The election mandates that emerged from the three north-eastern states on March 2 were yet another grim reminder for the Congress that there is a dire need to think out of the box and get off its high horse.
Talking to Congress leaders in the region, however, one gets the impression that instead of reading the writing on the wall, the party is busy trying to draw solace from its tally in Tripura and Meghalaya.
After joining hands with its erstwhile arch rival CPI(M) in Tripura, which was not an alliance, the party increased its number from zero in 2018 to three this time. Its vote share went up by around six per cent. In Meghalaya, where for the first time the Congress had gone to elections without having any single sitting MLA on its side, it managed to get five seats.
It’s a huge climb down for the party considering that only five years ago it had topped the chart with 21 seats.
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Instead of looking at the bigger picture, the Pollyannas, who apparently rule the roost in the grand old party, are revelling in the paltry gains and see silver linings amidst the dark cloud. AICC in-charge of Meghalaya Manish Chatrath told The Federal that his party was not entirely disappointed by its performance.
“Given the fact that we had to start from scratch after all our MLAs had left us, this result is a good beginning,” he observed. Similarly, a Tripura Congress leader interpreted the party’s win in just three seats as a sign of revival. “It (the results) shows the party is not yet finished in Tripura. In fact, our vote share has increased, which means we are recovering some of the lost ground,” he said, seeking anonymity.
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In Nagaland, the two back-to-back ducks the Congress scored left it with no room for any kind of pretence. The Congress in Nagaland is still smarting from the blow it had suffered, after Neiphiu Rio left the party with a group of ministers and MLAs to join the Naga People’s Front ahead of the 2003 assembly elections.
Its decline was completed after it drew a blank in the 2018 assembly elections under the leadership of K Therie. It again hit rock bottom under Therie’s leadership failing to win a single seat this time.
Of the three PCC presidents, the fact that only Birajit Sinha of Tripura could win his seat speaks volumes about the Congress’ choice of leaders in the north-eastern states.
Frequent desertions and wrong leadership choices
Many attribute the party’s decline to the frequent desertions from the party and failure to make the right leadership choice. Tipra Motha chief Pradyot Kishore Manikya Deb Barman said AICC needed to introspect why people like him had left the party.
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Pointing out that Motha bagged 13 seats against just three by the Congress in Tripura, Deb Barman said back then the Congress had thought he was of no use. Deb Barman, who is the son of Kirit Bikram Kishore Deb Barman, the last king of Tripura had left the Congress in 2019, over differences with the party’s then general secretary and north-east in-charge, Luizinho Faleiro.
Incidentally, two years later, Faleiro too left the Congress and joined the TMC. The point of dispute between the Congress and the scion of Tripura’s erstwhile royal family was the latter’s push for emotive tribal identity issues.
The fuss over NRC
Deb Barman, despite being a state Congress president, had made a plea in the Supreme Court seeking to upgrade the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Tripura. The Congress high command considered his petition as nothing short of blasphemy, as it had been vociferously opposing the NRC in mainland India. Deb Barman was reportedly asked to drop the case or leave the party. The Congress was evidently worried that Deb Barman by trying to champion the tribal cause would upset the state’s majority Bengali population.
Such presumptions though have had no political basis.
The BJP in 2018 joined hands with the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), which was demanding for a separate tribal state, Twiparaland. But that did not prevent it from getting overwhelming support from the Bengalis in the elections.
In the just-concluded elections, the BJP had completely dismissed Motha’s demand for a separate tribal state. But that did not come in the way of it pocketing seven of the state’s 20 tribal seats in alliance with the IPFT. The other 13 went to Motha.
The Congress and the Left, which had been vacillating on the statehood demand, could neither win a single tribal seat nor could sway Bengalis to their sides.
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“It’s simply political naivety to have one overriding stand across the country or a state on any issue,” said Professor Kavi Maram, a political commentator who teaches in the Rajiv Gandhi University.
BJP plays the NRC-CAA card
“Just take the case of NRC-CAA in Assam. The BJP by aggressively pushing for the NRC won over the support of the indigenous Assamese population. At the same time, it retained the support of the migrant Hindu population, the traditional BJP voters in Assam, by offering to implement the CAA,” Maram pointed out.
It’s altogether a different matter that neither the NRC nor the CAA is finally implemented. But that did not prevent the BJP from getting the voters to favour them. Even as the BJP was successfully marketing its two conflicting stands among two sets of voters, the Congress was caught off guard.
The NRC exercise in Assam was originally initiated by the Congress government in the state to honour the commitment the Rajiv Gandhi’s government made to the All-Assam Students’ Union in the Assam Accord of 1985. But the party was all along defensive about the entire process to the extent of almost disowning its own baby fearing it would antagonise the migrants. Ultimately, it pleased none.
Compromising Hindutva ideology – Praise the Lord
In contrast to the Congress, the BJP has no guilt-pangs in compromising even its core Hindutva ideology for the sake of votes in the Christian-dominated north-eastern states. For example, a Union minister during an election rally in Nagaland had no qualms in ending his speech with the Christian religious slogan – Hallelujah, Praise the Lord!
Many a time, the BJP meetings in the state started with a Christian prayer. Tilak-sporting central BJP leaders never batted an eyelid when their party colleagues from the north-east proudly proclaimed their preference for beef as delicacy.
Congress overlooked local realities
Congress will say such area-specific policies are sheer opportunism and double standards. True, but not being able to adapt to local realities is also akin to committing hara-kiri in electoral politics. There were many instances of Congress being ill-disposed to local realities in the three states that handed it humiliating defeats.
In Nagaland for example, the leadership of the two regional parties mainly come from the Tenyimi block. For the uninitiated, the Tenyimis are an umbrella term for ten Naga tribes viz., Angami, Chakhesang, Rengma, Zeliangrong, Pochury, Mao, Poumai, Maram, Thangal and Inpui. They consider themselves as “blood brothers”, who evolved from the same ancestors.
NDPP supremo and Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio is an Angami. Another top leader of the party and former chief minister T R Zeliang is from Zeliangrong tribe. NPF president Shürhozelie Liezietsu is an Angami. The party’s floor leader in the last Nagaland assembly was Kuzholuzo (Azo) Nienu, a Chakhesang.
Amidst such crowding of Tenyimi leaders in the regional outfits, ideally the Congress should have picked its president from a non-Tenyimi tribe, just as the BJP did. The Congress instead reposed faith in Therie despite his past failure. Therie is a Chakhesang.
The BJP on the other hand not only chose leadership from outside the Tenyimi block, but also subtly backed the separate identity aspirations of six tribes from eastern parts of Nagaland often called eastern Nagas. These tribes are Konyaks, Phoms, Changs, Khiamniungans, Yimchungrus and Sangtams.
It may be mentioned here that BJP state president Temjen Imna Along is an Ao, while its outgoing legislature party leader and deputy chief minister Yanthungo Patton is a Lotha. Of the 12 seats BJP got in Nagaland, barring one, rest all came from the non-Tenyimi areas.
In the past, Congress had successfully exploited such fault-lines within the otherwise seemingly generic community.
After president of the Assam unit of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind Badruddin Ajmal floated his own political party, the Assam United Democratic Front (now morphed into All India United Democratic Front), ahead of 2006 assembly elections, many thought he would completely erode the Congress’s traditional minority vote-base in the state.
The then Congress leader and Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi was unperturbed. During a chit-chat with a group of journalists on the side-lines of a Congress function, Gogoi was asked how his party would counter the Ajmal factor in the ensuing elections.
Pat came the reply. “It was the media who projected him as a pan Muslim leader. Ajmal is not even a leader of the entire Bengali Muslim community of the state. He is at best a leader of the Sylheti (a Bengali sub-group) Muslims. Just look at Khaliq (pointing at Congress leader Abdul Khaliq, who is now a Congress MP from Assam). He is a Mymensingh (another Bengali sub-group) Muslim and he is with us.” That said it all.
Changing dynamics of regional politics
The biggest of all the oversights the Congress made in the north-east is failing to read the changing dynamics of regional politics.
Coinciding with the decline in insurgency, the region has seen growth of regional political forces be it NDPP in Nagaland, NPP in Meghalaya, MNF in Mizoram, NPF in Tribal areas of Manipur, Tipra Motha in tribal areas of Tripura or the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) in the Bodo areas of Assam. The BJP took full advantage by allying with the regional forces.
Within days of election results being announced given the absolute majority to the BJP in Tripura, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma offered to hold talks with Motha, the second largest party in the state. The issues raised by Motha needed to be discussed, said Sarma, the BJP’s strategist in the north-east.
The BJP has reached out to Motha though it does not require its support to form the government. “It’s just to appropriate the tribal aspirations Motha is advocating they are keeping an eye on future elections,” said an Agartala-based senior journalist Sekhar Dutta.
If Motha finally joins the BJP government or extends support to it, the Opposition space in the state will be further marginalised much to the benefit of the BJP.
The Congress, of course, faces an inherent problem in its dealings with the regional parties. Being a dominating national party in the region for long, the Congress has become a traditional rival of most of the regional outfits. The regional parties prefer to be subsumed by the BJP or another regional party rather than join hands with the Congress.
The Asom Gana Parishad and the Naga People’s Front are two cases in point.
Yielding ground to the BJP – once its junior partner – the AGP is now a pale shadow of its past. Similarly, the NPF, which was once the main regional party of the state, is now left with just two seats in Nagaland. Many regional leaders such as AGP founder president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta flagged the concern about the party losing its identity by allying with the BJP in many party fora.
Mahanta’s wife and former AGP MP Joyasree Goswami Mahanta in a recent telephonic conversation with The Federal also expressed her apprehension about the future of the party if it continues to do the BJP’s biddings.
The BJP first takes the help of the regional parties to grow and then slowly it starts to annihilate its partners, she alleged. Despite such a realisation among many leaders of regional parties, they still do not want to join forces with the Congress to counter the BJP at any point.
The NPF had turned down the offer of the Congress to join hands ahead of Nagaland elections. The NPF sources said it was largely because the Congress, despite being shoved to the sidelines after having dominated the region for decades, the national party refuses to introspect and seems puffed up with its own sense of self-importance.