Lok Sabha elections 2019: Across north-east, NPP is gaining clout
When Silchar in Assam voted on Thursday, the fight between sitting Congress MP Sushmita Deb and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Rajdeep Roy was the main focus of public attention given that both parties have won the Lok Sabha seat several times in the past decades. Yet, Nazia Yasmin Mazumdar, the candidate of the National People’s Party (NPP), received her share of attention. Despite the BJP’s remarkable rise and the Congress’s decline in the Northeast over the past three years, it is the NPP that has emerged as the biggest player across the seven states in the region.
And what’s more, Mazumdar, a former Congress general secretary, is upbeat about her prospects. “I got a lot of support from the rural belt, “ Mazumdar said.
“Over the past three decades, both the BJP and the Congress indulged in divisive politics and didn’t develop the Barak valley. I have tried my level best to reach out and convince voters and am confident of a good show.”
The NPP gaining such clout is not without irony since it is one of many regional parties that are part of the anti-Congress, BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and has yet managed to chart its own course across the region. It has fielded candidates in 11 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats of the Northeast.
Besides its home turf and stronghold, Meghalaya, the NPP has fielded contestants in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. Tripura is not on the agenda for these elections, but it is only a matter of time.
“”We are relatively new and have our limitations,” NPP president Conrad Sangma said. “It was difficult to reach out in Tripura for logistical and tactical reasons. It’ll take time, but we certainly have the desire to spread our wings across the Northeast,” he said. Had he been alive, the NPP’s rapid rise would have thrilled founder PA Sangma. The former Congressman and Lok Sabha speaker, who died in 2016, formed the NPP in 2012 with a definite purpose in mind.
“Sangma wanted the consolidation of tribal constituents,” said Patricia Mukhim,.editor of the Shillong Times. “He wanted to make the NPP a tribal party with a national presence. And if he had lived longer, it would have materialized by now.” In 2013, the party, which joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), secured barely 9% of the total votes and just two seats in the Meghalaya assembly polls. In 2017, the NPP won four assembly seats in Manipur and helped the BJP to form its first government in that state. By 2018, the NPP’s vote share increased to over 20%. It won 19 seats in Meghalaya’s 60-member assembly. The NPP was able to form a government headed by its chief – and the late PA Sangma’s youngest offspring, Conrad – with support from other regional players and also the BJP. After the Nagaland assembly polls last year, the NPP, with two seats, joined the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)-BJP coalition government. After the senior Sangma’s death, the party’s mantle passed to Conrad, his second son who, along with his older brother James and sister Agatha, has been able to strengthen the NPP and expand its presence across the region. Ironically, it is the BJP’s determination to push through the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) despite near-unanimous opposition across the Northeast, that came as a blessing in disguise for the NPP because the regional party’s fierce campaign against the CAB rapidly made it a household name in all seven states.
So unified was the Northeast against the controversial bill that envisages Indian citizenship for all minorities from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan that 10 regional parties – many of whom were BJP allies – were persuaded by the Meghalaya CM to come together on one platform and oppose the CAB together. It is this pan-Northeast narrative that makes NPP attractive to many voters.
“People like the NPP because they feel it is a Northeast party unlike the Congress. Besides, there are many people who are unsympathetic towards the BJP,” said Taba Anjum, editor of the Arunachal Times.
“They see the NPP as a kind of neutral party that is in power but separate from the BJP.” For first-time Meghalaya voter David Thangkhiew, the NPP is appealing because unlike the bigger parties, it is “genuinely” concerned about regional issues.
“The NPP may not be able to produce magic so soon but it is slowly building its base in the region,” he said. Conrad Sangma is clear about the party’s goals.
“Our mission and focus have been simple – we want to touch the lives of our people and work for the people. We want to become a platform for the people of the Northeast to voice their concerns in Parliament,” he said.
His older brother and Meghalaya home minister, James Sangma, says the NPP has complete faith in the CM’s leadership. “Conrad has been active in politics from his early childhood. He used to travel with our late father when he was only 12 years old. He is meticulous in his actions and does his job with perfection,” James said.
Conrad also has the backing of sister Agatha, a former Union minister who is the party’s candidate from the Tura Lok Sabha seat in Meghalaya, which was once represented by Conrad and several times by their father PA Sangma.
The BJP admitted that the NPP had become a force to reckon with across the Northeast due to its many successes in assembly polls but dismisses its chances in the Lok Sabha elections. “The NPP won’t make a big impact this time,” the BJP spokesperson in Assam, Rupam Goswami, said.