Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President JP Nadda at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi, March 2, 2023 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
WEARING TRADITIONAL NAGA headgear and a shawl draped over his shoulder, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering in Dimapur that his government had tried to reduce the distance between the Northeast and New Delhi. It was one of his nearly 50 visits to the Northeast since he assumed office in 2014.
Over the last nine years, donning varied regional attire, underlining his government’s development agenda, promising to fulfil the specific aspirations of each state, and accusing past governments of neglecting these states, Modi has connected directly with the people of the Northeast, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made electoral inroads. With the party returning to power in Tripura and its alliance with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) sweeping Nagaland, BJP has strengthened its dominance in northeastern India even as Congress gets decimated in a region that was once its bastion. Of the three states that went to polls recently, Meghalaya has thrown up a hung Assembly, with BJP’s ally-turned-foe Chief Minister Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) emerging as the single-largest party. However, the former allies are getting together again to form the government.
When Modi first visited the Northeast as prime minister in November 2014, BJP’s vote share in Tripura was 1.3 per cent, in Nagaland 1.8 per cent, and in Meghalaya 1.27 per cent. In Tripura, a Left stronghold till BJP won the Assembly election of 2018, it has scraped through, defying anti-incumbency, the fallout of change in chief ministers from Biplab Deb to Manik Saha, the Left and Congress joining hands, and the emergence of Pradyot DebBarma’s Tipra Motha Party (TMP) that gave voice to the indigenous demand for Greater Tipraland. The former Congress leader’s TMP emerged as the second-largest party with 13 seats, winning over a large chunk of the tribal support, plucking it away mostly from BJP’s ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) which had tempered down on its separate state demand. The BJP-IPFT alliance had won 44 seats last time. This time, BJP won 32 seats, four short of its earlier tally, while IPFT won just one of the six seats it fought, as against wresting eight of the 10 it had contested last time. DebBarma, wooed by parties in the pre-poll scenario, has made a written commitment on the formation of Greater Tipraland a condition for his support to any party. Though 20 of the 60 seats in the state are reserved for Scheduled Tribes and there is an influential presence of the community in another 10 seats, there is a significant Bengali Hindu vote component in every seat, a factor BJP counted on. As TMP made the tribal cause its mission in a state where the community comprises a third of the population, BJP targeted the new outfit and chanted the development mantra—infrastructure, Internet, and tourism. In the run-up to the election, Modi had said Agartala has become the gateway for international trade in the Northeast and would soon become a business hub.
In 2018, seizing Congress’ space as the main opposition, BJP, which had never won an election in Tripura till then, captured a vote share of 43 per cent, 0.4 per cent more than that of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, which had ruled the state for 25 years. In power only in Kerala now, CPM this time aligned with its arch-rival Congress in a high-stakes battle. The strategy flopped with CPM, which contested 47 seats, being relegated to third place with 11 seats. Congress, which fought in 13 seats, won three. In 2018, CPM had won 16 seats and Congress drew a blank as its vote share had slid drastically to 1.8 per cent. In Nagaland, four-time Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio’s NDPP and ally BJP, which fought in a 40-20 arrangement, have emerged victorious, eluding anti-incumbency, the stalemate over the Framework Agreement of 2015 between the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), and the demography of a Christian-dominated state. Nagaland, where Christians comprise 87.9 per cent of the population, rejected a subtle message from the church to “pray that the communal forces working against Christians in India will be brought to justice”. The opposition Naga People’s Front (NPF), which was part of an ‘all-party government’ since September 2021, formed in a bid to end the decades-old conflict over the political rights of Nagas, suffered a major setback. In the last election, it had won 25 of the 60 seats, but 21 of its MLAs later joined NDPP. NPF had been in alliance with BJP since 2003 when Congress was a dominant force before it fell to 2.1 per cent of the vote share in 2018, to now nearly being wiped out. Meanwhile, BJP’s vote share shot up to 15.3 per cent as it won 12 seats, a tally it has retained this time. All eyes would be on how the Modi government addresses the Naga peace process, with the demand for a separate flag and constitution for Nagas unlikely to be acceptable to the Centre. At the Dimapur rally, Modi had said, “Permanent progress and peace are the foundation of BJP’s policy in Nagaland,” as he emphasised pushing development and encouraging the state’s culture.
As Rio returns to power for a fifth term, his party can also claim credit for its two women candidates—lawyer-activist Hekani Jakhalu and Salhoutuonuo Kruse—getting elected. This is the first time a woman has entered the Assembly in the state’s 60-year history.
I N MEGHALAYA, CONRAD SANGMA seems set to return as chief minister with his NPP emerging as the singlelargest party, as the fight went down to the wire. It had parted ways with ally BJP ahead of the election. But Sangma, whose party has improved its tally and yet fallen short of the magic number of 31, will again align with BJP, despite a bitter pre-poll campaign. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP’s chief strategist for the Northeast, tweeted that Sangma called Union Home Minister Amit Shah seeking his support in forming a government. Relations between the former allies had soured over issues like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Uniform Civil Code in a state with a 78 per cent Christian population. In the runup to the polls, Sangma too latched on to the development and welfare planks, promising five lakh jobs to the youth and continuation of the state’s schemes for farmers. In 2018, NPP, with 20 of the 60 seats, had formed the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) with the support of the United Democratic Party (UDP), the People’s Democratic Front (PDF), the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and BJP after the election. Congress was the single-largest party with 21 seats but lost 12 of its MLAs as former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma switched sides to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress which has now opened its account by winning five seats. The party banked on support from the Garo Hills, where Mukul Sangma held sway. (In Tripura, however, Trinamool, banking on the Bengali vote, could not win any of the 28 seats it contested.) From the late 1970s till 2013, Congress had always been part of the ruling alliance in the state. In 2018, its vote share dropped. This time, its tally has diminished further, leaving the party in single digits. BJP, which got two seats in 2018—from none before that—and a vote share of 9.6 per cent, could only manage two again (at the time of writing) though it fought all 60 seats.
With Modi in the forefront, BJP has made political inroads into states in Northeast India, either on its own or by forming alliances with regional parties, reinforcing the message that its outreach went beyond the Hindi belt, stretching across the country, barring some states in the south. The three Northeast states together send just five MPs to Lok Sabha—two each from Tripura and Meghalaya, and one from Nagaland. Yet, Modi and BJP pulled out all the stops in an aggressive campaign, showcasing the Centre’s development schemes in the region—the infrastructure of airports, flight connectivity, roads and railroads—as well as free rations and the Act East policy, making the Northeast a gateway to Southeast Asia and promising peace in a region prone to ethnic conflict.
In the 2022-23 Budget, the Union finance minister announced that PM-DevINE is to be implemented through the North-Eastern Council with an initial allocation of ₹1,500 crore. The scheme is to fund infrastructure and social development projects based on the needs of the region, enable livelihood activities for youth and women, and fill development gaps in various sectors, with priority being given to projects proposed by the states.
The prime minister has visited the eight states in the Northeast 44 times between 2017 and 2022, according to the Ministry of Development of the North-East Region. In the run-up to the elections, he addressed rallies in each of the three states. In contrast, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and his Bharat Jodo Yatra were conspicuous by their absence. Apart from Tripura, BJP has wrested power on its own in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh after the Modi government came to power.
Opposition Meet Postponed Open
Diasporic Manipuris float forum to finance relief, promote dialogue Ullekh NP
Behind the Headlines Kaveree Bamzai