How will the Northeast vote? - Hindustan Times
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How will the Northeast vote?

Apr 15, 2024 06:58 PM IST

Elections in the region will be fought on a triadic, inter-linked reality of perception of development, the sense of insecurity and assertions of aspirations

With a total population of over 50 million, the eight states comprising Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim have collectively over 30 million voters eligible to vote in the upcoming general election. Excluding the 14 seats from Assam alone, the rest of the seven states together have a tally of 11 seats in the Lok Sabha. Out of these, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured a total of 14 seats across the region in the previous polls held in 2019 that elected the 17th Lok Sabha. The Indian National Congress (INC) came out as the second largest party having secured 4 seats. However, one needs to keep in mind that many of the regional parties that shared the remaining seats between them, were part of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) formed by BJP in 2016.

A Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) trooper stands guard as people wait in queues to cast their votes outside a polling station during the third phase of general election in Khowai district in the northeastern state of Tripura, India, April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey(REUTERS) PREMIUM
A Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) trooper stands guard as people wait in queues to cast their votes outside a polling station during the third phase of general election in Khowai district in the northeastern state of Tripura, India, April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey(REUTERS)

One predominant aspect that is expected to make an impact on the voting trends across Northeast India is the effect of the concerted push of the ‘developmental’ agenda in the region by the Union government in the last few years through a variety of plans, projects and flagship schemes. They are mostly built around themes such as rapid infrastructure build-up, greater connectivity through road, rail and airways extensions, generation of rural livelihood, creation of a non-lapsable central pool of resources and so on. However, the region’s tryst with an infrastructure-driven policy discourse is not new, the much talked about ‘North Eastern Region Vision 2020 Document’ launched during UPA II mentions that “infrastructure deficit is a major deficit in the region, and acceleration in economic growth and the region’s emergence as a powerhouse depends on how fast this deficit is overcome.” This discourse has been accelerated in form and expanded in principle by the NDA governments by executing it in a manner that touches all the states in the region, often fostering inter-state connectivity within the region as much as that of the region with the rest of India. Although in varying degrees and at different paces, there has been a steady infrastructural push in the region both at urban and rural levels, starting from the construction of mega bridges, and all-weather tunnels to assuring last-mile connectivity through paving of village roads.

Whereas when the NDA has secured the previous mandates by largely contrasting their ‘performance’ on these fronts with the alleged non-performance of the same by previous governments, this time the NDA will be expecting to be electorally rewarded for the continuing ‘good performance’ on these developmental front. Moreover, placing issues such as transformations of border infrastructure in Northeast India as critical aspects of national security and territorial integrity also helps strengthen the narrative that the BJP seeks to buttress further, BJP as a party that is ready and capable of handling the issue of border dispute with hostile neighbours in a tough and decisive manner.

Identities and electoral scripting

Identity remains relevant in the politics of Northeast India in that one’s priorities and perspectives to a large extent are circumscribed to one’s social location. The eruption of violent ethnic conflict, as what we see ongoing in Manipur, poses a challenge to the development designs of the state. However, as past precedents show, conflicts and protests in the region don’t necessarily have a causal connection with electoral outcomes. A stark and recent example of this is the fierce anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest, which turned out to be an electoral non-issue in the ensuing assembly elections across Northeast India. How will the many identity fragments in the region play out electorally, then?

Beyond the issue of ethnic violence, there are other identity entanglements in the region’s politics, such as the case of six ethnic groups in Assam protesting against the government for the non-fulfilment of promises towards recognition of Scheduled Tribe status. The BJP was able to form the state government in Assam with a decisive majority, right after rounds of anti-CAA protests in the state, as some of the prominent student and cultural organisations representing these communities gravitated towards the BJP. Some of the said ethnic organisations of Ahoms, Motok, Moran, Sutia, etc. threw their lot with the BJP, whom they considered a better ally in their primary battle to protect, preserve, and promote their ethnic identities. It will be interesting to see if the opposition INDIA bloc can galvanise on their sense of betrayal now.

Here, a targeted nurturing of electoral clientele seems to be working effectively for the BJP in steamrolling over the oppositional issues. In different manners and degrees, a set of carefully crafted interventions has touched various communities, income groups, genders and professions. Like elsewhere in India, the creation of a sizeable class of beneficiaries (hitadhikaris in Assam) through a range of measures from free distribution and subsidy for essential items to direct cash transfer, may bring segments of society that traditionally lacked social capital but possessed ample electoral capital, into the fold. Additionally, by working on the adage that the national parties must have elements of regional outlook, the BJP also linked some of the schemes with issues of local sentiments, such as the issue of regularising land rights in Assam is being projected as a measure of protecting the indigenous from the immigrants.

Thus the figure of the ‘immigrant’ continues to loom over the political horizon of Assam, although perhaps its shadow changes position. Themes such as the threat of Bangladeshi influx, the rise of the “Miya”/Muslims, and the appeasement of Muslims, continue to mark their presence in the electoral discourse in Assam, polarising votes at some levels.

However, their effectiveness seems to have diminished as a whole.

From disturbed area to aspirational area

The BJP and its allies are also hoping to gain from their track record of signing 11 peace accords and pacts, involving insurgent groups and indigenous parties from across the region in the last five years. These include the tripartite agreement with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the tripartite agreement involving the TIPRA Motha at Tripura, which was an active member of the oppositional camp and so on. Besides, the government also cites the example of measures such as the Assam-Meghalaya border agreement, and the Assam-Arunachal border agreement as having brought peace and stability to the region.

The image of a peaceful region without active violence is expected to add to the ruling party’s image of development performers. However, the failure to contain the large-scale violence in Manipur, a BJP-ruled state, provides an opportunity for the opposition to call them out on this claim. However, violence and insurgency, in an ethnically polarised and militarised zone such as Northeast India, have often existed in a complex relationship with the political class. By recognising the salience of the ethnic leadership and demands, the ruling regime can undermine the possibilities of effective electoral opposition and can even build up alliances.

Besides, peacemaking at times gives rise to new dominant social coalitions which are pro-incumbency.

NEDA, Sarma and aspirations

The charismatic role and cross-regional appeal of the chief minister of Assam Himanta Biswa, who is often credited for taking the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) from strength to strength, will also be an important factor in this election. The successful bringing together of a bunch of regionalist parties with a nationalist BJP, under the principles of accommodative alliance is seen to be scripted largely at Sarma’s initiative.

Moreover, his carefully crafted image as a ‘doer’, at times as representative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, seems to appeal to a wide section across the region, especially the youth. Therefore, although youth-led opposition parties have come to offer electoral contests to BJP, notably Asom Jatiya Parishad in Assam, they will find it difficult to dismantle the charm and appeal of “Mama”, a title attached to Sarma, which itself signifies the affectionate projection of the leader as a well-wisher of the youth. Against the prevailing situation of joblessness and migration, the government is seen to be initiating programmes for skill development, incubation centres for start-ups, promoting local entrepreneurship and so on, thereby persistently trying to create benchmarks around aspiration.

This greatly curtails the scope for the opposition parties to electorally capitalise on the sense of insecurity and frustration arising out of joblessness in the region. However, if clubbed with other social factors, historically the youth in the region have been instrumental agents of socio-political change.

The BJP-led NEDA is hoping to continue with the successful experimentation of stitching together a winning electoral coalition in the region consisting of sub-groups of voters having divergent socio-economic realities. The opposition is trying to exploit the faultlines within such a disparate group while trying to highlight the failure of the ruling regime in delivering on their promises on the very developmental agenda itself. Ultimately the election in the Northeast will be fought on a triadic, inter-linked reality of perception of development, sense of insecurity and assertions of aspirations in the region. The ones who can better incentivise these will have the edge.

Dr Kaustubh Kumar Deka is an assistant professor, department of Political Science at Dibrugarh University, Assam. The views expressed are personal.

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