Nagaland Assembly elections

Unequal balance

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Nagaland’s new Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio (second from left) at the swearing-in ceremony in Kohima on March 8, with four other Chief Ministers from the region. On his left is Manipur’s Biren Singh. On his right are Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal, Arunachal Pradesh’s Pema Khandu and Meghalaya’s Conrad Sangma. Photo: PTI

The BJP manages to secure a presence in the ruling dispensation in Nagaland, but with six Ministers from the BJP and only three from the major coalition partner the NDPP, Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio may well find it difficult to keep his flock together.

On December 1, 1963, Nagaland’s statehood was announced by President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan at Khuochiezie, Kohima Local Ground. Some 54 years later, Neiphiu Rio became the first Chief Minister of Nagaland to take oath at a venue outside Raj Bhavan when he and his Council of Ministers of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government were sworn in at this historic venue on March 8.

The BJP’s surprising move of dumping its ally, the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which headed the previous coalition government, days ahead of the Assembly elections and forging an electoral alliance with the NDPP, a new party, helped it to increase its tally and get a major share of the power pie. However, the electoral mandate has also sent a clear message to the saffron party that the regional parties are still the first choice of the majority of the people in the State and they are going to call the shots when it comes to taking major political decisions, be it in electoral politics or on key political issues such as the Naga peace talks.

Eye on 2019

The BJP, aware of this political reality, planned a grand display of its gains in Nagaland in such a way as to build a new narrative of its growth in the State and the region with an eye to the next general election. Top BJP leaders, including party president Amit Shah, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the party’s national general secretary and key strategist for the north-eastern region Ram Madhav and Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju attended the swearing-in ceremony in which Governor P.B. Acharya administered the oath of office and secrecy to Rio and his team. Also in attendance were the BJP Chief Ministers from the neighbouring States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, Sarbananda Sonowal, Pema Khandu, N. Biren Singh, and the new Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma of the National People’s Party (NPP). Rio took the oath as the 20th Chief Minister of Nagaland; this will be his fourth term.

The BJP’s Y. Patton was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister and five legislators from the party were sworn in as Ministers.

In the 60-member Nagaland Assembly, the NDPP has 18 seats, including Rio’s seat, which was won uncontested; the BJP 12; the NPF 26; the NPP two; and the Janata Dal (United) one. There is one independent member; the Congress drew a blank.

The NDPP contested in 40 seats and the BJP in 20. They secured the support of the lone Janata Dal (U) legislator and the lone independent legislator and made them Ministers to form the four-party ruling coalition with 32 legislators. However, with only three NDPP legislators getting ministerial berths, against six from the BJP, it will not be easy for Rio to keep his flock together.

The BJP was a partner in the previous NPF-led coalition government. The NPF is also a partner in the ruling BJP-led coalition in Manipur, besides being a constituent of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). But it dumped the NPF because the latter was not willing to concede more than five seats to the party. The NPF, which emerged as the single largest party, made a bid to form the government and hoped that the BJP would support it, but that did not happen as the BJP was eyeing a larger share in the new government.

The BJP’s deft management of the political situation both before and after the election and its show of strength during the oath-taking ceremony show that its electoral strategy in the region had the long-term objective of garnering the maximum number of seats from the eight States in the region in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. In Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, the States where it has come to power, it has orchestrated shows of strength at the swearing-in ceremonies.

In 2009, the Congress won 13 of the 25 parliamentary seats from the region, while the BJP got four from Assam. But in 2014, when a Modi wave swept the country, the BJP won seven seats from Assam and one from Arunachal Pradesh. The Congress’ tally was reduced to eight: three from Assam, the two seats in Manipur, one seat each in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, and the lone Lok Sabha seat in Mizoram.

Congress pushed out as major player

In 2014, the Congress was in power in Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh; now it holds only Mizoram. The BJP, on the other hand, is now in power in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya. It captured power in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh by engineering defections of legislators from the Congress and other parties. In Arunachal Pradesh it won only 12 of the 60 Assembly seats but managed to form the government with 34 legislators of the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) headed by Chief Minister Pema Khandu joining it. In July 2016, Khandu, then with the Congress, replaced Chief Minister Nabam Tuki after two months of dissidence ended. In September, 44 of the 45 Congress legislators led by Khandu joined the PPA; in October Khandu, along with 33 PPA legislators, joined the BJP to head a BJP government in the State.

Yet, the BJP will have to come to terms with the fact that the support of the regional parties will be crucial for it to realise its ambition in the region in 2019. On the other hand, the BJP, being the ruling party at the Centre, is in a position to keep the regional parties with which it has formed ruling coalitions in the region dependent on it for more funds and a better share of development projects initiated by the Centre.

The Sangh Parivar strategy

In this context, the power equations among the constituents of the NEDA, formed at the BJP’s behest in 2016, is expected to play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The NPP, which has emerged as a new power player in the region, is expected to play a key role in shaping the NEDA’s strategy as far as regional parties are concerned.

Nearly five months after the BJP formed the NEDA by bringing together the regional parties, the Congress reconstituted its North East Congress Coordination Committee (NECCC) in November 2016 under the leadership of the then Meghalaya Chief Minister, Mukul Sangma. However, while the NEDA swung into action to work out electoral strategies and post-election equations in the region, the revamped NECCC remained defunct.

The BJP has not left the task of expanding its organisational base to its leaders in the region. The entire top leadership of the party, including Amit Shah, have been making frequent visits to the region. An aggressive campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team of Ministers about the Central government’s initiatives for the region during their frequent trips there created a new popular perception that the BJP takes an interest in the region.

The Sangh Parivar has adopted a multipronged approach in the region to expand its influence and organisational base. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has been doing its bit by pushing its Hindu Rashtra agenda by frequently organising public rallies and setting up RSS units in new places.

Congress inaction

In contrast, Congress general secretaries in charge of the States visit only when there is dissidence in the State units, to act as arbitrators. Congress president Rahul Gandhi and other senior leaders visit mostly to address election rallies. The absence of an effective strategy to counter the BJP’s aggressive wooing of the people and parties of the region was construed by a large number of party followers and supporters as reluctance on the Congress’ part to recover lost ground in the region and prompted them to shift their loyalties to the BJP and other regional parties.

The Nagaland verdict has once again showed how the BJP is fast gaining ground in the region and replacing the Congress as the major power player. The Congress was decimated in the State and managed to poll only 20,752 votes (2.1 per cent of the total votes polled); it failed to win any of the 18 seats it contested. The BJP polled 1,53,864 votes (15.3 per cent) to win 12 of the 20 seats that it contested. In 2013, the Congress polled 24.89 per cent votes and won eight seats, while the BJP polled just 1.75 per cent and won only one of the 11 seats that it contested. Congress leaders in Nagaland held the All India Congress Committee leaders responsible for the debacle and the weakening of the organisation. They alleged that though the State unit wanted to contest in 25 seats, seven candidates had to be withdrawn for want of “logistical and financial support from the AICC”.

The ousted NPF emerged as the single largest party with 38.8 per cent of the votes and 26 seats, followed by the NDPP with 25.2 per cent of the votes and 12 seats. In 2013, the NPF secured 47.04 per cent of the votes and won 38 seats. The NPP, an ally of the NPF, polled 6.9 per cent of the votes and won two seats. Thus, unlike in Tripura where almost the entire Congress vote base shifted to the BJP, in Nagaland a sizable vote of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party were netted by the NPF and the NDPP, and also the NPP, which contested for the first time in the State. The NDPP is expected to join the NEDA, of which the NPF is already a part.

Challenges ahead for the BJP

The electoral mandate in Nagaland is expected to create new power equations among the constituents of the NEDA, which are likely to pose new challenges for the BJP in the region particularly when it formulates the electoral strategy for 2019. The party will have to bargain hard with key regional parties such as the NPF, the NDPP, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and the NPP for seat-sharing. The coming days may see the BJP and other NEDA constituents engage in a battle of nerves. In Assam, the BJP is already engaged in one with the AGP over the panchayat elections and with the BPF over the elections to the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which are due in 2020. Both the AGP and the BPF are constituents of the BJP-led coalition government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal.

Barring the BJP, most of the NEDA constituents were also members of the now defunct North East Regional Political Front (NERPF), which was formed in 2013 under the aegis of the AGP. Ten regional parties constituted the NERPF with the aim of working together to “safeguard the territorial, cultural, social, political and economic rights of the people of the region and to continuously strive to protect the distinctive identities of the ethnic tribes and of all the people of the region”. The followers and supporters of the regional parties are expressing the apprehension that the BJP, with the help of the RSS and other members of the Sangh Parivar, may annihilate the regional parties in a bid to create a new narrative based on the development aspirations for the people of the region. Against such a backdrop, a platform such as the NERPF promises to be an alternative space for regional forces in the event of possible changes in political equations in the NEDA.

However, the Congress would find it a Herculean task to recover the ground it has lost in the region unless it manages to win over some of the regional parties and is able to tap into the regional aspirations of the people.

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