3-way contest in NE as local parties gain strength

Agartala: The northeastern states are likely to see a tripartite battle in these elections, with the local parties gaining strength in the erstwhile Congress bastion on local issues and sentiments, even as the BJP makes inroads there, say political experts.

Though the Congress and the BJP have a substantial base in the northeast, as many as 67 parties, categorised by the Election Commission as state parties and registered unrecognised parties, are strengthening their base in the eight NE states.

Of the eight states, Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram are currently governed by local parties. In Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh too the state parties have significant role in governance. According to an Election Commission notification last month, there are 18 state parties in different northeastern states.

Only one of these, the National People’s Party (NPP) has a pan-regional presence in Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Assam and leads the government in Meghalaya. Meghalaya has their highest number of state parties (four), followed by three each in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, two in Sikkim and one each in Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.

Besides the state parties, the EC notification said there are 49 registered unrecognised parties in the seven of the eight states, excluding Arunachal Pradesh. Assam has the highest number of 18 registered unrecognised parties, followed by nine in Manipur, eight in Sikkim, five in Meghalaya and three each in Tripura, Nagaland and Mizoram.

According to experts, the local parties have struck a chord because they operate at the grassroots level. Haobijam Gitajen Meitei, General Secretary of the Manipur People’s Party (MPP), one of the oldest parties (set up in 1968) in the region, told IANS regional or local parties know the issues of the region and the sentiments of the people.

The MPP, now an ally of the ruling BJP in Manipur, has headed governments in the state in 1972, 1974 and 1990. According to Meitei, the regional parties also understand the diversity of the region better than national parties.

The Mizo National Front (MNF) is another old regional party, which fought the November 2018 Assembly polls as a constituent of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and secured 26 seats in the 40-member Assembly, ousting the Congress from power in its last northeast bastion.

Political analyst and academician R.L. Sailo said the MNF, which emerged from Laldenga’s Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF), set up to protest the government’s “apathetic attitude towards the famine situation in the Mizo areas” of Assam in 1959, has over the years won over the local population.

Before becoming a political party, the MNF had signed the historic Mizo peace accord with the central government in 1986 and then formed the government in Mizoram twice, first under Laldenga (1986-88) and then under Zoramthanga (1998-2008).

While Mizoram has an MNF government, regional parties lead the coalition governments in Meghalaya (NPP) and Nagaland (Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party) with the BJP playing minor allies in both states, said political analyst and writer Samudra Gupta Kashyap.

In Assam and Manipur, the regional parties are part of the BJP-led coalitions. While the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF) are the BJP’s allies in Assam, the NPF (Naga People’s Front) and the NPP are allies in Manipur. The BJP, with an absolute majority, is leading governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura.

“Understanding the importance of regional parties, the BJP not only forged a strategic alliance and an umbrella body called the Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) with regional parties in 2016, but also played up local sentiments in almost every election,” Kashyap said.

In Assam, the BJP joined hands with the AGP and the BPF, picked up the Bangladeshi influx issue and rode the wave created by the jati-mati-bheti (identity-land-homestead) slogan to oust the Congress in 2016. “Similarly, it picked up the tribal identity protection issue in Tripura and partnered with the IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura),” Kashyap told IANS.

Following the BJP strategy, the Congress had also adopted a plan of playing up regional or local sentiments, he added. Though the Congress has no ally in Assam, it is trying to whip up sentiments on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which has been opposed by all regional parties.

Of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the northeast, home to 45.58 million people as per the 2011 census, seven seats are reserved for tribals who constitute 27-28 per cent of the population.

Veteran political commentator Sanjib Deb said the current political situation in the northeast could not allow national parties to govern them without the regional parties’ support.

“National parties have their own pan-India political strategies and policies. Similarly, the regional parties have their own agenda and demands that cannot be endorsed by national parties,” Deb told IANS, adding the IPFT’s demand for statehood in Tripura was not supported by its dominant partner, the BJP.

Conrad K. Sangma-led National People’s Party (NPP), which aims to be the alternative to the Congress and the BJP in the Northeast, has set up base in six of the eight northeastern states, excluding Tripura and Sikkim.

Sangma, the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, earlier this month launched an arm of NPP in Assam with a plan to contest 14 Lok Sabha seats.

The NPP, set up in 2013 by former Union Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma after his expulsion from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in July 2012, is the dominant ruling party in Meghalaya with 20 legislators. Besides, it has five MLAs in Arunachal Pradesh, four in Manipur, and two in Nagaland. The NPP is also a junior partner of the ruling BJP in Manipur and Nagaland.

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