The election, now known for its plebiscitary characteristics, proved to be a rout for the Congress. It propelled the BJP to form the most stable and strongest government since the Congress party under Rajiv Gandhi won two-thirds of the Lok Sabha seats in 1984 on a wave of sympathy after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Five years after the 2014 feat, the BJP faced strong anti-incumbency and ended up losing power in heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Earlier, it faced stiff competition from the Congress in Gujarat too. Many political observers have predicted that the party is likely to face substantial losses in these states.
So, where does the BJP go from here? The answer lies in the Northeast. Though passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha antagonised the opportunity, the party has long been preparing for a possibility like this.
The fact that the BJP is hoping to make electoral gains in the northeastern regions of the country in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections is known to all. The main reason for such a move is that the party is expected to face major losses in the heartland states, which it had swept in 2014. To compensate for these losses, the BJP’s act east policy has gone through an interesting phase.
They once struggled in these states, but have now comfortably wrested power from the earlier governments in Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, the BJP is part of the government through an alliance with National People’s Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), respectively. In Mizoram and Sikkim, while the BJP is not part of the ruling governments, the ruling parties are part of the NEDA that supports the NDA at the Centre.
But how did the BJP come to this point where they now rule four out of eight northeastern states, are in a coalition in two, and alliance partners via NDA in two others? Before one understands this change of fortunes for the BJP, sample this: there was not even one BJP-led government in the northeastern region till 2016.
Starting With the Alliances
The BJP actually never gave up completely on the eight northeastern states, despite not much of an initial success. Their push to conquer the region, on the contrary, has reached new levels in the recent years. To ensure a Congress-free Northeast, the BJP has got into alliance with any party possible regardless of ideological differences. The BJP formed an alliance centric to the Northeast in 2016, namely the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). NEDA was derived from the North-East Regional Political Front (NERPF), a political coalition of about 11 political parties from the region. NEDA supports the NDA at the Centre.
The BJP, which was officially formed in 1980, had begun fielding candidates in the Northeast in 1984. It was only in Arunachal Pradesh that it could acquire a seat in the Assembly election the same year. Regardless of how it fared at the Centre being the strongest opponent of the Congress, BJP’s achievement in 1984 was followed by unsuccessful attempts for over a decade, other than the state of Assam. But in 2000, it went on to win six of the 60 seats in Manipur.
The first BJP government in the Northeast was formed in Arunachal Pradesh. While voters of the state never chose the party, it was the winning candidate who chose the party due to dependence on funds from the Centre for the state that shares border with China. Yet, the BJP hadn’t opened its innings in the rest of the five states. The scenario is a lot different now. An analysis of all the election results so far demonstrates that the BJP has currently emerged as a potential choice in the region – with or without allies. Assam, where the BJP has consistently been showing some presence, has been the harbinger for the BJP in the Northeast.
The eight states hold 25 (4.6%) of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. From 1999 till now — from the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee took over party reins to the Modi wave — the BJP tried to establish its foothold in the region, which is otherwise distant from mainstream politics. The party has come a long way, from not being chosen by the people of the Northeast in any of the state elections to actually being able to achieve a ‘Congress-Mukt’ Northeast. Almost. Currently, all the eight states either belong to the BJP or any party that supports the NDA.
Notably, Arunachal Pradesh has never chosen a BJP government to rule in the state. The BJP formed its first government in the state when then chief minister Gegong Apang with supporting MLAs of the United Democratic Front moved to the BJP. This was when the Centre was ruled by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA.
Given that it shares a border with China, it’s essential for any government in Arunachal Pradesh to be aligned with the government at the Centre for desired funds. As the NDA lost the 2004 Lok Sabha elections to the UPA, Apang made a U-turn, though the BJP won both the Lok Sabha seats in the state, a performance the saffron party hasn’t achieved yet.
The en masse switch was repeated by the current CM, Pema Khandu, when he initially formed a Congress government in July 2016, but in September moved to the People’s Party of Arunachal Pradesh (PPA), an NDA ally. In a month’s time, Khandu formally joined the BJP, resulting in him being suspended by the PPA. Before PPA could replace him as the CM with their candidate (reportedly Takam Pario), Khandu proved majority with 33 of 43 legislators switching to the BJP.
The BJP has been faring better in Assam in comparison to any other northeastern state. Assam has also been the only northeastern state where the NDA contested assembly elections, and has been winning significant number of seats since 1991. However, it was in 2016 when the party formed a government in the state for the first time. To capitalise on the anti-incumbency against then CM Tarun Gogoi, the BJP teamed up with regional parties like Asom Gana Parisad (AGP) and Bodoland Peoples Front to win the elections.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, a Congress rebel who joined the BJP in 2015, was made cabinet minister in the BJP-led state government. As the NEDA convener, he has played a key role in establishing the BJP’s grip in the Northeast. Sarma has also prominently endorsed the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
The formation of NEDA in 2016 engulfing all the regional parties of the Northeast has helped the BJP gain other northeastern states, alone or as a team.
Manipur had a Congress government for three consecutive terms. The BJP, on the other hand, had marginal vote share till about two decades ago. The party’s vote share improved from 2000 to 2004. This was when Vajpayee was ruling at the Centre. This was also the first time when the party could win few assembly seats.
However, with the NDA’s loss at the Centre, the BJP seemed to have lost some grip on the state until Modi took over. In 2017, the party won 21 seats in the Assembly elections, but managed to cross the magic figure of 30 with the help of regional parties and independents. Despite being the single-largest party, the Congress failed to coble up a simple majority.
The BJP has had a history of marginal vote share in Meghalaya too. Like in Arunachal Pradesh, the people of the Meghalaya have never really chosen a BJP government. The state has, in fact, chosen the Congress alternatively. Since 2000, the United Democratic Party, an NDA ally, has emerged as an alternative to the Congress.
The first time the BJP won some assembly seats in the state was in 1998; the party won three seats. BJP won two seats in 2003, and then one in 2008. The BJP did not even field any candidate in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The vote share was at its lowest in 2013. The Modi wave could only make it relatively better for the party in terms of the vote share, without any luck seat-wise until he himself visited the state twice before the state elections.
But, that could only get the BJP two of the 60 seats in the 2018 Assembly elections, while the Congress won 21. But Sarma turned the tables. He aligned all the non-Congress parties, including the BJP, to form a government in coalition. In exchange, the incumbent Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma, made one of the two BJP MLAs, Alexander Hek, a minister in his cabinet. The ruling party, NPP, which had won the second-largest number of seats in the election, is also part of the NDA.
Interestingly, the BJP has not fielded any candidate for the last three Lok Sabha elections from both Mizoram and Nagaland. However, an analysis of the last four Assembly elections demonstrates that the party has been able to maintain a minimum footing in Nagaland, while the vote share has colossally varied in the last election.
The consecutive two governments formed in the state – Naga People’s Front (NPF) and National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) – have been NDA allies. The NPF had refused to support the NDA in the 2018 Assembly elections. The NDPP, a party formed by NPF rebels, jumped in and formed the government with support from the BJP. In general elections, their initial choice of ally was the Congress. However, in the last three elections, it has shifted to NPF.
After forming government at the Centre, Modi signed the Naga Framework Agreement in August 2015, but Naga leadership is now growing restless as three-and-a-half years have lapsed and the Naga Accord remains elusive.
After several failures since 1984 to get a grip in the state, it was in 2018 that the BJP formed government in Tripura for the first time. The state had been the citadel of the CPI(M) for over two decades. After a term under Dasarath Deb, the state chose Manik Sarkar’s government for four consecutive terms.
To acquire the state, the BJP went for a pre-poll alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), a sub-regional party that advocates for a separate state for the indigenous residents of the state
Mizoram is yet another state where the people have never desired to be ruled by a BJP government. For about three decades, the Christian-majority state has been alternatively choosing between the Congress and the Mizo National Front (MNF). After two consecutive terms for the Congress, the state has elected the MNF.
Since 1999, the MNF has been an NDA ally and is currently part of the NEDA. However, the MNF did not contest the Assembly elections in alliance with BJP. But the silver lining was that for the first time in the history of the state, the BJP managed to bag an Assembly seat.
Sikkim is probably the only state in the Northeast where the BJP does not see much of hope, or even any other national party. The first time it fielded a candidate in the state was in 2004. It has never won any seat in the state so far in any of the elections. The vote share has also remained marginal ranging from 0.3% to 2.4% in the last five elections it has participated in.
While the ruling party in the state, Sikkim Democratic Front, has been supporting the NDA at the Centre since 2016 as part of NEDA, it has maintained distance from the BJP in state elections. Kiren Rijiju is reportedly backing former ace footballer Bhaichung Bhutia’s party, Hamro Sikkim Party (HSP), to emerge as a political rival to the SDF.
Leaving No Stone Unturned
From giving Rijiju a key portfolio in his cabinet to the inauguration of Bogibeel Bridge, Modi has repeatedly highlighted his focus on the Northeast. Transiting from the Look East to the Act East policy, the cabinet has taken multiple steps in favour of the Northeast region. It had removed bamboo from the list of trees, allowing bamboo cultivation as a new earning avenue. Crores of rupees have been pumped to develop and maintain road and highways in the region. Experts cite this as a reason why the MNF will not break ties with the NDA at the Centre, despite discord beef consumption and the Citizen Amendment Bill, for need of funds for Manipur roads.
The BJP’s vote share in the Northeast draws some parallel to the flow of funds. In 2017, the union cabinet approved North East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme (NESIDS) with an outlay of Rs 1,600 crore from 2017-18 to 2019-20, completely funded by the Centre. While Assam was allocated a major chunk of 27.78%, followed by Arunachal’s 13.06%, Sikkim gets the least - 6.54%.
Keeping in mind the volatility of the vote share, Modi doesn’t want to let the Northeast slip out of his hand, as is indicated by the frequency of his visits to the eight states. While former PM Manmohan Singh travelled to these states 38 times in his two terms, Modi has already made 30 visits during one tenure.
What Lies Ahead?
The BJP will have to battle several factors in the run-up to the upcoming Lok Sabha elections: from the beef controversy in Christian-majority states like Mizoram and Nagaland to the failure in freeing the region from several insurgent groups and the uproar on the Permanent Residence Certificates in Arunachal for Assam tribals. But the biggest elephant in the room is the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
All the states in the Northeast revolted against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The BJP lost Assom Gana Parishad, a key ally in Assam over the issue. Other allies threatened to quit as well, which forced the party to not introduce the bill in Rajya Sabha.
Whether the party is able to make up for the losses in the Hindi heartland states would depend on how the region reacts to the party’s commitment to the Citizenship Amendment Bill.