By Barun Das Gupta
State Assembly elections to three north-eastern States – Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland – will be held next month. Tripura goes to polls on February 18, while Meghalaya and Nagaland on February 27. The results will be out on March 3. In the last five years the political scenario in the north-east has changed a lot, with the Congress declining and the BJP emerging as a major political player. In Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, the BJP is in power while in Nagaland it was, until recently, a coalition partner of the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF), The Congress is in power only in tiny Mizoram where the old warhorse, Lalthanhawla, still holds his flock together.
Of the three States, Tripura is the cynosure of all eyes as it is in this State that the CPI-M has been in power for a quarter century – from 1993. This time around, it is facing a strong challenge from the saffron party. The tribal-inhabited region of Tripura has become the Achilles’ heel for the CPI-M as the BJP has assiduously cultivated the tribals over a long period. It is an irony because the CPI-M first struck its roots in Tripura among the tribals. Nripen Chakravarty and Biren Dutta who founded the undivided Communist Party in the State, started working among the tribals and built a strong base of the party among them. Both could speak the Kokborok language fluently.
The CPI-M built its support base among the Bengalis much later. It first organized the State government employees under its leadership and then gradually spread among other sections of Bengalis. Tripura was originally a tribal State. After Partition, there was a huge migration of Bengali Hindu refugees from the then East Pakistan who eventually outnumbered the tribals. Today, the population of Tripura s roughly two-thirds Bengalis and one-third tribals. The tribals started getting alienated from the CPI-M in the 1970s. But the party was not overly worried as it had, by then, built a solid base among the Bengalis.
The BJP went on working among the tribals silently. It befriended two major tribal parties of Tripura, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and the All Tripura Indigenous Nationalist Party. The party took special care to win over the Reangs, Tripuris, Deb Barmas and the Chakmas who together constitute nearly 80 per cent of the tribal population of Tripura.
The Left Front in Tripura was practically a one-party Front because the CPI, the RSP and the Forward Bloc exist only in name. The main opposition party was the Congress. But the Congress is in a shambles now. Several Congress MLAs first defected to the Trinamool Congress and then jettisoned the TMC and joined the BJP. Today the Tripura Congress practically does not have a mass leader. The prominent Congress leaders have all left the party. But it still says it will contest all the sixty seats. The internal assessment of the Tripura CPI-M is that the party will win the next month’s election, perhaps with a reduced majority.
In Nagaland, the political situation is in a flux. Here the Naga People’s Front with its 45 MLAs is ruling the State. The BJP which has four legislators was a coalition partner. But recently, the NPF decided to sever ties with the BJP. The NPF was already beleaguered by internal dissensions. Its chairman, Neiphiu Rio, three-time chief minister and now an MP, had a rift with the present Chief Minister, T. R. Zeliang. He resigned from his post of the organizational head late last month. He has since joined the newly floated Nagaland Democratic People’s Party which is considered friendly to the BJP. On record, the BJP’s position is that it will fight the ensuing Assembly elections on its own.
The church in Nagaland (Nagaland Baptist Church Council) wields tremendous influence among the people cutting across political lines. Recently, the NBCC issued a statement saying “Yoga is a spiritual and physical discipline deeply rooted in the religious beliefs and practices of Hinduism and hence it is not compatible with Christianity.” The BJP has been trying to popularize yoga among the Nagas. The NBCC statement against practising yoga is significant as it comes on the eve of the elections.
In Meghalaya Congress leader Mukul Sangma heads the coalition ministry of the Meghalaya United Alliance. But the Alliance has become shaky following the resignation of eight legislators – five from the Congress, one from the United Democratic Party and two Independents. All of them have joined the National People’s Party, an ally of the BJP at the Centre. The BJP is on a sticky wicked in Meghalaya with its stand on banning beef which is a regular diet of the tribal people in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. After the beef controversy broke out, the BJP leaders in Meghalaya openly said they took beef and there was no question of giving it up. Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister of State for Home, who hails from Arunachal, has also said the same thing.
Except Manipur, the majority of the people of the hill States of north-east are Christians. Pushing a hard Hindutva line will prove counter-productive to the BJP in its ambitious plan of expansion in the north-east. The political resilience and acumen of the party will be tested here. (IPA Service)