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Modi wave may not be enough to sweep Congress out in northeast

Rahul Karmakar , Hindustan Times  Guwahati, February 20, 2014
First Published: 12:29 IST(20/2/2014) | Last Updated: 13:03 IST(20/2/2014)

Battles in the northeast have often been fought between regional entities and the Congress - the only national party the electorate identifies with.

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It could be the secular face of the Congress or the belief that other national parties, primarily the BJP, bat for cow-belt sentiments, which are alien to the aspirations of more than 400 insular ethnic groups in the region.

Taken together, the region has just 25 seats. But for any party aspiring for power at the Centre, the figure is not insignificant — especially in case of a fractured verdict. Like in the last three general elections, the 2014 verdict is also expected to be irresolute.

For the Congress — which is combating a perceived BJP wave elsewhere in India — it'll be crucial. But it has some reason to cheer. Already, the party sits pretty in five of the eight states — Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam — accounting for 21 seats.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, for one, is confident about the Congress improving on its 2009 show of seven seats. If not in Assam, it is expected to do better elsewhere in the northeast – except Tripura, where the CPM is too entrenched to be uprooted.

A challenge will also be posed by Nagaland and Sikkim, on which the Naga People's Front (NPF) and the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) have a firm hold. The vote-shares of the Congress in these three states have been dwindling with every election.

Though parliamentary seats in the northeast have traditionally gone to parties ruling the states, Assam could witness a major shift. The state's complex demographic composition makes room for politics of polarisation.

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The Congress is finding it difficult to hold on to its two major vote-banks — Bengali-speaking Muslims and adivasis or plantation workers. Both were settled by the British, the former to grow more rice and the latter to work in tea estates.

But the BJP has been playing on the fears of the indigenous people that Bangladeshi Muslims would outnumber them by illegally settling in the state. Though the 2011 census figures are imprecise, Muslims call the shots in six of Assam's 14 LS constituencies, with 30% to 56% share of the population.

The adivasis, accounting for 15% to 18%, dominate it in four constituencies, while Bengalis dictate terms in two. That essentially leaves two seats, spanning three tribal councils, for indigenous groups.

Post-2000, riding on Atal Bihari Vajpayee's appeal, the BJP tried to become Congress' alternative. But it ended up challenging the existence of regional parties, such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which emerged out of movements against illegal infiltrators. The party's fortunes dipped, but now it feels that the Modi wave will make a difference.

Interestingly, the BJP's entry into the northeast coincided with the Muslims' bid for political assertion. The United Minorities' Front came and went. Then, a perfume baron, Badruddin Ajmal, turned the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) into a formidable force that cut into the Congress vote-bank.

Mandate 2014 is expected to be a test for both BJP and the AIUDF in challenging the Congress in its backyard. But a hint of any pre-poll understanding between the Congress and the AIUDF could queer the pitch for the saffron party. So far, both parties have denied having made any deal.

"This election could also be a do-or-die battle for AGP and Purno Sangma, whose graph in Meghalaya has dipped," pointed out political analyst Dilip Chandan. "The other states, some predominantly Christian, are prisoners of geography and dependent on central assistance. So, they are expected to fall in line with the dominant party at the Centre."

But the one-seat parties — SDF and NPF, for instance — could gain in importance when it comes to alliance, he added. "The regional parties helped save the Congress when the Left withdrew support during UPA 1.

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