When citizens can dictate their terms to politicians
The forthcoming elections in the Northeast will shape both the politics of the states and the national parties
In Delhi’s political imagination, the real political battle of 2018 begins in Karnataka. It then ends with the three states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, setting the stage for the Lok Sabha polls of 2019. But before that, in February, three key Northeastern states — Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura — go to polls. And to underestimate the importance of these elections for either the people of these states or the national polity would be a mistake.
It is important because the thread of electoral democracy within the constitutional framework binds Nagaland, home to Asia’s oldest insurgency and with a strong conception of its own uniqueness and claims of sovereignty with India. Elections have created and sustained a Naga political elite which stands at the forefront of defending the Indian system and is ready to unfurl the Indian flag. It may not address the alienation of its people entirely — which is why the peace process with rebel groups is so important — but a democratic government provides a channel to articulate some of their concerns. This time around, elections have become contentious. A significant section of Naga civil society and political opinion, tired of the long drawn peace talks and seeking closure, wants a ‘solution before election’. But the Centre is clear that this cannot be a reason to postpone polls. BJP’S general secretary, Ram Madhav, has said the state needs ‘elections for solution’. As the peace talks enter the final lap, Delhi feels having an elected legitimate government in Kohima strengthens its hands.
It is important because it has provided a democratic platform to tribals in a Bengalidominated polity like Tripura to articulate their aspirations. This, among other factors, has weakened the militancy that used to engulf the state till a decade and a half ago.
It is important because democratic churning and elections have given Meghalaya’s diverse social groups — across the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo hills — a platform to arrive at a power-sharing arrangement. This has brought stability, allowing the state to focus on economic opportunities.
But besides the significance these elections have for the respective states, the three polls are also important for the three larger parties and national politics. Take the Left. The CPM, already a pale shadow of its past after losing Bengal, is reduced to being in power in only Kerala and Tripura. In Agartala, barring a period of five years from 19881993, it has been in power for 40 years. But today it confronts an aggressive BJP machine which has deployed its resources, and is displaying its ability to co-opt leaders and ally with disparate groups. A loss for the Left will mark the end of its hegemony in Tripura ; it will leave the CPM with no state across North, Central, West and East India; it will deprive the party of resources to recover; and it will generate despondency across its ranks and sympathisers.
The Congress is fighting to retain power in Meghalaya. It has a strong CM in Mukul Sangma. But it is saddled with anti-incumbency, factional feuds and confronts both a strong BJP and a stronger local challenger in the National People’s Party. Retaining power will be a morale booster. But losing power and seeing BJP enter government, in this Christian-dominated state, will reduce the Congress to only three states across the country. The Congress will then only have Mizoram in the entire belt from Delhi all the way to India’s eastern-most borders.
For the BJP, the polls represent another opportunity to shed its tag of being a Hindi heartland party. It hopes to continue its quest for both a ‘Congress-mukt’ and, in Tripura’s case, a ‘Cpm-mukt’ Bharat. Entry in government in these states will take the BJP’S national tally to 21 states. A spike in numbers in Nagaland and Meghalaya will allow the BJP to claim it is not just a Hindu party. But a defeat or a dismal performance will show to the party that heartland Hindutva will extract its costs in other pockets of India. The elections will show if the BJP’S moment of supreme political dominance or as Yogendra Yadav terms it, political hegemony, persists or whether cracks are beginning to appear. Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya may be small states. But their elections provide an opportunity to citizens to negotiate with their political elites. Their specific geographical locations, with specific histories of political violence, lend them greater sensitivity. The outcome here will shape not only the politics of the states but the fortunes and political strengths of India’s national parties.