BJP strikes roots in Nagaland

BJP strikes roots in Nagaland

The BJP did not contest the May 28 by-election to Nagaland’s lone parliamentary constituency. It supported the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) against the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which is backed by sections of the Congress. The NDPP won the election by a large margin. However, unlike in other states where by-elections were held last month, in Nagaland, the BJP stood to gain irrespective of the outcome.

The NDPP’s victory will cushion the depleting numbers of the BJP in the Lok Sabha. However, if the NDPP had lost, it would have improved the bargaining power of the BJP with its alliance partner in Nagaland.

The decimation of the Congress in the February 2018 assembly election and the split within the NPF, culminating in the formation of the NDPP, have placed the BJP in a win-win situation. The strategies the BJP is employing to harness this opportunity reveal how the party penetrates areas that would appear out of bounds for it.

The BJP and the NDPP are allies in Nagaland, while the NPF and BJP remain allies in Manipur. Both regional parties, though, face a threat from
the BJP.

Mindful of this, in the 2018 assembly election, the NDPP tried to field at least one candidate from every district (except Kiphire) and tribe (except Sangtam) to ensure that the BJP did not dominate any district or tribe. Yet, there were limits to the bargaining power of the NDPP, which was launched just months before the election.

The NDPP wanted to dominate the “Tenyimia” districts — Phek, Kohima, and Peren. It kept the BJP out of Kohima, the state capital, and even Peren, where the BJP’s sister organisations have been active for decades.

Of the 15 Tenyimia seats (including, one in Dimapur), it offered the BJP only one in Phek. The NDPP won eight Tenyimia seats, including five in Kohima. But, it had to concede 19 out of 45 non-Tenyimia seats to the BJP under a pre-poll alliance.

The NDPP offered the BJP only 20 out of 60 seats, but the latter managed to cover the whole of Nagaland. The BJP contested elections in 10 of the 12 districts and fielded candidates from nine of the 14 Naga tribes.

It won 12 seats across eight districts and seven tribes. It is the only party that won both ST and General seats and has both Baptist and Catholic MLAs. The party distributed ministerial positions among six tribes and six districts and accommodated both Catholics and Baptists.

The Nagaland BJP is also younger than other parties. The age profile of the candidates of the BJP was similar to that of its regional counterparts. However, the average age of MLAs is 48 within BJP, compared to 58 within regional parties.

While voters might have fortuitously eliminated older BJP candidates, the party seems to have consciously offered ministerial berths to younger MLAs. The average age of the BJP ministers is 48, compared to 63 of the NDPP ministers. Three of the four youngest ministers are BJP MLAs.

Nurturing strongholds

The BJP is nurturing strongholds in Eastern Nagaland comprising of five “backward” districts mostly bordering Myanmar and Wokha districts along the Assam border, which account for 24 seats and are relatively open to non-regional parties. Eastern Nagas feel neglected under regional parties controlled by “advanced” tribes. Among the “advanced” tribes, Lothas of Wokha are politically marginalised.

The BJP first contested the Nagaland assembly elections in 1987 with one candidate each in Mon district in Eastern Nagaland and Wokha. In 1991, it fielded a Catholic Lotha in the parliamentary election. In 1993, it contested six assembly seats across four districts, including Mon. But, in 1998, it supported the election boycott.

Since 2003 the BJP has won a seat in Mon in every election. Whenever it won more than one seat, it captured at least one in Wokha, too. In 2003, it won seven seats, including four in Eastern Nagaland and one in Wokha. It won two seats in 2008 and one in 2013.

In 2018, the BJP contested nine of the 20 seats of Eastern Nagaland covering all Eastern Naga districts and all but one Eastern Naga tribes. It won four seats there, compared to eight in the rest of Nagaland. Yet, the party offered three of its six ministerial positions to Eastern Nagas. Also, the Deputy Chief Minister, a Catholic, is one of two BJP MLAs from Wokha. Interestingly, the party contested five of the 11 seats bordering Assam and won all of them. All three Nagaland ministers from constituencies bordering Assam belong to the BJP.

The BJP used the split in the NPF to bargain for more seats and a favourable ethno-geographic distribution of seats. While distributing ministerial positions, the party gave preference to young MLAs and to districts that it has been nurturing as strongholds even if that meant the under-representation of communities/districts which elected more BJP candidates in the latest election.

The party has also quietly mainstreamed itself by not fielding candidates from electorally marginal non-Naga indigenous tribes.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)