« Back to articlePrint this article

Who Will Win 2023 North East Polls?

January 09, 2023 09:54 IST

Uncertain political times in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi is felicitated by Tripura Chief Minister Manik Saha at a rally in Agartala, December 18, 2022, for the coming assembly elections. Photograph: ANI Photo

A month after Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma announced that his National People's Party would contest the 2023 assembly polls on its own, four MLAs, including two NPP legislators, jumped ship and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party.

This is the story of Meghalaya: Nothing looks as it is.

Take the NPP. In theory, it leads the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance as the single largest party in the assembly in a coalition in which the BJP is a partner.

The NPP's affiliation with the BJP is not in doubt -- it is also part of the umbrella BJP-leaning coalition in the Northeast, the Northeast Democratic Alliance forged together by Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Notwithstanding the affiliations, Sangma has fallen out with the BJP over a series of problems, including the NPP's concerns about domination by the national party.

"Sangma is an ambitious leader," says a former governor in the state, adding, "And he feels the BJP will eventually gobble up his party."

Close on the heels of the NPP is the Trinamool Congress.

Meghalaya was a state where it established a presence early on: Aided by defection from the Congress, of Mukul Sangma, who joined the TMC, taking 12 of the 17 MLAs who were elected on a Congress ticket in 2018.

In a way, what was earlier the Congress in Meghalaya is now the TMC.

The Congress now has zero seats in the Assembly, although it was the single largest party after the 2018 Assembly elections, having lost MLAs to defection and suspension.

Going forward, it seems Meghalaya is set for a four-cornered fight in every assembly seat, with all the main actors -- the NPP, BJP, Congress, and TMC -- contesting the polls independently.

This makes for an unpredictable outcome in the polls, sending the stakes high for the new CM.

Nagaland is arguably the only state in India which has no Opposition, only a ruling party.

The Naga People's Front (NPF), which is nominally in Opposition (and has announced it will contest the coming elections independently, without any alliances), is supporting the government.

The reason is the long-awaited Naga Peace Accord for which negotiations have been on for the longest time, to give the Naga people their state, or Greater Nagaland, for which the people have been fighting in an insurgency, for several decades.

Although the terms of the accord are yet to be made public (as it involves redrawing inter-state boundaries and conceding to Nagaland, its constitution and flag), all parties in the state say they are committed to the process.

As part of this, in April last year, 21 MLAs of the 21-member NPF joined the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party led by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio.

While the NPF still has four MLAs, the BJP has 12.

CM Rio and BJP President Temjen Imna Along Longkumer have said they would continue with the alliance and contest the elections with the 2018 seat-sharing formula of 40:20.

As there is little public movement on the Nagaland accord, which is under negotiation since 2015, it is hard to set the terms of the political debate in a crucial state.

The government-empowered interlocutors say there is no debate: Nagaland cannot have its constitution and flag and a Greater Nagaland will be implemented via autonomous councils in those states where Naga people have a demographic majority (like some districts in Manipur).

However, leaders of Naga insurgent groups claim all their demands have been conceded.

The 2023 election will focus on issues of governance.

But the chief campaigning issue will be autonomy for Nagaland.

In most other parts of India, it is a one-way process: Congress leaders, MLAs, and even MPs quit the party to join the BJP, seeking better opportunities.

However, in Tripura, it is the BJP which is seeing attrition -- to the Congress, to the Trinamool Congress, as well to the new outfit, the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance or TIPRA Motha, launched by erstwhile royal, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barma.

Tripura also offers a new experiment in Opposition unity, with senior Opposition leaders, including Communist Party of India-Marxist Secretary Jitendra Choudhury, Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist National General Secretary Dipankar Chatterjee, Congress MLA Sudip Roy Barman, former Congress MLA Asish Kumar Saha, and other leaders of the Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party, sharing the dais recently and agreeing that the need of the hour was for all secular and democratic forces to come together.

The 2018 election saw the shock and comprehensive defeat of both the Congress and the Left parties.

The Left Front lost 7-8 per cent votes which took the vote share of the BJP and its ally Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura to around 52 per cent and the saffron party won the election.

The BJP, whose vote share was less than 5 per cent before 2018, secured a 42 per cent vote share of the Congress and its alliance partners.

However, the BJP has faced challenges of its own. It replaced chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb with Manik Saha 10 months before the assembly elections.

Its alliance partner, the IPFT, has also suffered attrition, with many leaders joining the TIPRA Motha, Tripura's equivalent of the Aam Aadmi Party.

The BJP is effecting course correction and many MLAs could be replaced ahead of the elections.

However, it is unlikely that a Gujarat-style overhaul of the council of Ministers will be undertaken in this Northeastern state, which has had a history of political violence.

Aditi Phadnis
Source: source image