Why the BJP is doing well in the Northeast
Guwahati: Parties in power usually have a greater advantage during bypolls. This was reflected in the Northeast when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies made a clean sweep of all 10 seats that went to polls in four states in the region.
But the huge margins of most of those victories, especially the five seats in Assam, of which the BJP won three and ruling partner United Peoples Party Liberal (UPPL) bagged the other two, was something unexpected. In Nagaland, the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) candidate won the lone seat uncontested. The BJP is part of the ruling “opposition-less” coalition there.
Two candidates from the ruling National Peoples’ Party (NPP) and one from its ally United Democratic Party (UDP) won the three seats in Meghalaya while in Mizoram, the ruling Mizo National Front, which is part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at Centre, cornered the lone seat.
Since 2016, when the BJP came to power for the first time in Assam, the saffron party has gone from strength to strength in the other six states of the region where the Congress was the most dominant force till a decade back. At present, the BJP has its own governments in Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and the party is part of the ruling coalition in Meghalaya and Nagaland. In Mizoram, the BJP managed to win its first seat in 2018, but is not part of the MNF government.
The Himanta Factor in Assam
Ever since he joined the BJP in 2015 after a long and successful stint in the Congress, Himanta Biswa Sarma has been the saffron party’s star campaigner in Assam elections, crisscrossing the state and attracting large crowds with his oratory skills.
He played a crucial role in the BJP’s first stint in power in Assam in 2016 and also in the party’s impressive performance in the2019 general elections. Earlier this year, after the BJP returned to power for a second consecutive time, Sarma was entrusted the chief minister’s post replacing predecessor Sarbananda Sonowal.
These bypolls, the first since he assumed the CM’s chair in May, was his first election test. While bypolls in two seats were held due to deaths of sitting MLAs, in the other three it was Sarma’s role in bringing two Congress and an All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) MLAs to the BJP camp, that necessitated another round of voting in those seats-six months after the assembly polls.
Not taking anything for granted, Sarma addressed five-six election meetings daily, toured the five seats several times, promising more government grants and schemes if they voted the BJP or ruling ally, the UPPL, candidates. Following a complaint by the Congress, the Election Commission even warned Sarma and a ministerial colleague not to violate the model code of conduct by making such statements. But the BJP tactic worked and victory margins reflected that.
The Bhabanipur, Thawra and Mariani seats were won by new BJP entrants Phanidhar Talukdar, Sushanta Borgohain and Rupjyoti Kurmi, respectively by margins of 25,641, 30,561 and 40,104 votes from their nearest rivals. UPPL candidates Jiron Basumatary and Jolen Daimary won from Gossaigaon and Tamulpur seats, respectively by margins of 28,252 and 57,059 votes.
“The new thing in this bypolls is that while Borgohain, Kurmi and Talukdar had earlier won by margins of few thousand votes, this time voters witnessed record-breaking victory margins. The electoral victory in Assam is not a normal one. Saying that we won the five seats is an understatement. We won all five seats by huge and huge margins,” Sarma said after the results.
Political commentator and Gauhati university professor Akhil Ranjan Dutta feels the landslide victory of the BJP and ally UPPL in Assam is an outcome of various factors including populist policies, the benefit of having governments both at state and Centre.
“Sarma played a major role in defining the populist policies of the government; both when he was part of Tarun Gogoi’s Congress cabinets as well as during the BJP rule since 2016. In Assam, many present BJP legislators were earlier with Congress. This entire exercise (of bringing them to the BJP) has been led by Sarma,” said Dutta.
“Perception also plays a very important part. A perception has been created in Assam that if you are not a part of the ruling alliance, there is no guarantee that your constituency will get enough patronage from the government. That has created a fear of sorts among legislators for the first time in Assam. That perception has been created by the chief minister himself,” he added.
With the bypolls win, the BJP’s tally in the 126-member assembly rose to 62-one short of the halfway mark. With bypoll at Majuli scheduled in the coming months, the figure is expected to go higher. And if more opposition MLAs join the BJP, the party could end up in the majority and not rely on the support of allies, the UPPL and Asom Gana Parishad, which have 16 seats. After results of bypolls were out on Tuesday, Sarma indicated that more bypolls are likely in Assam.
“The way our workers worked and ensured victories for our candidates, it would inspire many to join the BJP. Frequent elections are not good, but there are indications that voters in at least two-three seats want bypolls. But when and how that will happen, I can’t say right now. My aim is for the BJP to bag all 126 seats in the state, if possible within my lifetime,” Sarma added.
Projects, funds and electoral benefits
The small states in the Northeast, which don’t have many resources or revenue generation, are very dependent on the Centre’s grants, schemes and projects and New Delhi has created a separate ministry for the region as well as agencies such as the North Eastern Council (NEC) to fund schemes and development works.
“In a way, the sweeping victories in bypolls in four states of the region reinforces support of the masses for the development and priority accorded to the northeast by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” Sarma, who’s also convenor of North East Democratic Alliance, the BJP-led platform of anti-Congress parties, said after the results of bypolls.
Gauhati University’s Dutta said how political elites of most regional parties in the region usually align with whichever political party is in power at the Centre, citing the example of Meghalaya’s NPP, which was earlier part of Congress-led UPA government at Centre, and now part of the NDA.
“If tomorrow, Congress comes to power again in New Delhi, there’s no guarantee that these smaller regional parties in the region, which are BJP allies now, will not switch sides,” he said.
The other thing of note is that while the BJP pushes ahead with its Hindutva card in other states, in smaller states such as Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya where Christianity is the dominant religion, the saffron party doesn’t talk about those issues and focuses more on things like development.
“In those smaller Christian-majority states, the BJP’s strategy is different. Instead of focusing on being the core party in government, they are happy to be part of an alliance with smaller regional players. There they speak more about a Congress-free government and not a BJP-led government while seeking votes. Right now, the BJP has become more flexible than other political parties in the country. They can adapt and adjust according to situations and that’s the reason for its success in the Northeast, which the recent bypolls reinforced,” said Dutta.