Saffron spreads

40RamMadhav Expansion mode: (From left) BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, BJP president Amit Shah, Nagaland Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang and Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling at a meeting in Guwahati | PTI

After an alliance in Arunachal, the BJP is keen on enhancing its footprint in the northeast

  • "The BJP is instigating rebellion. Himanta Biswa Sarma wants to show off to his new bosses, prove his loyalty to them" - K. Jayakumar, Congress secretary in charge of Arunachal Pradesh

The Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh changed its political colours on September 16, as all but one of its 44 MLAs, including chief minister Pema Khandu joined the People’s Party of Arunachal. A couple of days later, Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congressman who is now a prominent BJP leader in Assam, landed in Itanagar. The BJP extended support to the new PPA government, and Sarma declared that it was a government of the Northeast Democratic Alliance, a conglomerate of parties in the region floated by the saffron party.

Sarma, convener of the NEDA, held a joint legislature party meeting of the ruling party’s MLAs, 11 BJP legislators and two independents, making the imprint of the BJP in the change of government in the state clearly visible. The developments in Arunachal Pradesh left the Congress in shock. Barely a couple of months before had it reclaimed the state, thanks to a Supreme Court verdict, from what it called a BJP-engineered revolt against the Nabam Tuki government.

After capturing Assam in the last assembly elections, the BJP accorded high priority to enhancing its footprint in the northeast. The party considers Assam as its big entry point into the northeast. On May 24, soon after Sarbananda Sonowal was sworn in as the BJP’s first chief minister of Assam, party president Amit Shah announced the creation of the NEDA.

41NortheastDemocraticAlliance Northeast Democratic Alliance convener Himanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP | PTI

The NEDA aims at making the region ‘Congress-mukt’ and its target is to be in power in six of the eight northeastern states by 2019. With the NEDA claiming Arunachal, the alliance is now in power in four states in the region, the two others being Nagaland and Sikkim. It also plans to win quite a few of 25 Lok Sabha seats in the northeast.

The Congress, which has had a dominance in the northeast, has accused the BJP of using coercion and inducements to wrest power. C.P. Joshi, Congress general secretary in charge of the northeast, said that though the exodus of its MLAs had come as a surprise, the party had anticipated problems for its government considering the little fund flow to the state. “It is for the first time that money is being given to states on the whims and fancies of the Central government,” he said.

Congress leaders said the BJP was trying to create trouble for its governments in Manipur and Meghalaya, too, by stoking rebellion and using money and muscle power. The recent visits of BJP leaders like Shah, Sarma and Ram Madhav to the two states, they said, had the same purpose.

Congress secretary K. Jayakumar, who is in charge of Arunachal Pradesh, said, “Amit Shah, Smriti Irani and other Union ministers, including Kiren Rijiju, met Khandu at a function in the state. They lured him with promises.” He said there was also the threat of funds not being given to the state. “Shah told Khandu clearly that funds will not be given,” he said.

Shah, the Congress alleged, was constantly on the phone with Khandu when its legislators met on the morning of September 16 to decide on switching sides. “They are doing the same in Manipur and Meghalaya. They are instigating rebellion. Himanta Biswa Sarma wants to show off to his new bosses, prove his loyalty to them,” said Jayakumar.

41ArunachalPradesh Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu, who defected from the Congress to the People’s Party of Arunachal | PTI

The BJP said the Congress should blame itself for its problems in the region. “There are problems in the state units of the Congress in various states,” said BJP national secretary Shrikant Sharma. “The BJP cannot be held responsible for leaders leaving the party. The Congress should introspect rather than blame the BJP.”

And on course in its mission to claim the northeast, the BJP, through the NEDA, has tied up with regional players. It is a part of the government in the predominantly Christian Nagaland, having allied with the Naga People’s Front. The NEDA has two allies in Meghalaya—the United Democratic Party and the National People’s Party—and one in Mizoram, the Mizo National Front. Both these states have a Christian majority. The ruling Sikkim Democratic Front is also a member of the alliance. The Left-ruled Tripura, however, could prove to be the toughest to win, even though it has an ally in the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura.

Sarma has been asked to focus on Manipur, which goes to the polls in February 2017. The party hopes to appeal to the Vaishnavite Meitis here. It has already begun making its presence felt electorally. For the first time ever, the BJP got representation in the assembly, winning two seats in the bypolls last year. It also won ten of the 27 seats in the Imphal Municipal Council this year. It had won just one seat in 2011.

According to Wasbir Hussain of the Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati, one reason the regional parties are joining the NEDA is the need to be in sync with the Central government and to get funds for development. “Identity politics is quite strong,” said Hussain. “However, more important than ideology is the need to align with the government at the Centre.”

To find greater acceptability in the region, the BJP is using development as its mantra. It worked in Assam, and a similar strategy is being used in the other states. “Development is the only agenda of the NEDA,” said Sarma. The NEDA chief ministers are scheduled to have a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the first week of October. “There are many common problems of the region, which need to be raised with the Centre,” said Sarma. “The NEDA will do its best to resolve the problems of the region, including the boundary disputes.”

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