BJP’s do-or-die battle against Congress in Northeast

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By Sujit Chakraborty 

Agartala/Guwahati: The Bharatiya Janata Party has embarked on a do-or-die battle to win as many of the 25 Lok Sabha seats as it can in eight northeastern states. For its part, the Congress party has set off a determined attempt to regain its lost ground in the region.

Some political forecasters in the northeast feel that since all the eight states in the region are now ruled either by the BJP or its allies, the saffron party holds the advantage.

However, other political analysts are of the opinion that the stiff opposition to the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the entire northeastern region – home to 45.58 million people as per the 2011 census – could upset the BJP’s bid to win the targeted number of seats.

Assam’s 14 constituencies will see polling in three phases on April 11 , 18 and 23. Manipur and Tripura, which have two seats each, will vote in two phases, on April 11 and 18. Meghalaya (two seats), Nagaland (one), Arunachal Pradesh (two), Mizoram (one) and Sikkim (one) will go to the polls on April 11.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies, including Naga People’s Front (1), Meghalaya’s National Peoples’ Party (1) and the Sikkim Democratic Front (1), together won 11 seats with the dominant party bagging 8 seats. The BJP had won 7 seats in Assam and 1 in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Congress, which since 1952 has had a stronghold in the northeast, also managed eight seats in 2014 — 3 in Assam, 2 in Manipur and 1 each in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram.

Five years ago, the Assam-based All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won 3 seats while the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) secured 2 seats in Tripura. Independent candidate Naba Kumar Sarania (Hira) won from Assam’s Kokrajhar constituency.

Political analyst Samudra Gupta Kashyap observed that the scenario in the Northeast was heavily tilted in favour of the BJP and its allies.

“However, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 has had some negative impact on the BJP’s overall image. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) quitting the BJP-led alliance two months ago over the bill could cause some damage.

“That is exactly why the BJP has reopened its channels with the regional party. It has to carry out some exercise to avert the erosion in support base triggered by the Citizenship issue,” Kashyap told IANS.

While Neiphiu Rio’s Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (in Nagaland) and Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front (in Mizoram) would obviously not leave the lone seats in Nagaland and Mizoram to the saffron party, it would be difficult to convince Conrad K. Sangma’s National Peoples’ Party (NPP), a member of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), to share even one of the two seats in Meghalaya, he said.

Kashyap said that Congress, which has almost been wiped out of the region by the BJP and its allies in the past three years, will have a tough time.

The tribals, who constitute 27-28 per cent of the population in the northeast, always play a significant role in the politics of the mountainous region.

According to Manipur University Professor and political observer Chinglen Maisnam, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 has changed the mindset of the people in the region during the past two months. “The Citizenship Bill has completely changed the political landscape,” he said.

“The state governments have limited power on migrant and infiltration issues. Meghalaya and other northeastern states tried to enact acts to deal with these issues but subsequently retreated when the constitutional experts expressed views against such moves,” Maisnam told IANS.

The academician said that non-publication of the contents of the Naga peace talks agreement and the agitations for hiking salaries and allowances of the government employees as per the recommendations of the 7th Pay Commission and few other local issues would affect the electoral prospects of the BJP and somewhat help the Congress.

Tripura (Central) University teacher and political commentator Salim Shah observed that in Assam and few other northeastern states, the political parties might utilise public sentiments over the Citizenship Bill, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), protection of indigenous people, jobs, development and other local issues.

“Growing unemployment might be a crucial issue for the youth of the northeastern region. Unlike other states in the country, the ethnic identity issue is a vital concern in the electoral politics of the northeast. The identity of northeast is somewhat different from other regions of the country,” Shah told IANS.

Of the 25 Lok Sabha constituencies in the northeast, two seats, one each in Nagaland and Meghalaya, are lying vacant after Neiphiu Rio and Conrad K. Sangma became the chief ministers of the two states, respectively.

The resource-rich region shares borders with China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh and has trade ties with some of these countries, especially Bangladesh and Myanmar.