India’s Northeast: As New Parties Emerge in Hill States, Can BJP Retain Spot?

While poll-bound states of Tripura and Meghalaya are likely to face a hung assembly, Nagaland could be an exception.

5 min read

Three states in the Northeast will face the Assembly polls in February where the issues are different but there are also similarities in situations. The emergence of new parties and alliances will pose a challenge to the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance that had succeeded in forming non-Congress governments in all these states.

Usually, election surprises are rare in the region although there were occasions in the past when the performances of parties had belied the expectations of poll pundits. Tripura could be a case in this category where the contest is expected to be tough and unpredictable.

Rise of the BJP in Tripura & Challenges Ahead

In 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) along with the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT) had routed the Left Front in the state. In the 60-member state Assembly, the BJP had won 36 seats and the IPFT eight while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) secured 16. However, the BJP-led coalition government had been jolted many a time over the past five years owing to many factors.

First, the authoritarian style of functioning by former Chief Minister Biplab Deb spawned massive disenchantment among the party functionaries and ministers. BJP legislators Ashis Das, Sudip Roy Barman and Ashis Kumar Saha quit the party and the assembly membership following open differences with Deb. By December last year, a total of seven legislators had left the ruling BJP-IPFT coalition.

To prevent further damage, the BJP leadership swung into action by replacing Deb with Manik Saha as the chief minister but the challenges faced by the saffron party have not withered away.

The rise of the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) led by Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barman has added new political equations in the state that could upset both the BJP-led coalition and the Left Front.

TIPRA is demanding ‘Greater Tipraland' or more autonomy and political power for the tribals comprising a third of the state's population of four million. Twenty seats are reserved for the tribals and they are a decisive factor in around seven more seats. Many senior leaders from other parties have joined TIPRA after it swept the polls for the autonomous council in 2021.

Left-Congress Pre-Poll Alliance Possible In Tripura?

IPFT legislator and Forest and Tribal Welfare Minister Mevar Kumar Jamatia resigned from the state assembly and joined TIPRA. Other entrants to the new party were IPFT MLA Dhananjoy Tripura, and BJP MLA Burba Mohan Tripura. The party is expected to win in a majority of the 20 reserved seats for the tribals in the state although it also faces competition from the Left Front in these constituencies.

This apart, the Left Front and Congress have offered ample indications of a pre-poll alliance. Many of their leaders were seen on the same platforms and joint press releases have also been issued.

The twin parties have been harping on the ‘revival of democracy’ in the backdrop of the violent incidents that rocked the state since the BJP-IPFT formed government five years ago.

Moreover, the government had failed to fulfil most of the pre-election promises in the vision document except for enhancing social pension, construction of houses under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and improving the performance of the agriculture sector.

Stakes High for BJP in Nagaland

In contrast to Tripura, the situation in Nagaland indicates that the ruling United Democratic Alliance of Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and BJP have a bright chance of forming the next government again.

There is no opposition in the hill state after the Naga People’s Front (NPF) joined the NDPP last year. Only four legislators of NPF decided not to merge with the ruling NDPP.

A joint statement issued by the NDPP and BJP in New Delhi last July said that the previous agreement of 40:20 between the twin parties would also be accepted in the forthcoming polls which means that NDPP will contest in 40 seats and BJP in 20 out of a total of sixty in the assembly.

Local BJP leaders who were expecting to contest in more seats were unhappy over the agreement. But the disillusionment among the party functionaries is unlikely to lead to snapping of ties ahead of the elections.


‘Election for Solution’ & Nagaland’s Political Crisis

In 2018, the BJP and NDPP had contested the assembly polls on the issue of "election for solution,” meaning that an agreement would be clinched with the rebel groups and all issues resolved. The stalemate, however, is yet to be broken with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) clinging to its demand for a separate flag and Constitution.

Resolving the decades-old Naga political issue is again an election issue in the state. But whether the electorate spurns the NDPP-BJP for being unable to resolve the issue remains to be seen. In the hill states of the Northeast, the ruling party and coalition always have an edge over the opposition during elections.

A greater challenge for the NDPP would be to prevent intra-party tussle in the allocation of tickets to candidates in the 40 constituencies. There will be more contenders for every constituency after the merger of NPF with NDPP.

Some observers do not rule out the possibility of some functionaries contesting as independent candidates if their names are deleted from the list of selected candidates. Still, given the inclination of the electorate to vote for the winning coalition, it is unlikely that such a scenario would decisively impact the outcome of the elections.

Another issue in Nagaland is the demand for the separate state of Frontier Nagaland comprising seven eastern districts in the state. A three-member committee has been formed by the home ministry to examine the demand by the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO).

Seven tribes inhabiting the region also did not participate in the recently concluded Hornbill Festival. ENPO has reaffirmed its call to boycott the assembly elections if the Centre does not fulfill its demand for the separate state. Some observers in the state believe that the NDPP-BJP alliance could be adversely impacted in case the polls are boycotted in the eastern districts that has 20 seats.

Hung Assembly in Meghalaya Yet Again?

In Meghalaya, there is a high possibility of a hung assembly without any party getting an absolute majority like Tripura. In 2018, the Congress was the single largest party with 21 seats but it was the National People’s Party (NPP) that succeeded in cobbling the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) with three other regional parties along with the BJP to form the government in the state.

Subsequently, what happened in the hill state over the past five years was a story of legislators jumping from one party to another. The worst hit was the Congress which is left with no legislators as 12 MLAs led by former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma joined the Trinamool Congress; five joined the ruling NPP while three had untimely deaths. Then, last December, two MLAs belonging to NPP, one independent and one from the Trinamool Congress joined the BJP.

It is not surprising that there is no pre-poll alliance among the parties. Both the NPP and BJP have announced that they will go solo in the assembly polls. The TMC will contest all the 60 seats and the United Democratic Party (UDP) has already released the first list of 32 candidates.

As such, the forthcoming assembly polls in Meghalaya is almost a repeat of the previous elections except that it is now the Trinamool Congress instead of the Congress that has a chance of pulling the smaller parties to form the government if it wins sufficient number of seats.

The party is expected to give a tough contest to the ruling NPP in the Garo Hills which has 24 constituencies and is also the home turf of chief minister Conrad K Sangma.

The BJP’s tally is not expected to increase sharply in the Christian-dominated hill state. As usual, the three small parties—UDP, People’s Democratic Front and Hill State People’s Democratic Party—could win in about a dozen seats. In all likelihood, they will offer support to the single largest party which could either be the NPP or Trinamool Congress. Observers feel there is a greater possibility of the previous NPP-led coalition forming the next government again.

(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam. Views expressed are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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