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Congress plans to bet on Mukul Sangma to pull up socks in North East

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 4 November 2016, 17:01 IST

Rocked by multiple rebellions within its ranks in the North East, the Congress is reorienting its political strategy to counter an aggressive BJP that has made significant inroads in what was once considered a Congress bastion.

Having lost Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to the BJP, the grand old party is reviving the defunct North East Congress Committee (NECC) with Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma as its face. Of the eight states in the region, Congress is in power in Meghalaya, Manipur, and Mizoram.

With the BJP gaining ground through North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), the Congress is planning to counter it with the NECC, which will also play a similar role in not just Congress-ruled states, but in other states as well.

The purpose of NEDA

After its massive victory in the Assam assembly elections, BJP, in a show of strength, held the first political conclave of NEDA, which constitutes 10 regional parties from the North East. NEDA's formation was announced on the same day when Sarbananda Sonowal took oath as Assam's chief minister.

While formally launching NEDA, BJP President Amit Shah claimed it was time to make North East free of Congress and sought the support of other regional parties in making this a reality.

In his speech, Shah stressed on increasing coordination among the North Eastern states as the primary objective of the newly launched forum.

"The launch of NEDA proves that a Congress-mukt North East is feasible. Our immediate agenda is to form our governments in Manipur and Meghalaya," said Sarma, who played a crucial role inrealising Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dream of forming a government in Assam.

With BJP eying these two states, Congress has decided to spruce up its strategy to strengthen its position in these states and the rest of the North East.

A senior party functionary, on grounds of anonymity, said the NECC would work towards improving the party's image in these states and take up developmental issues.

"There are a lot of tribes in the region and their issues are not highlighted to the extent that they should be. Therefore, we have decided to revive the NECC and make it a platform that would raise such issues," he added.

Previously, the NECC aimed at galvanising the party from the grassroots-level and prepare it to face various elections in the North Eastern states. But, it became ineffective over the last couple of years, especially when Congress leader and Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanswamy was in-charge of the North East.

Big plans ahead

The announcement is likely to be made on 5 November by the All-India Congress Committee and Sangma would be named the convener of NECC.

Congress strategists believe that Sangma has the potential to lead the committee since he managed to keep his flock together during the recent no-confidence motion brought in by Opposition parties. "He is young and is considered an astute administrator," said a Congress functionary.

However, Sangma and NECC's biggest challenge would be the 2017 Assembly polls in Manipur where Congress is battling factionalism amidst reports of many sitting legislators willing to jump ship to the BJP.

Earlier in March, Congress was forced to replace Gaikhangam Gangmei with TN Haokip as the state PCC president, but that too didn't help in quelling the rebellion.

Trouble in the ranks

Congress leaders blame the BJP for manufacturing dissent within its ranks and having a secret understanding with the NSCI(M), who are allegedly threatening the party's Naga leaders in the state to leave the party.

"Due to this understanding, some Naga leaders might switch sides. Nagas influence around 10 Assembly seats in Manipur and their departure could be a major setback for the party. Everything in Naga-dominated areas are under the iron grip of the NSCI M) and they are threatening those aligned with the Congress to switch sides," said a Congress leader.

Adding to this, Manipur Congress stalwart Nongthombam Biren Singh recently joined the BJP which has come as a major blow for the ruling party.

However, a Congress leader confided that since Biren's son is facing murder charges, which is being probed by the CBI, joining BJP was an obvious choice.

Another setback for the Congress was the recent Imphal municipal elections where BJP won 10 of the 27 seats while the grand old party won 12. These results unnerved the Congress leadership considering the BJP won only one seat in 2011.

Powering up

Despite these setbacks, Congress received a major shot in the arm after four Trinamool Congress legislators - Thounaojam Shyamkumar Singh, Irengbam Ibohalbi Singh, Konthoujam Sarat Singh and Oinam Lukhoi Singh - joined the party. Their inclusion has taken Congress' tally to 51 in the House of 60.

Another major challenge for the NECC would be working towards reviving the party in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Congress performed miserably in the recently held Assembly elections in Assam where it won only 26 of the 126 seats.

"We are taking feedback from our party leaders for the reasons of our loss and once we get the feedback, we will work towards consolidating our support base," said a Congress leader.

Even in Arunachal, the party was shaken up when Chief Minister Pema Khandu with 41 legislators joined the People's Party of Arunachal Pradesh, which is in alliance with the BJP. The party is clueless about its future course of action and is yet to recover from the setback it received after all of its MLAs, except one, quit.

In Mizoram, the party has an overwhelming majority but is worried of the rising clout of NEDA that is wooing Mizo National Front Chief Zoramthanga.

First published: 4 November 2016, 17:01 IST