By Ayan Sharma:
About a fortnight ago, on an eventful morning in Guwahati, the political capital of Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President, Amit Shah was ecstatically charting out the road map of his party’s ambitious invasion of the northeast. It was the glittering launch of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a group of BJP and ten other regional parties of the northeastern states, which, Shah envisioned, would triumphantly lead to a ‘Congress-mukt Northeast’.
The birth of NEDA, apparently Shah’s brainchild, was studded by the presence of the who’s who of politics including four present and a few former Chief Ministers of the northeast alongside several state and national level BJP leaders. Inaugurating the alliance, Shah thundered, “The NEDA has been formed to change the history of the northeast forever. The whole northeast is a region of possibilities”. Urged by an excited crowd, he continued, “Northeast has everything but still it is lagging behind due to insurgency, illegal immigrants and negligence by the former Congress governments both at the centre and the states. Now, with the formation of NEDA every problem will be solved.”
Moments later, as reported in the local press, the BJP top brass present at the gathering received a massive blow from the Supreme Court which left a blot on their own party’s history. The apex court had just ordered the restoration of the previous Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh by ousting the BJP-propelled Kalikho Pul from the Chief Minister’s chair. Pul, an important ally in NEDA and thus present on the occasion, was as snubbed and dumbstruck just as his aides from the BJP who all had together manoeuvred an undemocratic overthrow of the incumbent Nabam Tuki-led Congress government back in December, 2015 with the help of the state Governor.
The timing of the verdict did not fail to showcase the irony of NEDA’s launch. On a day the BJP National President was talking about increasing cooperation among the different political parties of the Northeast under his own leadership, the judiciary rebuked the same party for attempting to subvert democracy in one such northeastern state. Political commentators were quick to point out BJP’s double standards being disguised under the facade of ‘cooperative federalism’ since this was the second time that such undemocratic tactics to capture power were being employed after their first unsuccessful attempt in Uttarakhand. Clearly, the launch of NEDA did not quite turn out to be a rosy day the BJP had expected it to be.
The NEDA was conceived on May 24 this year after the swearing-in ceremony of the first ever BJP-led government in Assam and the Northeast. Driven by the unprecedented electoral success first in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and then in the 2016 Assembly elections in Assam, Shah couldn’t wait any longer to extend his victory march to the other states of the region in the coming days. His Man Friday in this mission is Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, a younger face from Assam who was previously a strongman of Assam Congress before switching to the saffron fold in September last year. Apart from the BJP, the alliance consists of one party each from Nagaland, Mizoram, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh; two from Meghalaya and three from Assam.
One may however point out that this is not the first time that different parties of the region have come together under a common platform. As late as in October 2013, a forum named Northeast Regional Political Front was floated by the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), both being key players in Nagaland and Assam respectively and also present constituents of NEDA. The only significant difference with NEDA is the fact that for the first time the initiative to create such a body has been taken by a national party and not by its regional constituents. Even then, NEDA is not free from the multitude of challenges that politics in Northeast India always throws up.
To begin with, creating a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence vis-a-vis its regional allies has become an uphill task for the alliance leader BJP. The sabotage of federal relations by the BJP in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh seem to have reinforced BJP’s desperation to assume power even by unfair means. Indian politics is replete with such bitter episodes over the decades with both Congress and BJP being party to these exercises in the past. Now that the latter is on a mission to rid the country of the former by embracing different stakeholders in different regions, these strategies will only stoke up the insecurity of smaller parties in BJP’s alliance endeavours. Under such clouds, both Shah and Sarma have been careful enough to assert from the very outset that BJP will only be the ‘first among equals’ in NEDA, that the party will not attempt to boss around and rather treat all its allies with equal respect.
However just as in many other instances across the country, the BJP has failed to walk the talk here in the northeast too. Just a little more than two months into power, the BJP-led government in Assam has already drawn flak from one of its major partner i.e. AGP. The BJP’s slogan for the assembly elections in the state was “Jaati, maati aru bhetir rokkhya”, that is the “protection of the nationality (indigenous people of Assam in this case), land and cultural foundations”. Be that as it may, several decisions by the state government, including auctioning of the state’s petroleum resources to private capital and granting of citizenship to the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, have already cast a serious doubt over the party’s true commitment to its slogans. Justified or not, issues such as this inevitably lead to popular outrage against the government in a state like Assam, where a significantly large and strong constituency articulates a sub-nationalist politics, fueled by perceptions of political injustice and economic exploitation by New Delhi.
It is this constituency that brought the AGP to power, twice and also the one that the BJP has wrested this time to form the government. In the face of such popular backlash, the alliance partner AGP has increasingly found itself in a bumpy predicament prompting the influential Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the two-time former Chief Minister of Assam, to continually direct his tirades against the BJP over all of these issues. Mahanta’s fundamental complaint against the majority leader BJP is the latter’s refusal to draft a ‘Common Minimum Program’ and a Coordination Committee of the legislative parties among the three alliance partners. This demand has found currency among a substantial section of the AGP and some in BPF (Bodoland People’s Front, the other ally in the state government) too since these represent the cornerstone of the new-age alliance based politics. This inability of the BJP to take its allies into confidence is not a healthy sign for the NEDA’s future as it sends out a grim reminder of BJP’s arrogance to all the smaller parties it is willing to embrace in the region.
Another immediate challenge facing the BJP in NEDA is finding allies in Manipur and Tripura, the former being ruled by the Congress and the latter by the Left, both incumbencies being in power for at least three consecutive terms. Manipur goes to polls in early 2017 and Tripura in early 2018. With such little time in the face of formidable opponents, the BJP is in a difficult position to reach out to the voters in these poll-bound states. The party cannot fight an election in any of these states on its own and therefore an ally in each of them is not only a must for substantive electoral outcomes, but also for legitimising the national party’s presence in the volatile political spaces of the states.
NEDA’s woes however do not end only with the questions of ‘trust building’ and ‘ally hunting’. A quick glimpse of the different constituents of the alliance will shed light on the ethnicity-based compositions of most of these parties, a premise which is very common when it comes to political formations in the region. Such ethnicity-driven formations have, however, entangled the region’s political landscape with a gamut of conflicts based on opposing interests. Land and identity stand out most prominently among them.
The inter-state boundaries between several Northeastern states have incited a recurring tussle in the region for many decades now. The Assam-Nagaland border dispute is five-decade old and its solution is nowhere in sight in the near future. Dozens of people have lost their lives on both the sides in the numerous clashes and the economies of the two states have also been severely hit from time to time due to road blockades over the decades. Yet the ruling dispensation on either side is far from negotiating a settlement over the dispute, a potential threat to the stability of NEDA since it includes both the local ruling parties of Assam and Nagaland i.e AGP and NPF respectively.
Assam also has an equally-tense border dispute with Arunachal Pradesh and somewhat softer tensions over her borders with Mizoram and Meghalaya, the former Chief Ministers of which are a part of the NEDA. The other states embroiled in the boundary deadlock are Tripura and Mizoram and most importantly Nagaland and Manipur.
Over the years, the Nagaland-Manipur conflict has often led to intense economic blockades and large-scale ethnicity-driven bloodshed. Many in Manipur also fear that the Modi government at the centre might agree to clandestinely give away portions of its land to the Nagas to make up for the territory of the proposed Nagalim as part of the Naga Accord with the NSCN-IM, provoking many street protests in Imphal already.
While the BJP is scavenging for an ally in Manipur, the joining of any local party from Manipur in NEDA will very likely lead to a conflict between this new entrant and NPF since the latter is seen close to the NSCN-IM and thus a tacit backer of the Nagalim, the map of which eats up substantial portions of Manipur’s territory. This will severely jeopardise BJP’s equations in NEDA.
Moreover in Assam, the Bodo political organizations have for long been leading a campaign for a separate Bodo state under the Union of India for a couple of decades now. Such a demand has not gone down well with a large section of the population in Assam, most significantly with the non-tribal Assamese speakers. In such a backdrop, the presence of the BPF, articulating Bodo political interests, alongside AGP in NEDA, the staunch advocate of Assam’s unity and integrity, may prove a tough deal to negotiate for NEDA. Indeed, the fear of losing identity and land dominates the political discourse in the region and political formations take shape by responding to this overarching narrative. It is this highly sensitive hurdle that holds the potential to thwart Amit Shah’s grand calculations in the northeastern frontier.
The saffron brigade is also likely to face a strong resentment from many of its allies in NEDA if its traditional ‘cultural Hindutva’ agenda is attempted to be pushed into the multi-cultural social fabric of northeast India. While increased development and inter-connectedness remain the ostensible agenda of BJP’s outreach program in the region, one cannot lose sight of the simultaneously increasing RSS activities primarily in the conventional sphere of education. Covert they may be, but such activities, which threaten the different indigenous and animist cultures of different tribes of the region, are bound to create ripples across the culturally sensitive region, sooner than later.
Unity among political formations in Northeast India is definitely a good idea but the inherent tendency of the dominant ‘heartland’ politicians toward treating the Northeast as a homogenous unit has only worsened the region’s ethno-geographic tensions over the decades. Rather than subsuming the major regional parties of the northeastern states under one grand agenda – primarily to achieve its own electoral goal of a ‘Congress-mukt bharat’ – the BJP would have done better by thinking of structurally addressing the various local issues and interests in various parts to ensure durable inter-ethnic peace in the region. Contradictory ethnic, political and territorial interests put NEDA on a tricky wicket.