The focus of electoral politics were fixed on the north east; particularly on Nagaland and Meghalaya where voting for assembly elections took place on Tuesday. Early exit polls suggest an expansion for the BJP and its allies.
In Nagaland, the two main parties are the ruling NPF and National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)-BJP alliance. A particular point to note is that in this region tribes play an important role in electoral politics. The main tribes represented are as follows - Ao which controls 10 seats, Konyak which has 9 seats, Sumi has 7 seats and Angami has 6 seats. Journalist Renuka Bisht, in a column for the Times of India writes on how there might not be a change in the status quo in Nagaland –
“…whatever shape the next Nagaland government takes, whether it’s helmed by NPF or NDPP, the current chief minister or the former chief minister, BJP will be a part of the government”.
The BJP has ties with the ruling NPF (Nagaland People’s Front) and opposition NDPP (National Democratic Progressive Party). This based on the comments made by Home Minister Kiren Rijiju where he said in part, “While we have a seat sharing pact with NDPP, we have not parted ways with NPF in terms of our alliance”.
The Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang, in mid February stated that the 15-year alliance between the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) and BJP was not over yet. He has P Paiwang Konyak, a BJP minister who is part of the cabinet. Zeliang was forced to resign last year as a result of protests against the 33% reservation in urban local bodies.
“It bodes ill for its developmental future that only five women filed their nomination papers this time around, and the state has NEVER elected a woman to its assembly”.
The slogan of the NDDP-BJP alliance was that change is coming. The BJP is officially in government in Nagaland with the NPF. The NDPP was born out of the NPF. One of the two personalities has been mentioned earlier, i.e. Zeliang. The other is Neiphiu Rao who has attacked Zeliang for being the cause of instability in the state.
Rao is backed by Narendra Modi. In his only rally in the state, he called for stability. Home Minister Rijiju was the chief campaigner for the BJP in the state and a one time member minister in the Zeliang government stated that the alliance had a breach of trust. Patricia Mukhim, the Editor of the Shillong Times, in a column for the Indian Express writes on how voters are unenthusiastic about the Congress and the BJP –
“It isn’t everyday that the BJP makes a serious bid for power in the North-East, although it has certainly been emboldened by its victories in Assam and Manipur. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC), the apex body of all Baptist churches in Nagaland, even asked voters not to vote for the BJP and its ally.”
The general observation is that despite the Congress being in power in Meghalaya, there has not been much progress made in the state and the alternative didn’t seem appealing as its perceived that the campaign has been vitriolic.
“There is No Alternative’ (TINA) factor is alive and well in both states. The BJP may not do well on its own. The BJP is certainly betting on its behind-the-scenes links with the NPP.”
What are the issues at play? According to Mukhim, the general consensus is that both parties have ignored the region in general and the states of Nagaland and Meghalaya in particular. There is large scale unemployment among youth and rising college drop-out rates.
“The Socio-Economic-Caste Survey 2011 revealed that 76% of rural Meghalaya is landless. For a tribal state which boasts of community ownership of land, this figure is frighteningly high. The Fifth Annual Employment-Unemployment Survey (2015–16) from the Ministry of Labour and Employment shows Meghalaya’s unemployment rate to be 48/1,000. There is no data for Nagaland.”
The candidates in the Nagaland elections are made up of crorepatis. Former Chief Minister K L Chishi is the richest among them with assets worth more than Rs. 35 crores. This points to the larger theme for a clean election, where one of the central tenants that were raised prior to the election – corruption. The Nagaland Post editorial stated its poll post mortem –
“The election was more of a litmus test of the character of the people and electorate and less on the winnability of the candidates. Each of the issue involves a distinct segment: corruption involves the entire government machinery (from politicians to bureaucracy)”.
The BJP’s problem in Nagaland is its failure to seal the peace accord. The centre has talked about its plans to intensify India-Asean trade and tourism through the northeast corridor. The BJP has some advantages in Meghalaya and Nagaland, but as noted earlier, churches are not too keen on the concept of Hindutva. The editorial makes a point on this –
“This newspaper had commented on several occasions in this column that the church ought not to have taken up the campaign but instead, promote it through a state-level forum like how the Mizo Presbyterian and Baptist churches have done. The church does not have the desired trained and able manpower to undertake the job of clean election”.
Meghalaya has the maximum coalition governments. There are many factors at play - demographic, ethnic fissures and a fragmented party system make it tough to not only see the electoral outcome clearly but also what the incoming government can do differently going forward. National leaders from both parties taking have taken a keen interest in the campaign. The BJP after having tasted success in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, is looking to the North-East.
More columns by Varun Sukumar