Will this election decide NEDA’s fate in northeast?
Alliances of the political kind are almost always fragile and the same holds true for India’s northeast. The ongoing Lok Sabha election, polling for which began on April 11, is ample proof of that.
An air of uneasiness hangs among allies of the BJP, who are part of North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), the central party led platform of anti-Congress parties from the region, formed three years ago.
The National People’s Party (NPP), one of the main constituents of NEDA, is contesting the election alone. The party, which heads the coalition government in Meghalaya and where the BJP is a minor partner, is contesting from 11 Lok Sabha seats in the region.
The party also fielded candidates in 29 of the 60 assembly seats in Arunachal Pradesh against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nominees.
In Tripura, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), partner of the BJP-led government in the state and a NEDA constituent, also fielded its own candidates in the two Lok Sabha constituencies, after seat-sharing talks with the central party failed.
“We decided to contest separately as BJP didn’t agree to give us one of the two seats in the state. We are still part of NEDA and are likely to continue the association,” said IPFT general secretary and Tripura minister Mevar Kumar Jamatia.
A rosy start
NEDA was formed on May 24, 2016, the same day Sarbananda Sonowal took oath as chief minister of the first elected BJP government in Assam. Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congressman, who switched to the BJP a year back, was made convenor of the platform.
Besides Sonowal, chief ministers of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland—Pawan Kumar Chamling, Kalikho Pul, TR Zeliang—and the BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav were present at the launch.
Though “all-round development of northeast and better coordination among the states and central government” was stated to be NEDA’s prime objective, opposition to the Congress, which had ruled most states in the region for decades, was the main glue that bound the parties.
Over the next three years, several other smaller parties of the region joined NEDA and the BJP and its allies were able to form governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland.
One of the first successes of NEDA was in Arunachal Pradesh when chief minister Pema Khandu and 42 other Congress MLAs switched over to the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), a NEDA partner, in September 2016 and assumed office.
But three months later Khandu and most of PPA legislators moved to the BJP and formed the second government led by the central party in the state after the 44-day government of Gegong Apang in 2003.
The development led to the souring of relations between the PPA and BJP.
“Though we were part of NEDA from the start, some BJP leaders worked against the platform. They wanted a BJP government instead of one formed by NEDA. We were used as a stepping stone,” said Kamen Ringu, chairperson of PPA.
In 2017, NEDA partners witnessed another high with the BJP, despite coming second behind Congress in the assembly polls, as they were able to form the government in Manipur with the support of the National People’s Party (NPP) and Naga People’s Front (NPF).
But problems surfaced again with the NDA government at Centre banning the sale of cattle for slaughter. The move, which evoked negative reactions in poll-bound Christian majority states of Nagaland and Meghalaya, forced the BJP to assure that it will not ban beef in the northeast.
Worried it would distance voters, allies like NPP contested the assembly elections independently. The BJP, which won two seats in Meghalaya, joined the NPP-led government after poll results.
In Nagaland, the BJP distanced itself from old ally NPF and joined hands with newly launched Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDDP) to form the next government in the state.
CAB widens the divide
The biggest setback to NEDA came when NDA government decided to push ahead with the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, which proposes to give citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Parliament.
The move led to widespread protests in Assam and other states of the region. In Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) quit the BJP-led government over the issue and in January this year, ten regional parties, several of the partners of NEDA, formed a joint platform against the legislation.
With NDA deciding not to table the legislation in the Rajya Sabha and it is set to lapse in June, the protests subsided. But with the BJP’s leaders insisting that it would bring it in the next Parliament, fears over CAB remained. In Meghalaya, United Democratic Party (UDP) quit NEDA over the issue.
Though the AGP rejoined the BJP-led coalition in Assam, differences over CAB and seat sharing led NPP and other NEDA allies to go alone. In Mizoram, the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) has kept its distance from the BJP and both parties are contesting the election separately.
“Despite contesting separately, we are still part of NEDA. But if they go against the interests of Mizos like passing CAB, we will consider withdrawing both from NEDA and NDA,” said MNF president and Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga.
The BJP is hoping to win at least 20 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the region. Whether the party is able to achieve that figure will depend a lot on its allies. The results could also decide the NEDA’s fate.
Last month, BJP’s Ram Madhav said that despite several allies contesting this election separately, NEDA, which is a “development alliance” will continue to exist.
“We are very confident that after the polls, all these parties will together support the new government to be formed by NDA,” he said.
In an interview with HT last month, NEDA convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma hinted that several alliance partners deciding to contest separately could be part of a strategy to defeat Congress in the region.