The gains made by BJP at an important tribal council election in Assam should be a worrying sign for its allies in similar councils in neighbouring states of Meghalaya and Tripura where the saffron party is trying to expand its footprint.
In its solo venture, after dumping its one-time ally the ruling Bodo Peoples’ Front (BPF), the BJP emerged as a kingmaker winning nine seats in the 40-member Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) elections, the results of which were announced on Saturday night (December 12).
The BPF and BJP though are alliance partners in the Assam state government, contested the council election separately and had indulged in a bitter campaign against each other. The BJP accused the BPF chief and militant-turned politician Hagrama Mohilary of rampant corruption and misuse of central funds provided to the council.
Contesting elections on its own, the BPF fell four seats short of majority, securing 17 seats – three less than what it had bagged in 2015. In the last council elections, the BJP had won just one seat.
After the results were announced, throwing up a hung House, Mohilary literally pleaded with the BJP to renew the alliance. “In 2016, the BPF and the BJP joined hands together. Despite differences, we have an alliance with them in the state and the Centre. I am confident we will work together again and form the government at the council,” Mohilary told the media on Sunday.
Several feelers had been reportedly sent to the BJP for the revival of the alliance since last night. But snubbing its erstwhile alliance in the council, the BJP forged a fresh alliance in Bodoland with another regional party, the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL).
The newly-formed UPPL finished second in the race to the council bagging 12 seats. The Congress and another regional party, Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) won one seat each.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on Sunday announced that the BJP, UPPL and the GSP will together form the council and the UPPL president Pramod Boro will be its Chief Executive Member (CEM).
“There is no denying the fact that the BJP got a political foothold in Bodoland allying with us. Now they have left us and decided to ally with the UPPL. It’s their decision and will not be proper for me to comment at this juncture as I am still a minister in the BJP-led government,” senior BPF leader and Assam Social Welfare Minister Pramila Rani Brahma told The Federal over phone.
Her comment manifested the bizarre situation for the BPF. In the council, the BJP has joined hands with its arch rival UPPL while in the state it is continued to be the partner of the saffron party.
The BTC consists of four contiguous districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang and it sends 12 legislators to the 126-member Assam assembly. In the 2016, the BPF had won all the 12 seats and extended support to the BJP to form the government in the state. The BJP had won 61 seats and its another alliance partner, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had won 14 seats.
The BJP now aims to get a chunk of the Assembly seats from the council areas. In the ensuing Assembly elections in 2021, the BJP would win eight to nine seats in the council areas, senior state BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma told a news channel.
The BPF is not the BJP’s only ally in Assam to be dumped after the saffron party made inroads into the turf of its alliance partner.
In the 30-member Tiwa Autonomous Council, the BJP with three seats had entered into an alliance with the regional party – Tiwa Oikya Mancha (10 seats) and the AGP (two seats) in 2015. However, in 2019 the entire leadership of the Tiwa Oikya Manch merged into the BJP.
It has been similar with the BJP in other states of the North East as well. In Sikkim, the party had entered into an alliance with the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), which was ruling the state till the 2019 election. In the 2019 poll, the SDF won 15 seats out of 32 in the Assembly, and within four months, 10 of these 15 MLAs joined the BJP.
The BJP, which had polled less than 2% votes in the 2019 Assembly elections in the state, now has 12 MLAs. Other than 10 defectors, the party contesting by-elections in an alliance with another regional party, the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), won two of the three Assembly seats that went to by-poll in October last year.
The saffron party is already upping its ante ahead of tribal councils’ elections in Meghalaya and Tripura much to the dismay of its alliance partners in the two states.
In Meghalaya, the BJP, in November, approached the Meghalaya Lokayukta over the alleged misappropriation of central funds in the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC) and the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC) ruled by its ally the National People’s Party (NPP).
The allegations assume political significance as the GHADC elections are now overdue after the expiry of its term in October. A state government appointed administrator is now heading the council.
Sources in the BJP said it would contest the GHADC elections, whenever they are held, on its own, if corruption issues raised by it were not addressed. Many, however, see it as a bargaining chip to pressure the ally to allot a substantial number of seats to it.
Even in Tripura a discord has surfaced between the BJP and its coalition partner in the state government, the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), over seat sharing ahead of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC).
The 30-member council elections could be announced as its term expired seven months ago. The council has 28 elective members and two nominated.
During the 2018 Assembly elections, the BJP had convinced the IPFT to let it contest a majority of the 20 tribal reserved seats. The condition was that the tribal party would get the maximum seats in the council elections. As per the deal the BJP had contested 11 seats and won 10 while the IPFT had contested nine and won eight.
“The BJP could win the seats only because of its ally the IPFT. Otherwise, the BJP had no presence in the tribal areas of the state,” pointed out Sitansu Ranjan De, a senior political commentator based in Agartala.
In the 2019 Assembly elections, the BJP however went solo and won both the Lok Sabha seats, including the tribal reserved East Tripura constituency.
Now the BJP wants to contest at least 15 seats in the council. The party has activated its electioneering machinery in the council areas. Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb and Deputy Chief Minister Jishnu Deb Barman have been frequently visiting the tribal areas and interacting with tribal leaders to bring them to the party fold.
This is similar to what the BJP did in the run up to the BTC elections. Two top BPF leaders Biswajit Daimary and Emmanuel Mushahary had joined the BJP in November.
The IPFT, meanwhile, submitted a written memorandum to the BJP president JP Nadda seeking to contest 22 of the 28 seats that will go to polls.
It remains to be seen what course the BJP will take in the tribal-belt of Tripura. State’s political observers such as De said the party would unlikely give any leeway to the ally.