BJP Needs To Fashion A Fresh Development Strategy For The North East
The North East is ripe for the taking by the BJP this time.
If the party can prove itself in the region and return to power again, it will become the natural party of governance at the pan-India level.
Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicks off the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election campaign in Meghalaya this weekend, the BJP has to refashion the development template for North East India to ensure that it establishes itself as the natural party of governance. The stakes are, indeed, very high for the BJP in the North East, and if the BJP governments in various states of the region fast-track development and bring about dramatic changes in the socio-economic condition of the people of the region, the party will be able to rightfully claim that its appeal and agenda are not limited to one community alone, as its critics often allege.
Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur already have BJP-led governments in place, while the BJP is a minor partner in the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government in Nagaland. In Meghalaya, which goes to the polls early next year, the prospects of the BJP-National People’s Party (NPP) alliance winning a majority of the 60 seats there are very bright. The BJP is growing in strength in Tripura, which also goes to the polls early next year, and looks set to dislodge the Left Front government in that state.
In Mizoram, the opposition Mizo National Front (MNF), which is part of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), will win a good number of seats when elections are held there late next year, and so will the BJP. A likely post-poll alliance (so far, the BJP has ruled out the possibility of the pre-poll alliance) between the two parties could see the BJP-MNF combine coming to power in the state. Thus, a year from now, the BJP with its regional allies could well be in power in all the seven states of the North East. In the eighth state – Sikkim – there is little doubt that the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front, which is a constituent of the NEDA, will return to power for the sixth consecutive term when elections are held in that tiny Himalayan state in April-May 2019.
For the BJP, it should not be just about winning elections and assuming power in the northeastern states because it has a lot to prove about itself through its performance as part of ruling alliances, present and future, in the region. It is common knowledge that the northeastern states, thanks to a combination of factors, are very difficult to govern. This combination of factors has also kept the region very backward and mired in poverty and neglect. And this has brewed resentment among the people of the states towards what is called ‘mainland’ India. For the BJP, the North East is both a challenge and an opportunity and if it can deliver in this region, it will not only implant itself firmly here, it will also gain in stature as a pan-Indian party that represents, and fulfils, the aspirations of all sections of the people of India.
The North East has, for the past seven decades, remained a neglected region. Successive Congress governments at the centre, often in collusion with their regional allies here, have failed to transform the region, which has remained backward, a hotbed of corruption and a space for political chicanery. The Congress has allowed, and majorly benefited from, the open loot of mind-boggling sums of public funds sent to the northeastern states for infrastructure and other development projects. The acute poverty, unemployment and criminal neglect of the region resulting in its current state had provided a ready-made recipe for an insurgency to flourish.
Battling insurgency became yet another money-making venture for the venal politicians and bureaucrats of this region; a huge amount of funds meant for modernising the police forces of the states and for tackling militancy continues to be siphoned off. The fact that this region is also home to a very large number of tribes and sub-tribes, most with competing claims to land and resources, has also made governance difficult. The issue of identity is also an important one that requires delicate management, but has often been handled ineptly, thus exacerbating tensions and triggering intra-regional conflicts.
To be fair, the difficult terrain in the region also poses a tough challenge. Many parts of this region, especially the hill areas, are sparsely populated and it is not always possible to provide communication links, electricity, drinking water, healthcare and education to, say, a few houses in a remote hamlet in the hills. But the residents of that hamlet have as much right to a certain standard of living and the nation’s resources as a resident of, say, Delhi. Evolving cost-effective and viable alternative development models to meet the special needs of the region is a task that the BJP must undertake with vigour and a sense of urgency.
The BJP-led governments in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have initiated a number of measures to kick start development in the North East and provide good governance. In Manipur, the N Biren Singh government has taken bold steps to end militancy and fast-track development. The Pema Khandu government in Arunachal is focused on revolutionising communication links and public infrastructure while in Assam, a lot of work is being done in the education and healthcare sectors.
But along with development, the BJP also has to weed out the endemic corruption that has taken deep roots in the region. Corruption and loot of public funds have become a part of the social and political ecosystem in the North East and tackling it will pose a tough challenge to the BJP, given the powerful vested interests involved. But the BJP cannot afford to make any compromises on this count because doing so would affect the all-important mission of providing clean and good governance to the people of the North East and accelerating the pace of development in the region.
What is also of immense significance is that the North East is home to many Christians. Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya are overwhelmingly Christian-majority states, while Assam, Manipur and Tripura also have significant tribal populations. Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have a large number of Buddhists. If the BJP can provide good, responsive and clean governance in the region and fulfil the aspirations of the people, thus winning the trust and support of the people of the North East, especially its Christians, the party would be able to forever silence its critics who label it as a Hindutva party.
The route to the BJP’s firm emergence as a pan-Indian party representing all sections of the people of India thus lies through the North East. And the party would be well-advised to craft a fresh and imaginative strategy that would take the region out of the quagmire of poverty, backwardness, endemic corruption, poor governance, ethnic tensions, strife and militancy. The North East is ripe for the taking by the BJP this time, and if the party can prove itself in the region and return to power again, it will become the natural party of governance at the pan-India level.
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