Step one for the BJP was making the North East ‘Congress-mukt’. That was accomplished in 2018.
Going into the new year, the BJP has to prove beyond doubt that it is, in fact, the better option for the region’s voters.
The year 2018 has been a significant one for northeast India. The Congress, which used to consider the region its fief till recently, has been completely banished from the North East. But what is perhaps more significant is that the Congress has been replaced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which governs all seven states of the region either on its own or through its allies.
The entire region became ‘Congress-mukt’ in mid-December when the (MNF), a constituent of the BJP-birthed (NEDA), the Congress from power in the state. The sun had started setting on the Congress in the region when the BJP, in alliance with the (AGP), dealt a crushing blow to the former in May 2016 in Assam. That set the ball rolling for the formation of the NEDA.
After the resounding victory in Assam, regional parties started becoming enthusiastic constituents of the NEDA. In December 2016, the BJP the government in Arunachal Pradesh when most of the legislators belonging to the (PPA), which was in power in the state, joined the BJP. They included PPA leader and Chief Minister . The Congress had already suffered a debilitating blow in the mountainous state bordering Tibet when Khandu and other legislators, who were with the Congress, broke away from that party to form the PPA in July 2016.
The grand of the BJP in Tripura, where the saffron party dealt a crushing blow to the CPI(M)-led Left Front, came as major morale booster in March 2018.
Simultaneously, the BJP, in alliance with its regional partners, posted impressive performances in Meghalaya and Nagaland (elections were held in these two states also earlier this year). In Nagaland, the BJP won 12 seats while its close ally, the (NDPP), won 18; the two then formed the government in the state. In Meghalaya, though the BJP won just two seats (in the 60-member state assembly), its allies - the (NPP) and the (UDP) - won 19 and six seats respectively. The three, along with other smaller parties and independents, are now ruling Meghalaya.
In Manipur, the BJP posted a good performance by winning 21 seats in the March 2017 assembly polls. In the 2012 polls, it had come a cropper. The Congress won 28 seats, but the BJP went on to form the government with the support of its pre-poll allies NPP (won four seats), the (NPF) that won four seats, the (LJP) that won one seat, and an independent legislator.
What is significant is that though Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram are overwhelmingly Christian-majority states, the BJP has been able to post encouraging performances in these states. And despite opposition from the powerful Church and Christian groups (read , and ), the BJP managed to do quite well at the hustings in the three states. In Nagaland, where it won 12 seats, the BJP increased its vote share from 1.75 per cent in 2013 to 14.4 per cent while in Meghalaya, it increased its vote share from 1.27 per cent in 2013 to 9.6 per cent this time. In Mizoram, the BJP got 8 per cent of the votes cast.
This, says political scientist Pranab Jyoti Bora, who teaches the subject in Gauhati University, proves that the BJP is no pariah in the Christian states of the North East. “The Congress tried its best to project the BJP as an anti-Christian party, but the voters saw through that falsehood in Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya,” said NEDA convenor and Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. He underlined the fact that association with the BJP has not harmed any regional party - the MNF in Mizoram, the NPP and UDP in Meghalaya or the NDPP in Nagaland - electorally. If anything, the fact that these parties are allies of the BJP have only helped them at the hustings.
This is because, analyses Bora, association with the BJP, which is in power in Delhi, is perceived as a plus point by the electorate in the small states since it can bring a lot of benefits by way of welfare schemes and development projects. The BJP, in all the states, campaigned on the development plank and ignored the ‘anti-Christian’ campaign by the Church and sections of the Congress which, many allege, were in league with each other. The BJP is now looked upon in the North East as a party that stands for development.
There is another reason for the Congress rout in the region. “For all these decades, the Congress took this region for granted and neglected it. The party poured in money but never demanded accountability. As a result, corruption became rampant and endemic and the common people suffered while a section of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen prospered. Lack of employment opportunities, gross under-development, lack of education, health and physical infrastructure and many other similar problems stemmed from the continued neglect of the region by successive Congress governments in New Delhi, and the states bred resentment among the common people of the region” said political commentator Arnab Hazarika.
“The shabby manner in which the Congress treated regional parties, aligning with them to form governments and then ditching them or buying them out, also bred anger among the people. All this led to the decline of the Congress in the region,” Hazarika added .
But the task before the BJP is set. It cannot afford to rest on its laurels and allow the general drift that ails this region to continue. To entrench itself in the Northeast and win the abiding trust of the people, the party has to fulfill its promises to usher in a new era of development.
A lot is happening, but the pace of development needs to be accelerated. The scourge of corruption needs to be tackled and eliminated and governments in the states have to be held accountable by the Centre. Construction of roads, bridges, schools and healthcare facilities have to be accelerated and clean and transparent governance provided. To not do so would blur the distinction between the BJP and the Congress and lead the people of the North East to once again view the BJP with the same cynicism as they view the Congress.
It will also trigger greater alienation of the people of the region from the mainstream. And that is something the BJP can ill-afford.
This new year, the BJP has to prove that it is different from the Congress which had only been interested in staying in power in the seven sister states and enjoying the fruits of power while neglecting the people.