Regionalism in N-E faces threat from BJP, Congress political realignments

Regionalism in N-E faces threat from BJP, Congress' political realignments

Political battles in the region were fought around regionalism vs nationalism, with Congress symbolising central domination; but, with BJP’s emergence as a challenger, will regional parties turn to Congress?

A beleaguered Congress in Nagaland has initiated talks with “secular” parties including the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the state’s oldest regional party and a major constituent of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

Nagaland Congress president K Therie said like-minded parties such as the NPF and the Janata Dal United (JDU) are being approached to stitch a secular front to “prevent the BJP from becoming part” of the next government in Nagaland. The BJP is an alliance partner of the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). Both the parties have decided to replicate their alliance in the ensuing Assembly polls.

The NPF, which is also a member of the NEDA and a partner in the Opposition-less government in Nagaland, however, has not yet revealed its strategy for the February-March elections. But since the NDPP and the BJP have decided to contest 40 and 20 seats respectively, the NPF is left with no choice other than seeking a new partner or contest elections of its own.

Also read: Modi in Shillong: ‘Showed red card to hurdles in development in North-East’

If the Congress and the NPF ultimately join hands it would be the final curtain on the region’s traditional political rivalry between nationalism and regionalism.

Regional interest 

Pioneers of regionalism in the North-East — be it the Naga National Democratic Party (now morphed into NPF) in Nagaland, Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) in Meghalaya, Manipur Peoples Party (MPP) in Manipur, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam or Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram — were formed to safeguard the regional interest from the “centralising tendency” of the national parties.

Since these parties were byproducts of regional aspirations and grievances, political battles in the region were primarily fought until recently around the plank of regionalism versus nationalism.

In the region’s political parlance, nationalism denoted centralised federalism or, to be more precise, domination of New Delhi. The Congress was the perceived symbol of that domination, which the regional parties alleged undermined the territorial, cultural, social, political and economic rights of the people of the region.

Regional stalwarts such as former Chief Ministers, the late Vamuzo Phesao of Nagaland and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of Assam, used to often harp on the need for a US-type federal structure in India to empower the states.

Also read: 4 Meghalaya MLAs join BJP; ‘a new beginning’ for party says Sarma

It was with the aim to safeguard “regional interest” against “centralised domination” that 10 regional parties of the North-East floated a common political platform called the North-East Regional Political Front (NERPF) in 2013. Three years later, the political contours of the region changed with almost all the constituents of the regional front making a beeline to join the NEDA.

Regionalism takes a backseat 

The conglomerate was formed in May 2016, immediately after the BJP for the first time came to power in Assam. It was also the first time that the BJP got an electoral mandate to rule a state in the region. The party earlier formed a government in Arunachal Pradesh through defections in 2003.

The formation of NEDA exposed the degeneration of regional politics in the North-East.

“Over the years, regionalism became synonymous with anti-Congressism (a term coined by socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia). To defeat the Congress, the regional parties did not have any qualm to join hands with the BJP, a proponent of a more centralised and top-down model of governance,” pointed out Dipankar Roy, editor-in-chief of The Meghalayan, a Shillong-based daily.

The gravitation of regional outfits towards the BJP was more of a political compulsion of competing with a more resourceful Congress.

The Congress was often accused of using money power to engineer defection to topple the regional-party governments in the North-East. The party governments at the Centre were also notorious for imposing President’s Rule to dethrone the regional-party governments.

After the rise of the BJP in the 1990s, the regional parties found it an useful ally to fight their common enemy—the Congress.

Also read: Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura polls: Congress facing existential battles

“They (regional parties) needed more funds to match the Congress’ might as well as some support in New Delhi to highlight their causes. In this regard, the BJP came in handy. The BJP was too willing to help as it would provide it a toehold in the region,” explained Xavier Mao, a political commentator and a professor in the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU).

The regional parties while giving the BJP a piggyback ride never fathomed that it would ultimately replace them as a main challenger to the Congress.

Rise of BJP in the North-East

The saffron party now rules Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Tripura. It is also part of the ruling coalition in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Sikkim. The BJP got the taste of power in all these states barring Assam and Nagaland after the formation of the NEDA.

“The BJP is growing at the cost of regional parties in the North-East. Ultimately it will gobble up the regional parties,” said former AGP parliamentarian Jayshree Goswami Mahanta.

Already, regional parties are completely marginalised in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In poll-bound Meghalaya, the BJP has started asserting its might, deciding not to have a pre-poll alliance with Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP).

The NPP-BJP tie up turned rocky ever since the BJP had threatened to pull out of the NPP-led, multi-party alliance over alleged misappropriation of central funds allocated to the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council and the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council two years ago. The NPP heads both the councils.

The NPP had severed ties with the BJP in Manipur in the run-up to March Assembly elections. Going solo it bagged seven of the 38 seats it had contested.

After the election results, the NPP legislators however pledged support to the BJP, which came back to power winning 32 of the state’s 60 Assembly seats. The support however did not help amend the frayed relations. The BJP stood its ground by not inducting any of the NPP legislators in the Manipur government.

The relations between the two parties is likely to strain further, ahead of February-March elections in Meghalaya, with both the parties deciding to contest against each other.

BJP and its local partners

The BJP’s relation with the NPF in Nagaland is not very rosy either. More so, after the NPF finds itself left in the lurch, ahead of the elections by its two NEDA allies—the BJP and the NDPP.

The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the BJP though are likely to continue their alliance for the Assembly elections early next year, the tie up will not be without hiccups. There are growing resentments within the IPFT over the BJP’s alleged attempt to undercut it.

The IPFT has already witnessed exodus of its three MLAs to the Tipra Motha headed by the state’s royal scion Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barman.

In Mizoram, the MNF despite being part of the NEDA and the NDA are critical of BJP’s Hindutva ideology. This churning would only intensify ahead of the Assembly elections in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura early next year and Mizoram at the fag-end of the 2023.

If that led to a new political realignment akin to what Nagaland PCC chief is aiming at, it will complete a vicious political circle. And whatever is still left to be called regionalism in the North-East will be its ultimate casualty.

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