How India's northeast turned right


Unlike in other parts of the country, the northeast has been a happy hunting ground for the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is here that the saffron party has got a major boost in achieving its goal of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”. The just concluded assembly election in Mizoram has proved to be the cherry on the cake.

While throwing the well entrenched Congress government of Lal Thanhawla out of power after a ten year rule, the BJP has managed to open its account in the almost hundred per cent Christian state after a long struggle of 25 years, when it had first contested election in 1993.

Though it puts up a facade of ‘having-nothing-to-do’ with the ‘satanic’ saffron party, the victorious Mizo National Front (MNF), which got a clear mandate from the people, is not going to break up with the Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a conglomeration of all the non-Congress parties in the northeast, formed under the stewardship of senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sharma is the convenor of NEDA. Almost all the regional parties have formed their respective governments with due blessings of the BJP. Understandably, Mizoram’s new MNF chief minister, Pu Zoramthanga, is well aware which side his bread is buttered. In his first press briefing soon after winning the polls on December 11, Zoramthanga said, “We (MNF) will stay with the NEDA and continue to support the NDA at the Centre”.

Mizoram and Sikkim are the only two states in the northeast where the BJP is not a part of the ruling government. However, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) is also a constituent of the NEDA and extends support to the Narendra Modi government. 

The tiny Himalayan state with a population of just over 6 lakhs, is set to witness hot political exchanges in the coming months as Sikkim goes to the polls early next year to elect its 32-member state assembly.

Incumbent head of the government, Pawan Kumar Chamling, who has earned the distinction of becoming the longest serving chief minister in the country, ruling Sikkim since 1994, is in for some stiff competition.

Former ace footballer and budding politician Bhaichung Bhutia, who formed his political party, Hamro Sikkim (Our Sikkim), in June 2018, is already giving 68-year-old Chamling sleepless nights. Having a large youth following, Bhutia hopes to wrest power from the SDF. Sikkim practically had no opposition for so long. However, the breakaway faction of the SDF, which contested the 2014 election under the banner of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, did well by bagging 10 of the total 32 seats.

Sensing the popularity of the new party floated by Bhutia, the BJP has been sending feelers, hoping for a possible alliance. Although Bhutia is not averse to a tie-up with the cash-rich saffron party, he is clear that Hamro Sikkim will have no truck with the BJP until and unless it breaks all ties with the reigning SDF. “Our aim is to dislodge the Chamling government and we cannot align with a party which has links with the SDF. They must first break-up with the SDF if they want to join us”, Bhutia clearly said.

But, for the BJP, such a situation is not uncommon in the northeast. In Nagaland, the BJP had been in an alliance with the NPF (Naga People’s Front) before ditching it for the Neiphiu Rio-led NDPP (Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party) in the February 2018 Assembly polls. In that elections, the BJP gave a stellar performance when it won 12 seats emerging as the king maker in the 60-member state legislative assembly. In 2013, it had won just a single seat. Political analyst Arunav Goswami working for a leading think-tank, Centre for Development and Peace Studies (CDPS), avers, “In its quest for a Congress-mukt northeast, the BJP and its regional formation (NEDA) has no qualms about aligning with any political party as long as it can somehow be a part of the government”. 

This can be well gleaned from the poll verdict in Meghalaya. Although the Congress had bagged 21 of the total 60 seats, it failed to form the government. NEDA convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma swiftly moved in. Organising all the regional parties under one umbrella, the BJP rallied behind NPP (National People’s Party) and put a non-Congress government in place. NPP is a part of the NEDA and hence Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, got the full backing of the BJP which had won just two seats. Biswa Sarma used every trick up his sleeve to make the other small regional parties agree to support the NPP-led regional government. Conrad later thanked the BJP by making one of their MLAs, Alexander Hek, a minister in his cabinet.

Modi-Shah Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah | PTI

With chalo paltai renting the air, Tripura became another success story for the BJP. In the red bastion, which ruled Tripura for long 25 years, the lotus bloomed like never before. It was a clean sweep for the BJP although the NEDA convenor had gone in for a controversial pre-poll alliance  with the pro-tribal IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) fighting for separate state for the indigenous people of Tripura. The BJP made IPTF leader, Bishnu Debbarma, its deputy chief minister in a bid to stop them from clamouring for a separate Tripuri state. The Bengali dominated northeastern state saw a young Biplab Deb take over as the chief minister. The election results stunned the Marxists which won just 16 seats while the IPFT got 8. 

As for the sensitive state of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares borders with China, the state has always been with the ruling party at the Centre. So, the 60-member assembly has seen itself transform into the BJP from the Congress and the PPA (Peoples' Party of Arunachal Pradesh) with just three MLAs left as opposition, one of whom is former chief minister Nabam Tuki of the Congress party.

In Manipur, when the state went to polls in 2017, the BJP failed to get a clear majority winning 21 of the 60 seats. The Congress, despite a massive anti-incumbency against two term chief minister Ibobi Singh, secured 29 seats. But the NEDA convenor, along with BJP president Amit Shah, went for the kill. Clobbering up the required numbers, they managed to install Congress-turned-BJP leader Biren Singh as the chief minister of Manipur, a predominantly Hindu state where the saffron party was not avoided like a plague. Biren Singh has since been seen playing along with the BJP. The appointment of Adhya Prasad Pandey, an RSS ideologue, as Vice Chancellor of Manipur University, however, had created a lot of unrest. Biren Singh watched helplessly as the students faced the ire of the riot police. In the end, the students won when after months of protests, Pandey was removed from his post.

After 15 years of Congress rule under chief minister Tarun Gogoi, Assam was reeling under anti-incumbency when elections were held in 2016. It seemed a cakewalk for the BJP which had learnt to tie-up with the regional parties for more acceptability. While the BJP on its own secured 60 seats in the 126 member state legislative assembly, its pre-poll alliances with the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) and the BPF (Bodoland Peoples Front) paid off with both the parties securing 14 and 12 seats respectively. 

Ever since, the BJP has been a dominant player in the northeast. One of its strategies has been to tie-up with regional parties, leading to murmurs that the BJP was gobbling up smaller regional entities. Immediately after their victory in Assam, the BJP floated NEDA which has pushed the once dominant Congress to the wall in the region.

Of course, no one can deny the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given enough leverage to this backward region, forcing the rest of the country to sit up. From the ‘Look East’, the slogan is now ‘Act East’ and the region is fast becoming the ‘gateway to southeast Asia’. Massive funding has come in for infrastructure development and building of roads and rails for better communication under the Act East policy. This has prompted Kiren Rijiju, minister of state for home affairs to comment, “It’s important to have the political will to accelerate the development of the northeastern region. Now there is no distance between the northeast and the rest. We are part of the mainstream.”

A total of Rs 1,66,026 crore has been sanctioned for construction of over 10,000km of roads in eight states under the National Highways Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited. An additional Rs 7,000 crore has been approved for 850km stretch under the National Highway Authority of India. The ministry of road transport and highways has also sanctioned Rs 17,257 crores for respective state Public Works Department for construction of roads in the entire region. Little wonder why MNF chief Zoramthanga is sticking on with the NEDA and the BJP. The roads in Mizoram need urgent attention.

The central government has also created an exclusive forum at the NITI Aayog for preparing plans for the region, which will be co-chaired by its vice chairman and the secretary of DoNER (Development of North Eastern Region). The forum would look into various proposals both at the central and state levels and prepare plans for the speedy development of the northeast.

Besides, there will be 100 per cent funding by the central government for projects in the region which was earlier being undertaken on the basis of centre-state sharing. The funding will be through non-lapsable central pool of resources and North East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme.

After the BJP came to power, they amended various acts which included the Indian Forest Act,  1927. As a result of the amendment, bamboo which was defined as a ‘tree’ under the Act was changed thereby doing away with the requirement of obtaining a permit for cutting of bamboo on non-forest land for economic use. This has opened up a new avenue of job generation and entrepreneurship by allowing bamboo cultivation and bamboo use by non-farmers.

Northeast is a region which has been plagued by insurgency ever since the country attained its independence. Numerous armed insurgency groups have kept the region on the boil. To solve the this vexed issue, various pro-active steps have been undertaken.

To begin with, on August 15, a year after it came to power, Narendra Modi government signed a framework agreement with the NSCN (IM). Other factions of the NSCN like Khaplang, too, are in the negotiating table. So the talks between the NSCN and the government of India is almost at the finishing line. Talks are also going on with six Naga National Political Groups (NNPG). R N Ravi , chief interlocutor is in constant touch with the insurgent groups and a peace accord is expected soon.

After the BJP came to power in Manipur in 2017, chief minister N. Biren Singh expressed his willingness to have a dialogue with the various insurgent groups in the state with involvement of the Centre to find a political solution and bring peace in the state wracked by five decades of insurgency. The state government has already initiated efforts for talks with civil society bodies and senior citizens groups in order to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table. However Manipur still tops the Northeastern region in terms of insurgency related killings. In 2017, there were 55 deaths apart from 34 instances of bomb explosion in the state.

In Assam, however, there has been a spurt in the activities of the ULFA (I). There  has been incidents of violence, abductions and killings which are suspected to have been committed by the militants. They also coordinate their actions with other insurgent outfits. The rebels have safe havens in neighbouring countries including China and Myanmar. The number of youths joining the outfit has increased after the central government proposed to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which proposes to make non-Muslim migrants eligible for citizenship. There is widespread opposition to the Bill in Assam. One can clearly say that the Bill has led to the revival of the ULFA (I), with numerous youths joining the militant outfit. On November 1, 2018, cadres of the outfit dressed in battle fatigues gunned down five villagers in Assam’s Tinsukia district. The outfit, however, has not claimed responsibility for the dastardly act.

Despite tall claims by the Centre, on the sealing of the Indo-Bangla border to curb infiltration of illegal migrants, very little as been done. Initially, the central government had set a deadline of March 2019, but now it is clear that the government is definitely going to miss the deadline. More ammo for the Congress.