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  Saffron horizon widens in Northeast

Saffron horizon widens in Northeast

| PATRICIA MUKHIM
Published : May 24, 2016, 5:23 am IST
Updated : May 24, 2016, 5:23 am IST

This is the first time that an election result in a Northeast state has got so much attention in the so-called national media.

This is the first time that an election result in a Northeast state has got so much attention in the so-called national media. It appeared as if the whole nation was waiting with bated breath, not so much for how the results would pan out in Assam but rather how the BJP would fare in them. Assam was of great interest to political observers as it was the one state where the BJP had a good chance of forming a government. And indeed it has now got a strong foothold to extend its presence in the Christian-dominated states of the region.

Several factors combined to pave the way for a BJP-led alliance to win in Assam. First, the party chose its allies very strategically. The Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodo People’s Front are regional entities with some standing in Assamese politics. The BPF managed to win all 12 seats in the Bodoland Territorial Council area while the AGP won 14 despite putting up candidates in only 30 constituencies.

Assam was also a classic case of a vote against Tarun Gogoi’s dynastic politics. The 81-year-old three-time chief minister wanted to foist his son Gaurav Gogoi on Assam by first getting him elected to the Lok Sabha. Mr Gogoi’s long-term goal was to see his son installed as the state’s chief minister. Since the Congress Party is led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, where elections for top posts like AICC president and Youth Congress chief are never by election but always by nomination, the party has little moral standing to prevent its regional satraps from doing the same. This time in Assam, Congress tickets were given to the children or relatives of sitting MLAs in 34 constituencies. People showed their disgust by voting out nearly all 34 “proxy” candidates.

Tarun Gogoi was also hit by anti-incumbency, but the party’s prospects really dimmed the moment Himanta Biswa Sarma, once Mr Gogoi’s blue-eyed boy, revolted against his mentor’s dynastic politics. Mr Biswa Sarma left the Congress last year and joined the BJP as he was fed up with “blue-blood” politics. He had approached Rahul Gandhi about this many times, but was rebuffed. That’s when he decided to have his revenge on the Congress. He is a crowd-puller, which was evident from the large turnout at his rallies. He untiringly addressed seven to eight meetings a day all across Assam, and the Congress, with an aged and tired leadership, just could not keep pace.

Then we have Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP’s young and energetic face in Assam, a tribal who was projected as its CM candidate. The BJP learnt key lessons from Bihar and Delhi, where it foisted “outsiders” as CM candidates. As Union minister of state for sports, Mr Sonowal had brought the South Asian Games to the Northeast, that earned the NDA government some brownie points. Also, this time the BJP campaign in Assam focused solely on development and tackling illegal immigration, an issue that united voters, while divisive issues were largely kept out. This drove even some Assamese Muslims to vote for the BJP along with Hindus. The BPF, as a regional force, thought it sensible to align itself with the party in power at the Centre. And the AGP, which was a spent force, got a new lease of life after joining forces with the BJP.

The Assam polls showed the state’s voters have matured politically. They backed the BJP despite its projection as a Hindu communal party that would intrude into people’s culture and eating habits. They also rejected Badruddin Ajmal’s All-India United Democratic Front, that quietly built a votebank of illegal immigrants, showing their distaste for communal forces. But the call given by some Left-leaning intellectuals not to vote for the BJP simply boomeranged. There was a clarion call by many non-partisan voters before the vote that this election was like the last Battle of Saraighat — a do-or-die fight over illegal immigration from Bangladesh, ignored by the Congress for the past 15 years.

Interestingly the stunning victory of Conrad Sangma of Nationalist Peoples’ Party in Tura Lok Sabha bypoll in Meghalaya got little media coverage. Conrad, youngest son of the late P.A. Sangma, who died in March this year, was backed by the BJP, which campaigned vigorously for him. Meghalaya’s regional parties also converged to support Conrad. He beat Congress’ Dikkanchi D. Shira, wife of chief minister Mukul Sangma, by over 1.92 lakh votes. Throughout the campaign, the Congress targeted the BJP up front though it never put up a candidate.

Conrad Sangma’s win has created ripples in Meghalaya, and speculation is rife that the 37-year-old Wharton Business School graduate who had proved his mettle as finance and power minister in the regional party-led state government in 2008-2010 might be inducted into the Narendra Modi government after Mr Sonowal becomes Assam CM later this week. A fresh Northeastern face could therefore be seen in New Delhi as Mr Sonowal goes back to state politics. There are already murmurs in the Meghalaya Congress that Dr Sangma takes unilateral decisions and has alienated a few Cabinet colleagues. This disgruntlement could soon give way to a full-scale rebellion. The BJP, which has got a a new lease of life after its Assam victory, is unlikely to remain a passive onlooker. Political observers feel Conrad may even be asked to do a Kiren Rijiju in Meghalaya.

Mizoram and Manipur are two other Congress-ruled states in the Northeast. Manipur is headed for elections next year. The state is in complete chaos, with protracted bandhs crippling normal life and affecting livelihoods, healthcare and education. The BJP is already trying to needle the Ibobi Singh-led Congress government and the disaffection among people against the government is so palpable that they are now ready for change. The BJP only has to make the right moves. In Mizoram too, it may not take too long for people to unshackle themselves from a corrupt Congress government.

The writer is a well-known social activist and the editor of Shillong Times