BJP expands North East footprint as Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy resonates with voters

New Delhi | Updated: May 24, 2019 7:59:18 PM

BJP, North East footprint,narendra Modi, Act East policy voters
By Krishna Sarma

Assam and the North-East was key to BJP’s plans to retain power and it was aiming to win 21 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats in and other north-eastern states. The NDA has won a whopping 18 out of 25 seats.

In Assam, the BJP has improved its seat share from 7 seats to 9 seats with a vote share of 36.05percent. BJP’s gains came mostly at the expense of AIDUF which slipped to 1 seat from 3 seats in 2014. Congress remained at 3 seats, with a vote share of 34.5 percent.

The BJP has made significant inroads in the NER since 2014 elections, with BJP governments with own chief ministers in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura. It has also managed to have a foot in the governments in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. In Sikkim, there are winds of change. Chamling who has been the longest serving CM and his party Sikkim Democratic Front (SDM) is likely to lose to Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM). In 2016, the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) – an alliance of eleven political parties led by the BJP was formed.

From the results, it appears that PM Modi’s pan Indian appeal as a strong decisive leader rang true for the NER as well. In my many conversations with friends and family in Assam, a common refrain was ‘there is no alternative’ and people seemed to have intrinsic trust in PM Modi’s intent. Pulwama terror attack and the airstrike in Balakot (Pakistan) altered electoral calculations and changed the political landscape in the NER.

BJP, North East footprint,narendra Modi, Act East policy voters

Within the states, the BJP managed to create and sustain rainbow coalition of disparate communities and tribes. For example, in Assam, out of the 3.12 Crores in Assam, tribal population accounts for 12.4 per cent (approx.). Apart from the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP),the coalition in Assam includes the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF,) Ganashakti Party (Mishings) et el. In 2016, the BJP (60)-AGP(14)-BPF(12) alliance swept the assembly elections in Assam. In January 2019, Union Cabinet approved the granting of Scheduled Tribe status to six communities (Moran, Chutiya, Motok, Tea Tribes, Tai Ahoms and Koch) listed as Other Backward Classes in Assam. It has no legal status till date.

Interestingly, though there were isolated incidents of mistreatment over beef, a visibly a more softer version of Hindutva is being propagated in the NER, one that allows dietary concessions of beef and pork. Further, the RSS has made significant inroads into Tea Community in Assam with a development agenda.

Like in the rest of the country, the BJP ran a very high decibel and divisive campaign in the NER. Presence of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has long been an emotive issue in the NER particularly in Assam. The BJP had done exceedingly well in the 2014 and 2016 assembly elections in Assam on the promise that illegal immigrants will be deported, but at the same time and crucially playing up the imagery of the 1671 Battle of Saraighat in which the Ahoms defeated the Mughal decisively to connote a communal face-off. In pursuance of this, it pushed through the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) which was passed in the Lok Sabha on January 8, 2019. The CAB seeks to provide fast track citizenship to people from religious minorities (except Muslims) from neighbouring countries escaping persecution. What it translates in to in Assam is that illegal migrants who are hindus (who entered Assam after March 24, 1971) would be given citizenship in opposition to the Supreme Court monitored updation of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) that is currently underway.

The CAB had created serious fissures within NEDA and there were widespread protests against CAB in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur and in Assam. The AGP had made a pretense of walking out of the government as well! However, though the CAB was not put up for voting in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP Election Manifesto reiterated its commitment to pass it if it were to come back to power. Surprisingly, it appears that the CAB did not impact voter sentiments in the Brahmaputra valley and the NER, while it paid dividends for the BJP amongst the sizeable Bengali speaking Hindu population.

Did issues like the palpable economic slowdown, widespread unemployment, deep farmer distress, the continuing impact of GST and demonetization and minority mistreatment influence voters? The answer is a resounding NO.

Perhaps like in rest of the country, the key to understanding the stupendous electoral success, especially in rural NER, have to be looked elsewhere as well. There is no denying the government’s ability to ‘reach and touch’ the poor through schemes such as PM Awas Yojana, Ayushman  Bharat (AB), Ujjwala Yojana, Swacch Bharat, Jan Dhan, Mudra, PM KISAN and Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana. For example, AB has apparently covered 1.65 Crore people in Assam, 2.8 lakhs households in Arunachal Pradesh and 1.4 lakhs households in Mizoram.

Did issues like the palpable economic slowdown, widespread unemployment, deep farmer distress, the continuing impact of GST and demonetization and minority mistreatment influence voters? The answer is a resounding NO.

The government was also perceived as paying attention to the NE. Soon after he took over in 2014, PM Modi had given a new slogan ‘Act East,’ replacing the former ‘Look East.’ There have been projects undertaken for augmenting and construction of roads, waterways, airports, broadband networks and rail within the NER and with neighbouring countries. Several projects which were started by the previous government, was completed after 2014 e.g., the Dhola-Sadiya, the longest bridge in India connecting Assam and AP across the Lohit and Bogibeel Bridge, India’s largest railroad bridge in Assam. Though not all currently operational, several Initiatives to improve air connectivity were undertaken. Perhaps with elections in mind, in late 2018, a 100% Central Sector Scheme named North East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme (NESIDS) was announced with an allocation of Rs.1600 crore for funding infrastructure.

Now that the results are done and dusted, one hopes that there will be some impactful changes in the NER in the next five years.

The NER has nine percent of India’s geographical area, three percent of its population and contributes three percent to the country’s GDP. In relative terms, it is one of India’s economically backward regions. Prior to independence, the undivided Assam enjoyed the second highest GDP albeit built on extractive colonial trade in tea, oil, coal and timber.

Most central government policies and general perception regarding prospects for industrial development of NER is predicated on the link between economic development on one side and unrest, conflict and insurgency on the other. This is evident from the recent takeover of the Chairmanship of the North East Council (NEC), the planning body for NER, by the Minister of Home Affairs. The government has to ensure that insurgency-related incidents decline (say like in AP) in the north east and the overall security situation improves. The recent killing of the NPP MLA from Manipur and 10 others by suspected NSCN (IM) is a case in point. After 2014, the area declared as disturbed under the Armed Forces (Special powers) Act (AFSPA) has increased (Assam). There Is an urgent need for interlocutors to hold talks with insurgent groups based in Assam, Manipur and concluding the Naga Peace Talks.

Along with continuing focus on infrastructure and workable connectivity, the festering and devasting floods issue needs a comprehensive plan and funding.

One cannot impose the normal paradigms of industrialization and development in the NER. The NER has an opportunity to chart its own course and leapfrog to path of sustainable development which is inclusive, people centric, environment friendly while preserving our local way of life, cultures and traditions. Agriculture and allied sectors like (handlooms, horticulture, food processing) will remain a priority sector with a significant percentage of our people engaged in them. A society and people prosper through initiative, self-help and entrepreneurship and an enabling environment need to be created to facilitate that. Our young people should not be depending on political largesse and easy money, government jobs or migrating to big cities to do jobs.

Voting in the North-Eastern States was much higher than the national average of 67.11 percent with States like Manipur and Meghalaya touching 84 and 73 percent respectively.

(Author is Managing Partner, Corporate Law Group. Views expressed are personal.)

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