North East Assembly Polls: BJP Faces Bright Prospects Of Establishing Major Presence In Christian-Majority Tribal States
The presence of BJP in the predominantly tribal states of the region has demolished the earlier impression of it being a Hindu majoritarian party.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking at the bright prospect of occupying political centre stage in the two Christian-majority tribal states of Meghalaya and Nagaland, where assembly elections are slated for 27 February.
The BJP is a marginal player in Meghalaya and has established a respectable presence in Nagaland.
But it has chief ministers in four of the seven states of the region — Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura — and had been part of the ruling coalition in Nagaland and Meghalaya.
Mizoram is the only state where the BJP is yet to establish its presence in the state assembly even though the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Of the 24 Lok Sabha seats in the region, 17 are with the NDA.
The BJP’s presence in the predominantly tribal states of the region has demolished the earlier impression of it being a Hindu majoritarian party whose presence is limited to the country’s Hindi heartland.
In the 2018 assembly elections, the BJP won two seats in Meghalaya with a vote share of 9.6 per cent and 12 in Nagaland where its vote share was a respectable 15.3 per cent.
Both these are Christian-majority states and the fact that the BJP could establish its presence in the two states helped it shake off the undeserved tag of a ‘Hindu-Hindi’ party.
“We are now sure of increasing our numbers in both Meghalaya and Nagaland, and also retaining power in Tripura. We are confident of emerging as the single largest party in Meghalaya and forming the government on our own or with the support of smaller parties. In Nagaland, too, we aim to become the single-largest party,” said Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is the party’s pointsman in the region.
In Tripura, the BJP is gearing itself to go it alone in the polls with its tribal ally — the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT) — indicating that it may merge itself with the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA, known more commonly as the Tipra Motha).
The Tipra Motha, led by scion of the erstwhile Tripura royal family, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barma, had captured the imagination of the tribal community in the state even though it has been facing an erosion of its support base of late. The Motha is widely perceived to be backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) which is working out an alliance with the Congress.
The BJP will, thus, face a combined opposition: the CPI(M)-led Left Front, the Congress and the Tipra Motha. But the party is unfazed.
“The CPI(M) has birthed the Tipra Motha thinking that the Motha will win a majority of the seats in the tribal areas and that will harm our prospects. But the CPI(M)’s game plan will not succeed. We are quite capable of contesting from the tribal areas and winning those seats on our own,” BJP state president Rajeev Bhattacharjee told Swarajya.
The BJP started a major outreach in the tribal areas of Tripura once the IPFT started suffering an erosion in its rank with many leaders, functionaries and workers joining the Motha over the last two years.
“We felt that the Motha, led by the royal scion who is popular among the tribals, will decimate the IPFT and we may have to go it alone in the tribal areas. So we started working silently and discreetly among the tribals and explaining to them that the Motha is fooling them by raising the emotional but unachievable demand for a ‘Greater Tipraland’ state carved out of the tribal areas of Tripura. We highlighted the development work done by our government in the tribal areas. Our efforts have borne fruit and we will see the results in the elections,” said senior BJP leader Kishor Burman.
If the BJP manages to win a good number of seats in the tribal areas of Tripura, as it is confident it will, the saffron party will be able to effectively shake off the tag of being a party of Bengali Hindus. That will be a major psychological victory for the party.
The BJP, which was buffeted by factionalism and infighting among its top state leaders, has been able to resolve those issues. It also managed to neutralise anti-incumbency by replacing the earlier Chief Minister, Biplab Deb, with the low-key and non-controversial Manik Saha in May last year.
Saha has been able to arrest the declining popularity of the government through good and efficient governance and a number of good initiatives. The BJP, thus, stands a very good chance of retaining power in Tripura (read this).
The BJP is a partner in the ruling alliance led by the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland. The NDPP, led by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, has worked out a 40:20 seat-sharing formula with the BJP.
This formula was accepted by the BJP during a meeting between Assam Chief Minister Sarma and his Nagaland counterpart Rio in New Delhi Thursday (19 January).
The state BJP unit has wanted a larger share and was confident of winning in at least 25 seats. But the BJP accepted the NDPP’s offer in the interests of keeping the alliance going in a healthy manner.
“Our vote share in 2018 was 15.3 per cent, and we’re aiming at doubling it this time,” said a senior BJP leader.
The BJP wants to become a major partner in the next ruling alliance and, ultimately, become the dominant political party in the state.
“We have already broken the impression that the BJP is a Hindu-Hindi party. The Congress and some regional parties had created that impression about us, but we have been able to convince the people of Nagaland that we are a truly inclusive national party whose only objective is development of the country, including Nagaland,” the BJP leader added.
The two major issues in the elections are the ongoing talks with Naga insurgent groups and civil society organisations to resolve the ‘Naga political issue’.
Endless rounds of negotiations between the government of India and these groups since 1997 have failed to produce a settlement.
That’s mainly because the dominant militant outfit — the NSCN(IM) — has remained adamant on its demand for a separate flag and constitution for the Nagas. The Union government is, understandably, unwilling to concede these two demands.
“Our rival political parties and some organisations are blaming us for not resolving the Naga political issue. But the Union Government has tried its best and will continue to work towards resolving this complicated issue. The people of Nagaland also know that the BJP is the best bet for hammering out a solution,” said the BJP leader.
The BJP is also holding out the advantages of a ‘double-engine government’ with the BJP-led NDA government at the federal level ensuring accelerated development of Nagaland under a dispensation (in the state) that includes the BJP.
The BJP may have won just two seats in Meghalaya in 2018, but it has set its sights on winning at least 10 seats this time and increasing its vote share from 9.6 per cent to 20 per cent.
“We have long-term plans for Meghalaya and are confident of becoming the biggest party in the state in future. The forthcoming elections will set us on that path,” said state BJP president Ernest Mawrie.
That the BJP is no longer viewed by the Christian tribals of Meghalaya as a ‘Hindu-Hindi’ party is evident from the exponential increase in its support base.
“A number of MLAs from other parties have joined us over the past few weeks and our membership drive across the state has received a very enthusiastic response. We have enrolled more than one lakh people into the party and they will ensure the growth of the BJP in Meghalaya,” said Mawrie.
The BJP will not have a pre-poll alliance with other regional parties it had partnered with in the ruling Meghalaya Democratic Alliance.
“We will contest the polls on our own, but are open to post-poll alliances with regional parties,” said a BJP leader.
The saffron party had started poll preparations by September last year and its leaders had started campaigning informally all over the state.
The party’s programmes have been receiving a favourable response from the people, and that is what has encouraged state leaders to predict a favourable poll outcome.
If the BJP does manage to do well in Meghalaya and Nagaland, and retain Tripura by getting the support of tribals (apart from the majority non-tribals, of course) in that state, it will finally demolish the long-held impression that the Christian tribals of the North East remain outside its sphere of influence.
That will be a major breakthrough by the saffron party.
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