The extraordinary performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tripura overshadowed the predictably tight races between regional parties in Nagaland and Meghalaya where the BJP was also a player.
This represents a significant breakthrough for the party, giving it a rare mandate although it and its ideological partner the Nationalist People’s Party (NPP) of Conrad K Sangma contested against each other in Meghalaya, leading to another fractured verdict.
The former Marxist citadel of Tripura fell to the BJP, and chief minister Manik Sarkar failed to secure his sixth straight term. Many BJP candidates, it should be pointed out, are former Congress candidates but this should not detract from its achievement. Two key factors that worked to BJP’s favour was the disillusionment with the Sarkar regime and that the tribal vote aligned to the party.
Barring Meghalaya, where the Congress was battling its rivals and emerged as the largest single party, the grand old party was virtually obliterated in both Tripura and Nagaland.
The BJP’s performance, buoyed by rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a host of powerful leaders headed by key organiser Ram Madhav and minister Kiren Rijiju, is the talking point in these three small border states where the Christian population is large. This shows that the BJP drew support from across the board.
The party’s performance in Tripura is the most significant — as it started from scratch as a party without known local leaders, organisation or following.
In Nagaland, where regional politics has long held sway if not power, the BJP made the most of its alliance with former chief minister Neiphiu Rio’s new Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). Rio, having broken away from the Congress, formed the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which later ousted him, once he won the lone parliamentary seat in the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Indeed, the Congress connect or disconnect is visible in Meghalaya where it was Conrad’s late father PA Sangma who split from the party to form the Nationalist Congress Party along with Sharad Pawar before going his own way to start the NPP.
In Nagaland, the NPF itself fell into disarray with jousting for power and three chief ministers in the space of barely a year. Also significant were the five women candidates whose contestation was a historic first.
For Meghalaya, the small regional parties are critical to the survival and formation of any government. Whether the Congress is adroit at dealing with this situation will be clear in the next day or two.
The BJP has been in governments in Meghalaya and Nagaland and even held ministerial positions, especially in Nagaland under Rio. But those were less than a handful and the party lacked both leaders and public support.
In these two states, the core issues for the new governments will revolve on service delivery and infrastructure improvement. In Tripura, the capacity of a new inexperienced government and party will soon be put to the test. Equally important is the fact that its win in a Bengali-majority state will encourage the BJP in West Bengal.
Meghalaya’s basic health indicators, especially maternal and infant mortality, are abysmal while Nagaland’s corrupt, non-functioning systems have been most visible in its broken roads. But in Nagaland, there is a greater issue at stake.
The elections were initially boycotted by all the parties at the nudging of the militant National Socialist Council of Nagalim (I-M) which has been locked in marathon peace talks with the Centre for over 20 years. The two sides even signed a Framework Agreement which is not in the public domain. The boycott failed to hold in the face of strong civil society discontent on the issue.
The revelation of the interim accord of 2015 and a possible conclusion of unending negotiations have concerned the Nagas for long. Sustained peace has eluded the Nagas for over 60 years although the Delhi-NSCN ceasefire of 1997 gave a chance for a generation to experience some calm. But given the history of accord-making in the state this remains an arduous task. Fixing the potholed Dimapur-Kohima highway may be an easier task.