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North-eastern States

Consolidating gains

Print edition : Jun 07, 2019 T+T-
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal speaking to the media at the BJP headquarters in Guwahati on May 23.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal speaking to the media at the BJP headquarters in Guwahati on May 23.

The BJP continues to make strides in the region, notwithstanding the contentious Citizenship Bill issue, while the Congress loses ground.

The countrywide Narendra Modiphe nomenon coupled with the image of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a party close to regional parties helped it consolidate its gains in the four north-eastern States it rules—Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh—and win 14 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in these States. However, its coalition partners, the three major regional parties—the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT)—drew a blank.

Of the total of 25 seats in the eight north-eastern States (Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura), the BJP won in 14, the Congress in four and three of the BJP’s allies in the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA)—the National People’s Party (NPP), the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and the Mizo National Front (MNF)—won one seat each. The Congress victory in the region was restricted to Assam and Meghalaya. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) and an independent candidate won one seat each. In 2014, the BJP won eight seats (seven in Assam and one in Arunachal Pradesh) as did the Congress (three in Assam, two in Manipur and one each in Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya).

The NPP retained the Tura Lok Sabha seat in Meghalaya, while the MNF won the lone Lok Sabha seat from Mizoram. The BJP, however, did not have any electoral alliance with the NPP or the MNF and fielded its candidates in both seats. In Tripura, too, the BJP and its coalition partner, the IPFT, fielded candidates in both the State’s seats. The BJP won both seats with huge margins, defeating its nearest rivals, the Congress candidates, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidates were pushed to the third position. The NDPP won the lone Lok Sabha seat from Nagaland. The BJP is a constituent of the NDPP-led coalition government and extended its support to the NDPP candidate.

Even though the AGP and the BPF drew a blank in Assam this time, their vote share increased significantly, indicating the transfer of votes from BJP supporters to them. In Kaliabor constituency, the AGP candidate, Moni Madhab Mahanta, backed by the ruling alliance, polled 40.44 per cent of the votes. In 2014, when the two parties did not have an alliance, the AGP polled only 6.69 per cent of the votes, while the BJP polled 29.93 per cent. In Barpeta constituency, too, the AGP candidate, Kumar Dipak Das, polled 34.61 per cent of the votes in this election. In 2014, the regional party polled only 6.11 per cent of the votes, while the BJP polled 29.19 per cent.

Such significant gains in vote share will help the AGP leadership justify the restoration of its alliance with the BJP despite opposition from a section of its leaders and workers led by former Chief Minister and founder president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta over the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). While this electoral arithmetic will be a strong ground for the AGP leadership to continue its alliance with the BJP, the BJP cannot be expected to let its support base shift permanently to the AGP. Despite its gain, the AGP will have to bargain hard with the BJP for Assembly seats falling under these three Lok Sabha seats for the 2021 Assembly election.

Similarly, the BPF improved its vote share in Kokrajhar constituency to 30.2 per cent. In 2014, the BPF polled 2,43,759 votes to secure the third position. This time, the BPF candidate and Assam Minister Pramila Rani Brahma polled 4,46,774 votes to finish second. The independent candidate, Naba Kumar Sarania, retained the seat by defeating the BPF candidate by a margin of 37,786 votes. In 2014, Sarania won by a margin of 3,55,779 votes.

The transfer of votes from AGP and BPF supporters also helped the BJP increase its vote share and push its victory margin upward in the seats the saffron party won in Assam.

Across the region, the Congress banked heavily on the campaign around the CAB. However, in Assam, the BJP succeeded in neutralising the Congress campaign by stitching an alliance with the AGP to consolidate its support base among Assamese voters. While the State unit of the BJP was opposed to seat-sharing with the AGP, the central leadership pushed for it. The AGP, too, diluted its position on the CAB as a non-issue even though BJP national president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to pass the Bill if the National Democratic Alliance retained power at the Centre. This helped the BJP consolidate its support base among Assamese voters while the party’s promise to pass the CAB seemed to have helped it consolidate its support base among Bengali Hindus and win both the seats in the Barak valley.

In 2014, the present Nagaland Chief Minister, Neiphiu Rio, won as the candidate of the undivided NPF, defeating his nearest rival, the Congress candidate, by a margin of 4,00,225 votes. This time Rio’s party, the NDPP, managed to win by a margin of only 16,344 votes. The NDPP candidate, Tokheho Yepthomi, polled 5,00,510 votes, while his nearest rival, former Congress Chief Minister K.L. Chishi, polled 4,84,166 votes.

The Congress does not have a single legislator in the current 60-member Nagaland Assembly as it drew a blank in the 2018 Assembly election. The NPF, which has 26 legislators, extended “issue-based” support to the Congress candidate on the CAB issue. The NPP candidate in the constituency and NOTA votes prevented the Congress from wresting the seat from the NDPP. The NPP candidate, Hayithung Tungoe, polled 14,997 votes and NOTA accounted for 2,064 votes. This result came about even though seven NPF MLAs opposed the party’s decision to support the Congress candidate and extended support to the NDPP candidate and two NPP legislators joined the NDPP weeks ahead of the elections.

In Manipur, the NPF candidate in Outer Manipur constituency, Lorho S. Pfoze, won by a margin of 73,782 votes, defeating his nearest rival, the BJP candidate Houlim Shokhopao Mate. The NPF made the CAB its main election plank in Manipur.

The results indicated that while the CAB as an issue did not have any impact on voters in Assam, it seemed to have helped the Congress increase its vote share in Nagaland and helped the NPF win one of the two seats in Manipur. The BJP will be dependent on its NEDA allies to prevent the Congress from capitalising on the CAB issue in the event that the BJP pushes for the legislation to consolidate its gains in West Bengal.