The BJP made a valiant attempt to project a ‘win’ as it faced a defeat in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly polls. Their victory lay in it finally delivering a “Congress mukt (free)” Northeast, the BJP’s much proclaimed agenda after its 2014 national triumph. As Mizoram also rejected the Congress, the grand old party which had held sway in the region for decades was left with no government in any of the sensitive eight North-eastern states.
The main reason for this is that a “Congress-free” Northeast brings a security-minded BJP a step closer to its goal of creating political space for itself in a strategically critical region that borders four countries – China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan – and is the gateway to Southeast Asia that is so critical to the success of the government’s “Act East” policy.
To achieve this, the BJP has so far worked the strategy to arrive at an understanding and stitch an alliance with the regional parties in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. And it is paying off.
The BJP has its own chief minister in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura where there is a NDA government. It has a presence in the Meghalaya government and a presence of sorts in Nagaland as well as Mizoram. In Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur it is not the ballot that has given the BJP a status but machinations that have helped them to power. That leaves Sikkim as the last frontier the BJP has to conquer. Sikkim – ruled by the regional Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) that is in power for a record 25 years under its charismatic Chief Minister Pawan Chamling – is the only northeastern state where the BJP is not in coalition or alliance.
SDF supports the Narendra Modi led government at the Centre but has not and is not in the near future willing to yield space to the BJP at the state level. Sikkim assembly polls are to be held along with the coming Lok Sabha elections. As it prepares for the electoral battle ahead, the SDF leadership has categorically stated that it will have no alliance or take the support of the BJP. Chamling, the longest serving chief minister in the country, would instead like to profile himself as free from the clutches of any national political party.
The BJP desperately desires to bag at least one seat in the 32-member Sikkim assembly when the state polls are held along with the national polls in 2019. The party leadership had been reaching out to the SDF, but having failed to do so, is backing former Indian football captain turned politician Bhaichung Bhutia, who is seeking to emerge as a political rival of the SDF.
The SDF in Sikkim, like other regional parties in the northeastern states, has concluded that as a political strategy, it is beneficial in the long run to publicly keep a distance from the BJP and instead project its regional identity.
The BJP would like to upgrade its relations with the regional parties from mere understandings to pre-poll alliances before the next Lok Sabha elections. For the BJP it is strategically important to have a presence and understanding of sorts with the regional parties in the eight North-eastern states as it prepares for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The states together hold 25 Lok Sabha seats.
Traditionally the MPs from there stand with whichever party is in power in Delhi. The BJP, after losing the Hindi heartland in the assembly polls and expecting a dip in their numbers in 2019, would like to ensure the support of the 25 MPs from the Northeast.
BJP leaders themselves accept the fact that their party has no roots in the North-eastern states. The BJP has met electoral success in assembly elections here only by riding alliances and understandings it has formed with regional parties.
Starting with the latest poll outcome in Mizoram, it is the Mizo National Front that now holds the state (26 seats of 40). The MNF has returned to power after ten years of Congress rule with a lone win by the BJP’s B.D.Chakma.
The BJP has its own chief minister in Assam (Sarbananda Sonowal), Arunachal Pradesh (Pema Khandu), Manipur (N Biren Singh) and Tripura (Biplab Kumar Deb) where there is a NDA government. Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma of the National People’s Party and Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio of the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) belong to the dominant alliance partners of the BJP in the respective states.
So why is Sikkim bucking the ‘rising BJP’ trend in the Northeast?
One of the primary reasons is that the state has a Chief Minister in Pawan Chamling, who has not only been recognised for his reformist policies but who has worked hard to keep “communal and negative elements” at bay, as he said in a rally in South Sikkim last month.
Dislodging the SDF from power – despite the strong incumbency factor – is not easy because of the SDF’s sound record in governance on virtually all fronts – from environment and sustainable development to gender equity, health and education. But BJP won’t stop trying and Bhaichung Bhutia’s Hamro Sikkim is seen as a BJP proxy, though it is hardly seen to be making a dent despite getting a fair amount of media attention because of the football veteran’s celebrity status.
(The author is a political analyst)