vote share managed to win 60 seats against 26 of the Congress.
Thereafter, in December 2016, the BJP received yet another shot in the arm after 33 of the 43 MLAs of the People's Party of Arunachal (PPA) defected to BJP helping it form its first-ever government in the state. Interestingly, the BJP's vote share had seen a decline of nearly 16% in the 2014 state Assembly elections as compared to its vote share of 30.97% in the general elections held in the same year.
While the BJP bid adieu to 2016 in a high, it was constantly working behind the scenes, under the leadership of Himanta Biswa Sarma, to stitch new alliances and lure leaders of other parties, particularly Congress, to its fold. This was clearly evident in the 2016 Manipur Assembly polls where it went on to form the government with the help of regional partners and independents.
Emerging as the second-largest party, BJP increased its vote share by 18 times as compared with the 2011 Manipur polls. From registering 2.1% vote share in 2011, it jumped to 36% in 2016 surpassing Congress by 1%. This helped BJP in taking its tally of legislators from zero to 21 within a span of five years.
What worked for BJP was how it quickly realised that the secret for Congress Chief Minister Ibobi Singh's continued hold on the state was largely due to a divided opposition. Sensing this, BJP strategists swung into action wooing opposition leaders and anti-Ibobi faces within Congress who were popular amongst Manipuris.
Backdoor manipulations eventually paid off after BJP managed to poach popular leaders from Trinamool Congress and Congress. Among the heavyweights who shifted allegiance to BJP included incumbent chief minister and former Congress minister N Biren Singh who, along with other senior Congress leaders like Y Erabot and O Chauba, provided BJP with the probable CM options.
However, the tables turned for the BJP after the Naga blockade which led to the majority community – Meiteis – identifying the saffron party with the Nagas. Ibobi sensed this anger amongst the Maetieis against BJP and tried using it to his advantage. Ibobi's game plan worked and Congress went on to win 28 seats, just three short of the majority figure of 31 in the 60-member Assembly.
Meanwhile, even before the results were announced, BJP began talks with other parties and independents and soon approached the governor to stake claim to form the government. With the help of its allies NPF (4), NPP (4), LJP (1) and an independent, the saffron party took its tally to 31.
But, BJP strategists didn't stop there and managed to secure the support of one Congress MLA and a lone TMC legislator. Adding insult to injury, after the formation of the government, it succeeded in poaching eight more legislators of Congress bring the Grand Old Party's tally down to 19 from 28.
The trump card for BJP in the North East has been how it avoided any direct contests with the regional players and instead won them over. The approach was to take regional players into confidence and making them realise that the party's main aim is to demolish Congress and not the regional outfits in the region.
This reflected in how within two years of winning Assam, BJP under the umbrella of North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) put together a strong political coalition of 10 regional parties which have helped it considerably in forming governments in various states of the region.
BJP has undoubtedly made giant strides in the region but there is one more hurdle before it can call the North East Congress-free. It faces a tough challenge in 2018 where it will have to not only fight a resurgent Congress in Mizoram and Meghalaya but also the CPI(M) in Tripura which has been in power since 1993.
However, it is not going to be a cakewalk for BJP since both Meghalaya and Mizoram are Christian dominated states with latter having 87% Christians. What might work against BJP is how the Church is strongly opposed to BJP considering growing attacks on minorities across the country.
Since the saffron party can not use the Muslim card in these states, it is trying to pit the majority community against Chakma and Chittagong Muslim immigrants.
It remains to be seen whether BJP could recreate its magic in these two states that have been Congress bastions for long. A resurgent Congress under its new president Rahul Gandhi is hoping to continue8 with the momentum it gathered in Gujarat. And, if it does so, these three states from the region will throw in a lot of surprises and 2018 is going to be as exciting as 2017.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen