By Sagarneel Sinha
The major cabinet expansion and the reshuffle of the second Narendra Modi government have brought the North-East into the national picture. The region will now have 5 union ministers. This is the highest representation at the centre from the region, which often used to get neglected in the past by Delhi.
In the much discussed reset of Modi’s council of ministers, the region got two cabinet ministers — former Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Kiren Rijiju, who earlier was the minister of state (independent charge) for youth affairs and minister of state for minority affairs and Ayush in the Modi government. Rijiju, Lok Sabha MP from Arunachal West constituency, is the new law and justice minister replacing Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior leader of the BJP. Sonowal, BJP’s first chief minister of Assam replaced this year by Himanta Biswa Sharma, is given charge of two ministries — ports, shipping and waterways, and Ayush.
On the other hand, Modi’s new cabinet will also have representatives from the two other north-eastern states — Tripura and Manipur. Pratima Bhoumik, Lok Sabha MP from Tripura West constituency, is appointed as the union minister of state for social justice and empowerment while Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, Lok Sabha MP from Inner Manipur constituency, is given the charge of minister of state for external affairs and also education. Apart from this, Assam’s Rameshwar Teli, who already was a minister of state will continue to remain in the same rank but will be handling new ministries. Earlier he was the minister of state for food processing industries and now Teli would be handling two portfolios — minister of state for petroleum and natural gas, and labour and employment.
Politically speaking, the priority given to the north-east in the new Modi cabinet is a continuance of the saffron party’s strategy to spread its strength in the region, which once was a stronghold of the Congress party. The saffron party was a negligible player in the region, which sends 25 members to the Lok Sabha. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP registered its best ever performance by winning 14 seats from the region. Although it increased its strength in the region, the saffron party is still weak in some north-east states like Mizoram and Meghalaya. In both of these states, ruled by BJP’s allies, the saffron party is weaker than the Congress, which is the main opposition party in these states. In the rest of the north-eastern states, the BJP, although is a major player, there are areas where its influence is still shaky.
The rise of Kiren Rijiju reflects BJP’s strategy to consolidate in Arunachal Pradesh, which sends 2 representatives to the Lok Sabha. In the 2019 assembly elections, it was the first time BJP won the elections by getting two-third majority and securing more than 50% of votes while Congress secured seats less than that of Janata Dal (United) and National People’s Party — the two parties which nationally are part of BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Coming to Assam, it was expected that Sarbanand Sonowal was going to get place back in the Modi government after he was replaced from the post of chief minister by Himanta Biswa Sarma this year, despite the saffron party creating a record becoming the first non-Congress party returning to power for the second time in the state. Sonowal comes from the indigenous Sonowal-Kachari tribe. Importantly, tribals, who also contributed to BJP’s victory this year in the assembly elections, account for 12.4% of the state’s population. On the other hand, Modi giving new responsibilities to Rameshwar Teli, who comes from the tea tribe, clearly shows the party’s attempt to consolidate its position in the community. In recent times, there has been a rise of discontent within the community against the BJP but the saffron party managed to get the tribe on board for the assembly elections this year. After the assembly election results, the Congress, which has been trying hard to get back the support of the significant tea tribe, got a big jolt when its four time MLA and face of the tea tribe Rupjyoti Kurmi joined the BJP. The tribe accounts for more than 17% of the state’s population — and BJP in no way wants to lose the votes of the community, which before 2014 elections was considered a vote-bank of the Congress.
Moving to Tripura, in recent times, the ruling BJP has been hit by internal dissensions in the state — and also there has been a dip in the party’s popularity. Looking into this, the induction of Pratima Bhoumik, who created history in the state by becoming the first resident of the state to become the union minister, into Modi’s new cabinet assumes significance. The message that BJP wants to send to the people of Tripura is that their aspirations are valued by the party. The same goes for Manipur too. The state will go to polls early next year and the ruling BJP, which runs a coalition government consisting of unhappy allies, is aware that the battle is going to be tough. Although it still remains the single largest party in the state, the saffron party will have to battle hard to gain a majority on its own. Induction of Rajkumar Ranjan Singh into Modi’s cabinet only reflects BJP’s attempt to gain more votes in the state by winning the hearts of the people. Singh is the fourth union minister from the state.
The fact that no one can deny is that the north-east remains a top priority for the Modi government — and that’s the reason that in recent times the saffron party has been able to grow and emerge as a major player in the region, where the party’s Hindutva ideology isn’t that strong. To be fair, apart from Modi’s popularity, BJP’s success in the region is also due to the work done by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the party. RSS not only has its presence in many plain areas of the region but also has been working among the tribals through the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, Ekal Vidyalaya or single teacher schools etc. The saffron party knows that region is a difficult terrain for saffron politics. The major challenge before the BJP in the north-east is to hold on the success it got in the recent times and consolidate its position by spreading its influence into many other areas, where its base still remains fragile — and Modi’s new cabinet reset shows that BJP is very keen to take up this tough challenge and turn the north-east region into a saffron bastion. (IPA Service)