BJP supporters carry a 30-meter long party flag during the nomination filing procession of the party’s Banamalipur constituency candidate for Tripura Assembly elections, in Agartala, Jan. 31. (Press Trust of India)
India seems to be on a perpetual election mode. Right after the declaration of Gujarat elections and before the onset of the General Elections of 2019 the country will witness three sets of polls, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.
First, there will be state assembly elections in the three key states in the North East (NE) – Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura; then in Karnataka; and finally, in the three centrally located states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
The Election Commission has announced Feb. 18 and Feb. 27 as the polling dates for Tripura, and Meghalaya and Nagaland that have 60 seats each.
Right after achieving a resounding mandate in the 2014 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) embarked on emphasizing the NE as its next electoral frontier, and with two back-to-back wins in Assam in 2016 and Manipur in 2017 its ambitions are on the surge.
While in Tripura, the incumbent political party is the CPM led Left Front, under the leadership of Manik Sarkar who has held on for the last 25 years, in Nagaland, it is the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland government, in which the regional Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) is the dominant partner and the BJP a minor ally, and in Meghalaya Mukul Sangma of the Congress holds the Chief Minister’s (CM) chair.
The NE polity has always been a fragmented scene and this time as well the fight is among four primary political factions – the Congress, BJP, the Left and other regional and tribal outfits.
The CPM led Left Front government rules the roost under Sarkar and except for 12 fresh faces all nominated candidates are reigning candidates.
The emergence of the BJP as the prime adversary to the Left has been at the price of Congress which has been the main opposition party for last 25 years and is undergoing internal bickering and disenchantment with the central leadership that wants to go soft on the Left.
Last year it lost six legislators led by Sudip Roy Barman, to the Trinamul, who eventually joined the BJP.
The party has since tried to revive its strength under the royal scion of the 800-year-old Manikya dynasty, Pradesh Congress Working President and the erstwhile Tripura King, Maharaja Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Burman who is widely respected for his relentless campaigns towards saving the lost culture of the tribals, promoting the dismal economics and plunging unemployment levels of the state.
The royals may have been ardent Congress loyalists with an anti-Left agenda and hence the BJP has been persistently wooing the royal scion, for the respect and loyalty he commands with the tribal base that makes up 32 percent of the state electorate.
It is a given that if Deb Burman joins the BJP he would be pitched as BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate.
In a strong dislike to the Left, last year the BJP observed the 110th birth anniversary of Tripura’s last ruler Bir Bikram Kishore Deb Burman, sending a pre-poll pro-tribal message and in its willingness to revive the royal history it has also promised to award King Bir Bikram with Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honor.
There are conjectures that Deb Burman may even contest as an independent, backed by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
It is not as if the BJP is bereft of internal issues as Subal Bhowmik, Vice-President of BJP’s Tripura unit, who is also credited for expansion of the party in the state has declined to contest from the allotted constituency.
But the party’s poll promise is expected to get an edge with the unveiling of the “Vision Document,” along the lines of vision documents for Assam and Manipur, by the Union Minister of Finance.
Also attempting to play safe with the tribal electorate the BJP has joined hands with the Rajeswar Debbarma faction of Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) by conceding to the latter’s two-point demands of empowerment of Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) and voting out of Left Front in the elections.
Till now other parties had been keeping a distance from the IPFT for its track record of demanding for a separate state containing the TTAADC areas.
With its capital at Kohima and Myanmar touching its eastern border this fractious state has been the stage of Asia’s longest insurgency.
On Jan. 29, all political parties had resolved to boycott under the slogan “no elections with solution.”
Soon after the official declaration of election date tribal outfits gave the clarion call of boycotting the elections.
However, Union Minister Kiren Rijiju who is election in-charge of BJP in the state tweeted that peaceful elections will be precursor to a peaceful resolution and perhaps, sensing the BJP’s announcement of going for polls, the Angami Nagas, a dominant Naga outfit, has pulled out of the call for boycott.
There are chances that other parties may join suit as none want a repeat of 1998 elections when the Congress won with a huge majority as other parties responded to a similar call for boycott announced by civil society and militant groups.
As regards the Congress which is too feeble to claim a stake, it still holds some power to contribute with additional numbers to others staking a claim.
Within the ruling alliance, the dominant partner is said to be experiencing rifts and to get out of a possible quandary, the BJP is actively looking to group with the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) that is the baby of Lok Sabha Member and ex-Chief Minister, Neiphiu Rio when he left the NPF.
The NDPP has already poached two senior NPF leaders on to his side.
Meghalaya, the 45-year-old state with a unicameral legislature, will present a crucial test to Congress’ mettle to retain its bastion, without which it will be limited to just Mizoram in the NE.
Rahul Gandhi, the newly elevated President of the Congress, is expected to start his election campaign with a rock concert at Shillong which is the state capital as well as the rock capital of the country.
Fifty-seven Congress candidates will be contesting for 60 seats and Mukul Sangma from two.
Apart from anti-incumbency factors, charges of corruption and poor track record of development there were breakaways in the party as it lost five MLAs to the National People’s Party (NPP), and two to the BJP and the newly formed People’s Democratic Front in early January.
The main threat to Sangma is from NPP’s Conrad Sangma, the eldest son of P. Sangma who had led NPP to victory till his demise in 2016.
It is widely accepted that the BJP funds the NPP and with the state heavily dependent on the center (under BJP led NDA) for financial allocations the prospective of NPP-BJP combine appear to be enhanced.
Interestingly, since this Christian dominated state is known to vote for personalities, the BJP based on Modi’s appeal may have an edge and its contributed of a substantial sum to the churches may swing some votes to its favor.
Surely, this round of the NE polls presents an exciting wait-and-watch series to see how the duel between the major political personalities of Modi versus Rahul Gandhi pans out and if the Congress is able to check the rapid advance of BJP’s agenda of a “Congress-Mukt-Bharat” after having forfeiting power to the latter in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.