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With the current Lok Sabha election in progress all over India, will the eight states in North East comprising 25 seats, create a viable impact in the format of the next government at the Centre by giving a fillip to the national touch? This is the question lingering in the minds of a section of people, especially in North East, as a large number of political analysts, who are keenly observing the political scenario with utmost interest in the once-neglected and a step-motherly treatment meted out to the region. The people in North East are hoping against hope that just like the East and South India that played a prominent role in the formation of the Central Governments during the tenure of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and A.B. Vajpayee, the North East would  be playing  a pivotal role in the functioning of the Central Government, and more so, when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to retain power, after the results are declared on May 23, this year.   

So enamoured over the BJP’s victory in the four states at Hindi heartland, the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu wanted to know from late Mahajan, the blue-print adopted for the glorious victories, as he too, wanted to apply the same formula in his State before the parliamentary poll and by advancing the assembly elections in 2004. Instead, the results backfired for the BJP and its incumbent Vajpayee in 2004, and much to the chagrin and discomfiture of the party; it was observed that the people who were seething with anger over the TDP and the AIADMK in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, respectively, had shown their displeasure on their alliance partner, BJP, too. Though, both the regional parties had managed to recover, the downfall of the BJP has started from there.

The realisation had dawned on the BJP later that the anti-incumbency factor in these two states, had not only affected the regional parties, but the anguish of the people, has had an adverse effect and reflected on the national party also. Bearing this in mind, the BJP Central leadership is consoling itself that the party’s defeat in the last year assembly elections at Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, is only a passing phase. The BJP National President Amit Shah even went to the extent of remarking that the voters, who voted for the Congress in these three states, will switch over to the BJP in the general elections, as the preference is for Sangh Parivar to rule the destiny of the nation. One cannot resist from lauding the confidence-personified Shah for his prediction.             

The BJP went a step further and accused the Rajiv Gandhi government for introducing the contractual system, way back in 1985. But, if the BJP’s ploy is to divert the burning issues by harping on the abrogation of Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir, setting up of Uniform Civil Court and construction of Ram Mandhir at Ayodhya at the cost of day-to-day problem and economic development that confront the people, not only in North East, but such decisions will have a snowballing effect on the entire country. A section of long-standing observers pointed out that, if the BJP continues to dish out promises on issues to the people in its election manifesto that it is not inclined to adhere to it, the party’s meticulous rise and the credibility that it earned in the last three decades will get considerably eroded.  For instance, the BJP has been repeating the Kashmir and other issues in its every election manifesto, but only to shun it aside, if not throwing it in the wastepaper basket after the poll for another five years, before retrieving it ahead of the next election. It is nothing but a gimmick on the part of BJP to fool around the people, says a Congress leader here, who accused the Prime Minister and his team for displaying rank opportunism.

 “Do or Die Battle” Northeast

The political pundits have termed the recent elections as a do-or-die battle for the Congress in the North East. The grand old party that once stood like a rock had managed to win eight seats in the 2014 general elections, but it remains to be seen, how far the party has instilled confidence in the minds of people, when the results are made open on May 23. For BJP, the Northeast region has been a happy hunting ground for the last five years. The Sangh Parivar captured power in every state, either by winning on its own like in Tripura and Assam, or through crafty alliances and swift post-poll pacts in Meghalaya, Manipur, and Mizoram where it could not secure the magic numbers. Interestingly, the BJP has also displayed its maneuvering tactics in a fine-tuned manner, when it ensured the defection of 43 Congress MLAs to its ally Pradesh Party of Arunachal Pradesh, before forming the government in Arunachal Pradesh. 

In the ultimate analysis, the BJP and its allies are expected to emerge victorious in 15 out of 25 seats in the North East. The party is confident of getting get seven to eight seats in Assam, apart from one each in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Nagaland. The BJP is also putting its bets on winning both the two constituencies at Tripura and Manipur. The million dollar question is will it be adequate enough for the ruling party at the Centre, if it falls short of the magic figure 272 for an absolute majority.   However, 15 seats from India’s farthest eastern corner could turn out to be crucial for both the BJP and the Congress, as the numbers get added up on 23 May 2019 in the run-up to government formation. Keeping the importance of sentiments of Tribals' from North East in mind, and to allay their fears, the Union government has wisely decided to postpone the implementation of CAB.

 Election Picture from Assam

Assam is having the maximum number of 14 seats in the North East that witnessed the contest in three phases. The political observers say that a nail-biting finish was on the card, though the result could tilt in favour of the ruling party at the Centre. Since, the BJP has made amends with the Assam Gona Parishad, by leaving the prestigious Barpeta constituency to its alliance partner, albeit grudgingly, the latter too, was required to coordinate with its major partner on the remaining 13 constituencies in the State.  The Congress, too, is considering the constituency as an important one, as till 1985, it remained as the citadel of the party. The monopoly of the Congress was broken by the retired IAS official Ataur Rahman, when he contested as an AGP candidate. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has also wrested the seat twice. Moreover, the former President of India, Fakhrudin Ali Ahmed was elected from this constituency twice without any stiff opposition. It was the late President, who saw to it that the tea gardens in Assam, though its head offices were based in then Calcutta, were not exploited by the vested interests. The acrimony between a section of people and West Bengal and Assam were noticed, after the former looked at the action of the late President as contrary to their interests. The tea gardens and a few other local issues like the employment opportunities, economic disparity and civic issues have alienated the people belonging to Assam from the Bengali community to a great extent, and especially against the people who migrated from then East Pakistan, which later become Bangladesh after the Independence.

Adding credit to Barpeta, Renuka Devi was elected from this constituency as the youngest woman in 1962 on a Congress ticket during the tenure of India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.  The All India United Democratic Front Candidate Rafiul Islam and the AGP’s Kumar Deepak Das gave a tough run to the triangular contest. However, the present MP, Maulana Bhadrudin Ajmal, a diamond merchant and the leader of AIUDF, was disillusioned over his omission to accommodate Islam.  The BJP, however, is wary of the victory of AGP in Barpeta, a Muslim majority constituency that earlier preferred the AIUDF candidate, and in Kokhrajar, where the BPF might cut a sorry figure in the minority stronghold. To be on the safer side, of the four seats, the BJP is contesting only from Guwahati. The Congress, however, is confident of wresting the initiative from the BJP on the controversial CAB issue.     

 The Congress and the AIUDF were campaigning vigorously against the National Registration Citizenship bill proposed by the BJP. Though, the AGP opposed it initially, it had to relent later, due to the alliance factor. It did not take much time for the latter to view the arithmetic factor, as in the last Lok Sabha election, the BJP was denied victory by the AGP with its 73,000 votes, compared to 3.94 lakh polled by Ajmal and 3.52 lakh by the BJP.  The Assam Chief Minister is also of the impression that the BJP-AGP combine might steal the victory margin this time around, although by a razor-thin margin.  The BJP is also gaining confidence in the Guwahati constituency, where it has fielded Oja, considered to be a queen in the constituency, by replacing its three time MP, Bijoya Chakravarty. Undaunted by the BJP’s decision to field a glamorous candidate, the Congress left no stone unturned to field another beauty queen, Bobbeta Sharma. It may be recalled that Bobbeta was crowned as the first Miss North East pageant, way back in 1988. With the result, the two queens in the constituency had a tough nut to crack at in the recently concluded poll. 

 If the Congress feels that Bobbeta’s popularity as a film and television personality, apart from the changes she introduced as Chairperson of the Assam State Film Finance and Development Corporation during 2005-06, would stand her in good stead, the insiders in the BJP opine that their candidate Oja has the ability to ensure the development of the constituency. However, the snag in her candidature was pin-pointed by the former State Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. According to him, Oja is not qualified to contest even for Panchayat election, let alone for Parliament, considering her educational qualification, as she has not completed Class 12, according to norms and regulations.  The moot point, however, is that it was the BJP government led by the Chief Minister Sonowal, who has introduced a law that the minimum qualification of a candidate must be Class 12 or equivalent. Fair enough, as the rival Congress candidate, Bobbeta is a post-graduate, who taught history for some time in a Guwahati college.

 When the voting took place for Silchar in Assam, the contest between sitting Congress MP Sushmita Deb and the BJP’s Rajdeep Roy was the centre of attraction, as both parties have won the prestigious Lok Sabha seat several times in the past. Incidentally, more than enough attention on the National People’s Party(NPP) candidate, Nazia Yasmin Mazumdar, was evident, despite the BJP’s stupendous rise and decline of Congress in the North East over a period of time that is roughly three years. Not for nothing, as the NPP has emerged as the biggest player across seven states in the region recently. Nazia, being a former Congress General Secretary, is upbeat about her prospects, especially in the rural belt, according to sources in the Congress.

 A few political commentators are of the opinion that over the past decades, both the Congress and the BJP had indulged in divisive politics and failed to initiate concrete measures for developing the Barak Valley.  The NPP candidate is banking on this issue and is confident enough to romp home by outwitting her rivals.

 NPP emerging as the biggest player across seven states in the region

Sources in the political corridor assert that it is not surprising to note the clout of the NPP, as it is one of the major regional parties that are part of the anti-Congress, BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and has yet managed to chart its own course of action across the region. Bearing its increasing popularity in mind, the party was confident enough to field candidates in 11 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats of the North East.

 Importantly, NPP, apart from its home turf and strong-bastions at Meghalaya, had also contested in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. NPP had also not considered Tripura on the agenda for the recent Lok Sabha polls, as it was aware that the mere two seats over there was polarised between the CPI(M) and the BJP-led alliance candidates. The NPP President Conrad Sangma and the younger son of late founder-leader of the party, P.A. Sangma , is reported to have said that since the party is new and have its limitations, it was a herculean task to reach out to Tripura, considering the logistical and tactical reasons. Conrad, however, had not lost his hope, when he said that, though, it is taking time, his party has the desire to spread its tentacles across the North East.  

 Some political analysts view that had Sangma been alive, the party could have gained his knowledge and wisdom over running the party in a nuanced manner. Conrad has no iota of doubt in concurring with their views. The mild-mannered Sangma was a former Congress leader and Lok Sabha Speaker, who formed the NPP in 2012, as he was distressed over the manner in which the then Congress government at the Centre had treated him shabbily. Disgusted over the mal-treatment, Sangma’s subsequent switch-over to the Nationalist Congress Party for a brief period had also not bailed him out, as the NCP President, Sharad Pawar, too, treated him as a lesser mortal. However, to the credit of Sangma, he performed creditably as the Union Labour Minister in early 1990s, and wanted to consolidate tribal constituents by making the NPP a tribal party with a national presence. But, unfortunately, the death had preceded his long-standing wish.

 It may be recalled that in 2013 Meghalaya assembly polls, the NPP joined the BJP bandwagon and secured barely nine per cent of the total votes, with a mere two seats. However, things changed dramatically for the party, when in 2017, the NPP won four assembly seats in Manipur and ensured that the BJP formed its first government in that state. The political pundits would like to remind us that by 2018, the NPP’s vote share had increased to over 20 per cent, a huge jump, compared to its dismal performance in the initial period after its formation. Interestingly, the party won 19 out of 60 seats in the subsequent assembly elections and a path was created for Conrad to form the government with support from the BJP and other regional players.

 It may be noted that after the Nagaland assembly polls last year, the NPP, with two seats, joined the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)-BJP coalition government. After the demise of Sangma, the party’s mantle passed on to Conrad, who, along with his elder brother James and sister Agatha, were in a position to improve the prospects of the NPP by expanding its presence across the region. Incidentally, it is the BJP’s dogged-determination to push through the Citizenship Amendment Bill, despite vigorous opposition across the North East that came as a boon for the NPP. It was an open secret that the NPP opposed the CAB tooth and nail and made itself as a household name at seven states in North East.

The entire North region was enraged over the controversial CAB Bill that envisages Indian citizenship for all minorities from Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Bangladesh. It did not need a messenger for the people in the North East to find out that the BJP government’s intention is to sideline the Muslim community, as it would enable the Sangh Parivar to play the vote-bank card by augmenting the NRC as a weapon to counter the pseudo-secularism of Congress, Left and other such parties. The BJP also made it clear that not only in North East, but all over India, the previous Congress governments were rewarded with electoral victories for appeasing the minority voters, as the Congress firmly believed that  the party’s survival in power depended on the acceleration of the minority communities.  No wonder, the political compulsions prompted the Meghalaya Chief Minister to persuade the opposition parties, including the BJP allies to form a cohesive front on a common platform to oppose the introduction of CAB wholeheartedly.

K. V. Venugopal

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