Blame it on Rio: BJP's rise in Nagaland

Never before have we seen so much interest in the "mainland" in assembly elections of the North East. Everyone seems to be keen to know what, if anything, these elections can tell us about national politics. The results suggest that the BJP's election machinery remains formidable even after four years of incumbency at the Centre and the BJP is gradually emerging as the main national party.

However, it is not clear if the BJP has gained acceptability among minorities. It improved its vote share but won just two non-ST seats around Shillong in Christian-majority Meghalaya. In the run-up to the elections, Meghalaya-based churches rejected funds from the tourism ministry. Also, there was resentment against beef politics and the denial of visa to the president of the Baptist World Alliance who had been invited to the celebration of 150 years of Christianity among Garo Baptists.

The BJP, however, won 12 seats in Baptist-majority Nagaland. Yet, it is difficult to conclude that the party has overcome its anti-minority image in the state. The BJP first contested elections in Nagaland in 1987 and then in 1993. On both occasions all its candidates forfeited their deposits.

The party struck roots in Nagaland in 2003 during the Vajpayee era, when it fielded 38 candidates. It won 11% votes and seven seats. Its MLAs included the former chief minister Hokishe Sema, who played a role in Nagaland's formation.

In 2008, the party won just two seats and 5% votes. The BJP was not in power at the Centre, a crucial determinant of success for national parties in the North East, and Hokishe Sema had died a year before. Five years later, it won just one seat. After the 2014 parliamentary elections, three NCP MLAs defected to the BJP, arresting the party's decline. Two of them had earlier won as BJP candidates in 2003 and stood second on the party's ticket in 2008.

The BJP as a party is much stronger today than it was in 2003. This time it launched a quiet campaign long before the elections, entered into a pre-poll alliance with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), and launched a massive advertisement campaign.

More importantly, last year, for the first time in two decades, the Modi government expanded the Naga peace process to include Nagaland-based insurgent groups and also held the dialogue inside Nagaland. However, the BJP faced opposition from the Church and was stigmatised as the party that broke the "all-party consensus" in favour of election boycott aimed at forcing the government to conclude the peace process.

The BJP contested 20 seats across 10 districts. It secured more than 15% votes and won 12 seats in eight districts. However, only two of its four sitting MLAs were successful and its candidate, the former chief minister KL Chishi, lost election. Its candidates stood second in five constituencies and third in two constituencies. This is a significant victory, explained by a timely alliance and a careful choice of candidates. It does not settle the development-vs-identity debate in favour of the BJP though.

Irreversible decline

The Congress promised a "god-fearing, secular" government to protect Christianity. Five of its 23 candidates withdrew for want of organisational support. The party that until 2013 could boast of 25% vote share has been reduced to a non-entity, with just 2% votes and no MLA. Its state president stood third in Pfutsero. Actually, the party had shrivelled after all its MLAs defected to the ruling Naga People's Front (NPF) in 2015. The latest results have only confirmed its irreversible decline.

After a very long time, two Naga parties - the NPF and the NDPP - were the main contenders. The NDPP was launched ahead of the elections after former chief minister Neiphiu Rio lost hope of regaining control over the NPF. Several NPF leaders joined Rio. The BJP, a member of the NPF-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland since 2003, joined hands with the NDPP that offered more seats under a pre-poll alliance. However, the BJP did not leave the NPF-led government and its MLAs remained ministers.

The NDPP won 25% votes and 18 seats, including a seat whose result is on hold. The NDPP-BJP alliance secured 40% votes and 30 seats. The alliance won seats in every district of Nagaland. The NPF retained 39% vote share (and 26 seats), down from 47% (and 38 seats) in 2013, in the face of anti-incumbency.

The BJP prefers its new ally as it has greater bargaining power within the NDPP-BJP alliance. With the backing of a JD(U) MLA and an independent, the NDPP-BJP alliance has the support of 32 out of 60 MLAs. The two MLAs of the National People's Party (NPP) could also join the alliance. The NPP, along with the NPF, is part of the BJP-led government in Manipur.

The highlights of the elections include the expansion of the space for regional politics in Nagaland, the re-emergence of the BJP as the kingmaker in Nagaland after 15 years, and the decimation of the Congress. Also, lest we forget, women and indigenous non-Naga tribes have again failed to win any seat.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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